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24 January 2023

Scottish Labour’s gender bill farce shows it’s not ready to lead

Anas Sarwar’s party risks coming across as a limp facsimile of the SNP.

By Chris Deerin

There was a period when it seemed like Anas Sarwar was a knight coming over the hill on his charger, a Sir Lancelot who would gallop into the melee and scatter Nats around the battlefield. That was certainly what he intended to be.

Increasingly, though, he risks resembling only another Scottish Labour Don Quixote, his lance dipped in confusion, unclear what he wishes were true and what is true – the latest party leader “born to be an example of misfortune, and a target at which the arrows of adversary are aimed”.

It’s an understatement to say that Sarwar’s handling of the controversial Gender Recognition Reform bill has left a great deal to be desired.

Before the bill was passed, I spoke to one shadow Scottish cabinet minister who, unconvinced by the reforms, was wrestling with their conscience. The majority of the Labour group felt the same, they and others told me, but would be whipped to back the government. “I know it sounds naive, but you could always do what you believe to be the right thing,” I suggested. “There’s always that,” was the pained response.

It’s quite something that there were more rebellions within the notoriously loyal SNP group than there were among Labour MSPs. One of Sarwar’s predecessors as leader, Johann Lamont, was right when she wrote in December, before the final vote at Holyrood, that “within my own party, I do not believe there is majority support for the proposals among the membership nor the Holyrood group”. And yet: 18 for, two against, zero abstentions.

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Sarwar has been quiet since the vote. He was humiliated when Keir Starmer refused to criticise the UK government’s use of a Section 35 order to block Holyrood’s gender legislation, and also raised doubts about reducing the age at which someone could change their gender from 18 to 16. The loudest voice from within the Scottish party was not Sarwar, but his MSP Monica Lennon, a staunch supporter of the reforms, who accused the party’s UK leader of “undermining” Scottish Labour and witheringly decreed he needed to be “better briefed before he talks about issues debated extensively by the Scottish Parliament”.

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When Sarwar finally broke his silence it was to call for “a grown-up approach… so we can protect the rights of trans people whilst also maintain the protections of single-sex spaces”. For both the bill’s supporters and its critics this was simply a pathetic attempt to ride two horses.

Sarwar isn’t the first Scottish Labour leader to be caught out by political calculations made by the elders in London. And it goes to the heart of why the party is struggling to find its place in SNP-dominated Scotland.

The unionist parties – the Tories face a similar dilemma – must attempt to speak with a clear Scottish voice while displaying loyalty to the UK strategy run from Westminster. This is a problem when British and Scottish strategy are at odds – and the SNP are rather good at setting traps that force a choice between one or the other. The old “branch office” jibe still hits hard.

There is no easy solution to this. Because when it comes to it, the UK parties will always look to their own interests. But the least damaging option is surely to be true to yourself. If Sarwar genuinely supported the gender reforms he should have been outspokenly clear that he disagreed with Starmer on this issue. It would also have been much better had he given his MSPs a free vote on the bill, so they could all follow their consciences. What was there to lose? After all, public opinion is overwhelmingly against the reforms. Let Lennon do her thing and let others do theirs. This should have been an SNP problem.

The broader worry is that this is merely a sign of things to come. Far from being a party that seeks to replace the SNP in government in order to right the many wrongs of Nicola Sturgeon’s administration, Scottish Labour risks coming across as a limp facsimile of the Nats. Has Sturgeon set the parameters of acceptability so definitively that Sarwar dare not breach them? Is the nation doomed only to be offered uninspired varieties of the same thing?

Being fit for government, like being fit for leadership, requires both canniness and courage; a willingness to tell certain hard truths; to choose, and therefore make enemies as well as friends; and to get it right. You’re asking voters to follow you. It’s not easy, but it’s the only worthwhile way to do the job.

“He who’s down one day can be up the next, unless he really wants to stay in bed, that is,” wrote the ever-perceptive Cervantes. Will Sarwar burrow into the warmth or throw back the covers and recover his sword?

[See also: Rishi Sunak must sack Nadhim Zahawi to retain any credibility]