In his first year as Scottish Labor leader, Anas Sarwar reckons he averted “Armageddon” for the once-mighty party. Now comes the hard part: turning it back into a serious challenger for power.
How Sarwar fares will have far-reaching implications for the UK Labor’s hopes of achieving a majority government in Westminster, as well as for the future of the three-century-old union between Scotland and England.
In an interview ahead of the opening of Scottish Labor’s annual spring conference in Glasgow on Friday, Sarwar said the party had stemmed from its decline.
Only two months after he was elected leader in February last year, the party took less than 20 per cent of the overall vote in the Scottish parliamentary elections.
“We’ve stopped Armageddon. We’ve got ourselves in the place where I think [we are seeing] a slowly increasing share of support, ”the former dentist and Westminster MP said.
But Sarwar made clear the party has a long way to go to be able to make any major contribution to a Labor victory in the UK general election expected in 2024. In the 2010 general election, Labor took 41 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. In 2019, the party won just one.
Scottish Labor should benefit from public outrage at Conservative UK prime minister Boris Johnson over alleged partying at Downing Street during coronavirus lockdown and from increasing discontent with the performance of the SNP’s devolved government in Edinburgh.
But Sarwar said Scottish Labor still suffered from a culture of defeatism and a habit of “talking about ourselves to ourselves”. It needs to focus on offering a positive vision of Scotland’s future, he added.
“We can’t rely just upon the Tories deserving to lose or the SNP deserving to lose, we’ve got to deserve to win,” he said.
Reviving Labor fortunes in Scotland will require more than just internal culture change. Since the Scots rejected independence by 55-45 per cent in a 2014 referendum, the future of the union has been the fundamental faultline in Scottish politics.
That suits both the SNP, the main champion of independence, and the Scottish Conservatives who have cast themselves as the strongest defenders of the union.
But while Sarwar strongly opposes independence, he must still try not to further alienate former Labor supporters who backed leaving the union in 2014.
Many in Labor, including some in the UK party leadership, think it is wrong to try to block a second referendum on independence which is wanted by a majority of members of the Scottish parliament.
Sarwar’s strategy is to shift public focus to other issues, such as health and education, where Labor’s appeal is stronger. “We have to be the ones who say actually there are ideas bigger than independence,” he said.
The effort may be helped by personal public approval ratings that analysts say are consistently higher than Labor’s in Scotland.
But Mark Diffley, a consultant on Scottish public opinion, said it would be “really, really difficult” for Sarwar to displace independence as the central battleground.
Still, Sarwar has little choice. “Yes, what I’m suggesting would be a fundamental change and shift in the way we do politics in Scotland. But if we don’t want to change Scotland, why are we doing the job? ” he said.
Some in Labor see committing to constitutional change within the UK, and the devolution of more power to Scotland, as a way to defuse the party’s independence dilemma.
In 2020, current Labor leader Keir Starmer commissioned Gordon Brown, the party’s last prime minister, to lead a commission examining “the future of the union” and to draw up a fresh devolution settlement.
Scottish Labor is also working on its own proposals for devolution. But Sarwar cautioned against colleagues who see devolution as “some kind of fix” for the independence issue.
“We have to advocate and champion reforming and renewing the UK, and champion and advocate devolution because we truly believe in it,” he said.
Brown is expected to recommend a broadly federal system for the UK with a further transfer of powers from Westminster to Edinburgh when he publishes his review around June.
One member of the shadow cabinet said the review “may or may not” become party policy, depending on Brown’s conclusions. Brown will brief the shadow cabinet later this month on his initial analysis.
Sarwar’s most immediate challenge is to ensure that Scottish Labor at least do better in local elections in May than its disastrous performance in 2017, when its haul of council seats fell by a third to 262 across Scotland.
Any improvement may be small, with Sarwar himself estimating Labor support is still not much over 20 per cent. But Sir John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said recent Tory woes meant the local elections could at least see Labor surpass the Conservatives and take a step back toward its former status as Scotland’s second largest party.
“If you’re trying to chart a pathway back to recovery for the party, you would consider that as a minimum objective for the local elections,” Curtice said.
For the crucial 2024 UK general election, Sarwar hopes to benefit from the UK Labor party’s increasing popularity among English voters.
Scottish Labor has suffered in recent years from some voters seeing the SNP as offering stronger opposition to Conservative governments, Sarwar said. Persuading them that the UK Labor party could actually win power at Westminster would be a “massive psychological change”.
“We need them to get better, and they need us to get better,” he said. “We’re going to fulfill our part.”