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18 February 2021updated 01 Sep 2021 1:40pm

Can Monica Lennon or Anas Sarwar save Scottish Labour from political irrelevance?

Whoever is elected Scottish Labour leader, both candidates offer a freshness that has long been missing from the party. 

By Chris Deerin

One thing that Monica Lennon and Anas Sarwar can agree on is the desperate condition of the Scottish Labour Party. The two contenders for the vacant top job are fighting a surreal leadership election – one that is being conducted at a safe social distance of two metres, and much of it by Zoom and phone. What is growing closer is the final result – the ballot closes next week, on 26 February, with the victor announced (remotely) the following day.

Whichever of them wins, an epic job of reconstruction awaits. “We have been in opposition since 2007 and we haven’t done enough to listen to and understand what people are telling us,” says Lennon, a 40-year-old MSP for the Central Scotland region. “It’s a long time since Scottish Labour has appeared positive and confident.”

Sarwar, a 37-year-old Glasgow MSP, puts it even more bluntly, telling me that “we are fighting for our survival as a credible political force”.

This hair-shirt strategy has the merit of being true. Under the outgoing leader, the left-winger Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour’s fall from the heights of hegemony has accelerated. The party lost both its MEPs in the 2019 EU elections, and all but one of its MPs in the same year’s general election. It has been usurped by the Tories as Scotland’s official opposition, and with May’s crucial devolved election approaching and the SNP’s momentum showing little sign of slowing, Sarwar admits Labour has “a massive job to hold on to what we’ve got”. What they’ve got is a paltry 23 out of Holyrood’s 129 seats.

The number of leaders Labour has run through since the advent of devolution in 1999 is now into double digits. The days when former first minister Donald Dewar imperiously knocked Alex Salmond around the debating chamber are long gone. With so much riding on May’s result, not just for Scottish governance but for the UK’s future existence, Labour could do with some charisma and quality, while Unionist voters could do with a viable mainstream Labour option on the ballot paper.

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[See also: Will Scottish Labour beat the Conservatives in May’s election?]

The two candidates certainly present the party with a choice. Asked to define their politics, they give tellingly different answers. Lennon, who is from the working-class Lanarkshire town of Blantyre, says she is “on the left. I’m a socialist and a feminist”. She only joined Labour in 2010 – “student politics passed me by, because I was working 12-hour nightshifts in a factory trying to get enough money to move out of my family home” – becoming a councillor before her election as an MSP in 2016. She was shaped, she says, by the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s policies on her hometown, by the 2008 financial crisis, when she lost her job as a project manager for a housebuilder, by the return to power of the Tories in 2010, and by the difficult conditions of her upbringing. Her father Gerry suffered from severe alcoholism (hence her 12-hour nightshifts while at university) and died at the age of 60. 

Sarwar avoids the “S-word”, choosing his language carefully. “There’s no such thing as right wing in the Labour Party. I’m a left-of-centre politician who represents the middle ground of politics,” he says. He had a start in life that was very different to Lennon’s – the family had a cash and carry wholesale business and were wealthy, and his father Mohammad was Britain’s first Muslim MP and is currently the governor of Punjab. Anas attended the private Hutchesons’ Grammar School, joined Labour at 16 and was an MP by 2010 at the age of 27, becoming deputy leader of the Scottish party the following year. He entered the Holyrood parliament in 2016.

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On the face of it, then, party members have a relatively straightforward and familiar choice – a working-class socialist who would represent a continuation of its recent experiment with left-wing politics, or a middle-class moderate who would return them to the centre-ground.

Lennon refuses to accept this framing. “I am absolutely not Richard Leonard mark two. I’m Monica Lennon, my own woman, a new generation” she says. However she refuses to criticise Leonard’s performance as leader. “He didn’t have an easy time but he kept us on the right track in terms of policy. I want to stick with the agenda – people like our policies, it’s our brand they don’t like.” 

Sarwar is equally cautious, saying that the past few years were “a difficult time to have been Labour leader” and that he wants Leonard to “be a big part of what happens next” (though a close ally tells me that Sarwar might only momentarily put up a “a façade of unity”). However, he warns that “to have lost a general election as badly as we did, to have had the worst EU election result in our history, we have to learn some lessons – we have got to stop talking the language of our history and our heritage. Of course there’s a place for championing the party’s past but we have to reflect today’s Scotland. There’s a generation now that thinks Labour was relevant to their parents’ and grandparents’ lives, but that we’re not relevant to them.”

