DURING the 2019 General Election, Scottish Labour activists reported a familiar rebuttal of their efforts on the doorstep – what’s the point of Labour north of the border?
Labour, like the so-called ‘Red Wall’ pre-2019, had assumed Scotland would go red in each General Election for decades. This peaked in 1997 and 2001 under Tony Blair, where New Labour earned 56 seats.
The SNP’s rise wiped out Labour support by capitalising on pro-Indy sentiment and providing another centre-left alternative – one that was not controlled by Westminster.
But what it also did was give a gift to the Scottish Tories. Labour has always been caught in the middle on constitutional questions, and as such, has been outflanked by both sides on the Indy question.
While many praised Corbyn for winning back seats in Scotland in the 2017 GE, many forget that Theresa May only held on because she gained 12 seats north of the border.
And this is where Labour find themselves – unable to fully commit to independence or unionism, it’s starting to look a lot like the Brexit conundrum.
Last weekend, Anas Sarwar MSP was named the new Scottish Labour leader. An arch ‘Brownite’, he appears to tread the political water between his predecessor Richard Leonard, a Corbyn ally, and the more centrist wing of the party.
As the third biggest party in Scotland, Sarwar has a massive challenge ahead of him – but also, a unique opportunity. Instead of constantly being picked apart on the independence question, Scottish Labour can identify key campaigns – on poverty, or, as Sarwar’s challenger Monica Lennon succeeded in, free period products – and win back Scotland that way.
But they’ll need to be braver than Keir Starmer, who continues to face lagging results in the polls. By refusing to take aim at the Tories – and bizarrely, opposing objectively beneficial moves such as raising corporation tax – the Labour Party in Westminster is not winning over anyone new. In fact, it’s barely holding on to its current vote.
There’s a (valid) argument that Starmer has been sensible by not ‘sniping from the sidelines’ during the pandemic – but he has also failed to set out an alternative. Voters cannot fathom how a Labour government would make their lives better.
Sarwar has already shown his effectiveness at simply getting things done – his work on the Milly Main case was praised by all sides. Taking action while the Scottish Tories and the SNP battle it out over independence could go a long way.
There will be a time when Scottish Labour need to take a definitive position on the Indy question. Joining the ‘Better Together’ campaign would be another disaster, while it’s a tough ask to suddenly switch to a pro-Indy position. But if they show they can empirically make the lives of ordinary Scots better, they may have a hope of relevance once again.
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