By Alastair Lockhart
BORIS Johnson’s Conservative government poses an existential threat to the future of the UK, Scottish Labour Leadership candidate Anas Sarwar has said.
Speaking to Redaction Politics, Sarwar firmly defended his party’s stance opposing Scottish independence, but condemned the contribution of Conservatives.
“The SNP’s plans for independence would create deeper austerity, which is why Scottish Labour firmly opposes it,” he said. “But the Tories are a threat to the Union, with Boris Johnson constantly undermining devolution.”
Sarwar’s comments reflect the dismal opinion most Scots have of the Prime Minister, credited with boosting support for independence in the past year with over 20 consecutive polls showing a majority for independence.
With Scottish parliamentary elections due to be held in May, the Labour party, once the dominant force of Scottish politics, seems set to struggle to even take second place from the Scottish Conservatives, let alone challenge the SNP in forming a government.
Since Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum in which voters opted to remain the UK by a majority of 55 per cent, the country’s politics have been sharply divided over the constitutional question. Supporters of independence have helped to keep the SNP in power at Holyrood and hold the vast majority of Scottish seats at Westminster.
Meanwhile, unionists feeling under threat have flocked to the Scottish Conservatives and their uncompromising rejection of independence. Labour, while also a unionist party, has been unable to press home a clear message to voters and left caught in the middle of the independence debate, consigned to a once unthinkable third place at Holyrood in the 2016 election.
A more decisive and compelling stance on the independence issue may be a path to reviving the party’s fortunes. Monica Lennon, Mr Sarwar’s rival for the leadership, told The Guardian this week that Labour should contemplate supporting a second referendum or risk alienating voters, something Sarwar flatly rejects.
When asked by Redaction Politics if he would support such a referendum under any circumstances, he replied “The next five years must be about a Covid Recovery Parliament. We can bring power closer to people without the protracted and deeply divisive process of a referendum. It is deeply irresponsible to even consider a referendum in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis.”
Mr Sarwar also did not countenance a third option of so-called ‘devo-max’ powers for Scotland on a referendum ballot. Instead he argued that the Labour party was working to remodel the argument around devolution.
“Change can – and must – be about much more than just devolving power from Westminster to Holyrood,” he said. “UK Labour leader Keir Starmer recently announced plans for a UK-wide Constitutional Commission to consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level. Advised by Gordon Brown, it will be the boldest project Labour has embarked on for a generation.”
Though the question of independence has plagued the Scottish Labour party for over five years now, it is clear that Sarwar does not wish the issue to frame his leadership campaign, or that of the May election. Instead, he says, the Labour party should focus on social and economic issues, though how this strategy will cut through in a political landscape in which almost everything is defined by independence is unclear.
“I’m determined to rebuild Scottish Labour,” he said. “We need to show what our vision is for rebuilding Scotland: a recovery that leaves no one behind by ending child poverty by 2030; public service recovery by increasing funding for the NHS and social care and climate recovery by seizing the opportunity of Glasgow hosting COP26 and uniting Scotland behind an ambitious Climate Justice Plan.”
When questioned on the party’s electoral prospects in May, Sarwar dismissed the prediction that the SNP is heading for a decisive victory, but did not suggest that Labour was equipped to challenge its status as the largest party.
“An SNP majority is not inevitable,” he said. “We need to stop being so fatalistic.”
“Scottish Labour is not an observer in this election; it is a participant. Not a single vote has been cast yet and I’ll be focused on a positive message about Scotland’s future, not the old politics of division.”
Featured Image: Anas Sarwar campaign
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