Lennon has done more than most of her colleagues to re-establish some relevance. She originated and led the campaign against period poverty which recently saw Scotland become the first country in the world to provide universal access to free period products. “Scotland is a rich country, but it’s unequal,” she says. “People were talking about food banks and that kind of thing, but I felt no one was talking about what it was like for women and girls in poverty.”

To build support for her campaign she stepped outside the normal chambers of politics, talking to teachers, Women’s Aid groups and grassroots activists in the SNP and the Conservatives who could put pressure on their party hierarchy. “It’s embarrassing to talk about periods, and politicians weren’t talking about it. It’s not enough to have a female first minister and health secretary, or a government that claims to be progressive. I came into politics to help people and to change a system that too often holds them back and shuts doors in their faces.” Her inbox is now “heaving” with emails from activists and politicians around the world who have been inspired to tackle period poverty, she says.

This theme of “doing politics differently” also emerges in conversation with Sarwar. Once regarded as a machine politician, he is seen by allies to have matured and grown in recent years. He has proved a thorn in the SNP’s side over failing infection controls at the government’s flagship Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, which is now the subject of a public inquiry. He has also led a campaign against the rise of racism and the far right, which has led to threats against his family.

“The last three years have been a real eye-opener and I feel as if I have changed,” he says. “I’m the first to admit that like every other politician you get caught in a bubble and start to think that the battles inside it mean something to the wider public. They don’t. Spending my time challenging hate has opened my eyes to what the divisions and challenges really are: the rise of populism and nationalism, us versus them. There has been a failure of empathy among politicians in the UK and Scotland. I want to be a different kind of leader who backs up empathy with action.”

With the Tories reverting to “tank-driving, Union Jack-waving, chest-beating unionism” and the SNP to “referendum-now, saltire-wearing nationalism” he argues that “the people who lose out are the sensible majority in the middle. Let’s calm down and take the heat out of politics.”

With the possibility of a second independence referendum looming ever larger, it’s hard to see the temperature going anywhere but up. Labour’s prevarication on the constitutional question has seen it lose out at both ends – the Tories have absorbed the die-hard Unionist vote, while many left-wing Labour supporters have deserted the party in the hope of an independent socialist Scotland. Relations between the Labour leaderships in London and Edinburgh have been strained over the issue, particularly as the Corbyn team saw an alliance with the SNP as a possible route into Downing Street. Scottish Labour is often dismissed as little more than a “branch office”.

Keir Starmer is attempting to grip the issue and has asked Gordon Brown to design a plan for reform of the whole UK, which will include a new offer to Scotland and greater autonomy for the English regions. 

[See also: Why support for Scottish independence is more fragile than it appears]

Lennon has angered some colleagues by saying that if Scots show they want a referendum – presumably by electing the SNP with an overall majority in May – they should be allowed to have one. “It shouldn’t be up to Boris Johnson or any other prime minister,” she argues. “I’m trying to say to the party that if we are not part of the conversation it will happen without us.” She believes more powers should be devolved to Holyrood, including over drug and employment law, and that this should be on the ballot paper as an option in a second referendum. “It should be multi-question. It would be wrong to return to the arguments of 2014 and have it as a binary vote,” she says.

Sarwar takes a more bullish view. “I’m not saying the UK isn’t broken or that it doesn’t need repair, but we don’t need a referendum just as we’re coming out of a pandemic. In fact, I don’t think Sturgeon would advocate one at the moment, but for the fact she’s a prisoner of her own party because of all the controversies swirling around her.”

Whoever emerges as the victor next week – Sarwar remains the favourite – both candidates offer a freshness that has been missing from Scottish Labour for some time. There is also a clear choice for party members between two different Labour traditions, and a calculation to be made about which of them is most likely to win a hearing with the broader electorate.

Either way, the road ahead remains treacherous and success is far from assured, perhaps even unlikely. As Sarwar puts it, “Every new leader likes to act macho and says the Labour Party’s changed and is on the cusp of becoming a government with a Labour first minister. We have to recognise with humility that this is a fight for our survival, then our relevance, then our credibility as the opposition. Then we can say we’re ready for government.” Time for a new generation to grip the poisoned chalice.

[See also: Will Scotland vote for independence? Our poll tracker