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The man to save the Union?

Scottish Labour MSP, Anas Sarwar, poses for a portrait in Glasgow, Scotland, shortly after announcing his bid to become the next Scottish Labour leader - Credit: Getty Images

It is no exaggeration to say that the next Scottish Labour leader will play a pivotal role in deciding whether Scotland becomes independent. MAURICE SMITH reports on a party still coming to terms with the scale of the task ahead.

Anas Sarwar must be a glutton for punishment. The 37-year-old has been tipped for Labour Party stardom time and again during his career. His campaign for the party’s Scottish leadership is underway, less than four years after defeat to the man he seeks now to replace.

His path to power could have been smoother, and in a previous political life it probably would have been. He is the son of a millionaire businessman in Glasgow, Mohammad Sarwar, a renowned Labour fixer, former MP and currently governor of the Punjab, in his native Pakistan.

As soon as Richard Leonard announced his decision to stand down as leader of the Scottish Labour Party earlier this month, Sarwar’s hat flew into the ring. He is the early frontrunner, against his rival, a fellow member of the Scottish parliament, Monica Lennon, who has the support of the left.

The task facing the winner seems huge. Scottish politics has been virtually dominated by the SNP since it took control at Holyrood in 2007. Successive victories in 2011 and 2016 solidified the nationalist hold on Scotland. More than a dozen opinion polls since last spring have indicated not only an SNP win, but an overall majority for the party – a situation which Holyrood proportional representation system was supposed to prevent.

Nicola Sturgeon has achieved that position partly by the wholesale adoption of Labour’s clothes. “They have convinced many voters that the SNP has come to represent their aspirations, which were Labour aspirations,” says one observer.

Today, first minister Sturgeon has her hands full not only with the Covid pandemic, but with several controversies. Foremost amongst these is the ongoing inquiry into a failed court action involving her predecessor Alex Salmond. The MSPs investigating the case have heard accusations that the party Sturgeon leads – and whose chief executive also happens to be her husband, Peter Murrell – has been involved in a bitter internal battle resulting from the original police investigation which led to Salmond’s High Court trial over sex assault allegations, at the end of which he was cleared.

But there are also controversies over the failure of a lower Clyde shipyard, Ferguson Marine, which still has not completed two ferries ordered by the Scottish government, amid soaring costs. Meanwhile, the near collapse of an engineering business, BiFab, which has also cost the taxpayer millions, is being blamed on SNP incompetence.

In ‘normal’ times, opposition parties would be making hay; harrying ministers, demanding a response. For a while the Scottish Conservatives did so, under Ruth Davidson, who banged away at the idea that the SNP’s prime objection, independence, clouded its political judgment. But that attack ran out of steam, and Davidson herself is headed for the House of Lords this summer.

The pandemic has in that sense played to the advantage of the SNP. Sturgeon’s very hands-on approach is praised, especially set against to the wilful bumbling of Downing Street. Boris Johnson is many Scots’ image of an unlovable English Tory; Nicola Sturgeon, by contrast, is popular particularly with women, and oozes a sense of competence by comparison; even though Scotland’s Covid-19 record is not much better than the rest of the UK.

There are indications that Labour will re-take second place from the Tories in the elections this May. Nevertheless it seems that the SNP will outstrip both parties in its relentless surge to a fourth successive Scottish election campaign – a result matched in the party’s seizure of a majority of Westminster seats at the last three elections.

Where can Labour go, north of the border? Labour dominated Scottish politics for 50 years. When Blair won in 1997, his cabinet included Scottish heavyweights such as Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Robin Cook. A decade later, the party had lost control at Holyrood and, soon afterwards, lost the UK when Brown was ousted by David Cameron’s coalition.

Within Labour, there is a sense that the SNP’s rise simply reflects the global trend towards nationalism, illustrated by the Brexit vote and Trump victory and the rise of anti-globalist movements worldwide. But the party cannot get away from the fact that, having been on the winning side during the 2014 independence campaign, Labour has struggled for traction ever since. Labour won just one Westminster seat at the 2019 election, to the SNP’s 48. The rout seems complete.

“The SNP have tried to pick off every sub-set of the Labour vote over a number of years. It targeted the Catholic vote, it targeted Asians in the cities. Since Sturgeon’s promotion it has positioned itself as pro-women, pro-middle class, and so on. We have even noticed that if she is to make a statement aimed at the Labour voter, she will wear a red outfit. It’s that blatant,” says one Labour activist.

Steven Purcell, former Labour leader at Glasgow council and now a business consultant, remains a party member and describes himself as “a soft Yes supporter” of independence. “Labour in Scotland has struggled to adapt to the constitutional argument. The SNP from day one of being in government has been able to say to people that it represents aspirations about progressive politics, equality and so on,” he believes.

“That has been exacerbated since 2014, particularly because of the Brexit vote. A large swathe of social democratic voters who would previously have ‘belonged’ to Labour are now with the SNP. They wanted to be part of the EU, and adhere to its broad social democratic ideals.”

Purcell believes Labour may end up accepting independence as a means to implementing policies the party favours, albeit within Scotland only. “Labour is a party that believes in the Union. So why expect it to change its mind? It has to accept that if that single issue provides the route to delivering Labour policies it might make the pond they are fishing in smaller than they have been used to, but offering a better chance of success,” he adds.

Keir Starmer has tried to head off such sentiments by hinting heavily at some kind of constitutional re-settlement, including a federal UK. That idea has foundered previously on a lack of enthusiasm in England. The collapse of Labour votes across the so-called “red line” in the north, and the assertion of regional rights in cities like Manchester, may signal a change. But can Labour or the Conservatives convince Scots that a federal UK might be worth the wait? Few observers in Scotland would be ready for that, although ex-prime minister Gordon Brown repeated the call last weekend.

Michael Marra, a Labour councillor in Dundee and a former Labour adviser, says he cannot see why Labour could support another independence referendum. Although he acknowledges that many of his constituents probably voted Yes back in 2014, “I could not in all conscience support something that I know will cause great economic damage, and will lose people their jobs, as Scotland pursues some kind of low-tax, low-cost economy,” adds Marra.

“We can get locked into short term views. Boris Johnson is not forever. Nicola Sturgeon is not forever. But Brexit, or independence, are forever. They cannot really be undone,” adds Marra.

“The new Scottish leader’s job will be to get the Labour machine working properly, and to inspire people. We have a story to tell and a song to sing. The last 14 years have been a grotesque failure. The SNP has been appalling. It is a government wracked by incompetence, especially in terms of child poverty, the economy, education, and the hospital building programme,” says Marra.

He believes Labour can haul itself back into Scottish politics. It is no coincidence that the opposition parties concentrate their fire on Sturgeon’s record in charge – they know that she is the SNP’s strongest asset, and that if she was forced to stand down her party has no obvious alternative leader.

Purcell takes a more sanguine view of Labour’s situation: “The party has not yet passed through the stages of grief that followed the loss of power to the SNP in 2007, 2011 and since. But sovereignty rests at the ballot box — if the Scottish people continue to indicate that they want another referendum, Labour will find it increasingly difficult to oppose that. The party has not yet come to terms with the implications of Brexit, and what that means in Scottish politics. Is there a route back into the EU, or a means towards something like that relationship? Scottish Labour needs to address that question too.”

All of that adds up to an extensive to-do list for the new Scottish leader, who will be in place less than three months before the Scottish election. Whether it is the heavily-tipped Sarwar or his opponent Lennon, their first achievement will be to hone a coherent stance in time to convince Scots their future remains within the United Kingdom.

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