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Comment: Anas Sarwar's Labour needs more than a re-brand - it needs a vision

Comment: Anas Sarwar's Labour needs more than a re-brand - it needs a vision

A year ago, Anas Sarwar was elected to lead the Scottish Labour party – the tenth leader since devolution  – a position he had coveted for many years. His defeat to Richard Leonard a few years prior left the ever-ambitious Glasgow MSP smarting, never really accepting the outcome.

So much so that he established a parallel press operation, led by former Scottish Labour head of comms Alan Roden, to prepare for a future leadership bid. At the same time, Roden used his column in a broadsheet newspaper to regularly attack Leonard and anyone around him. 

Meanwhile, Sarwar allies worked diligently to undermine and ultimately end Leonard’s time at the head of the party. This was a period when the parliamentary group and SEC meetings were routinely leaked to journalists, Leonard’s allies attacked, and staff members vilified. Everything Leonard said, or did, was weaponised to undermine him.

In such a toxic atmosphere it was impossible for Scottish Labour to function as an effective opposition, never mind resemble a government in waiting. The party’s opponents laughed all the way to the polling station, with internal critics feigning shock and denying their actions, contributing to further electoral decline. Keir Starmer’s intervention delivered the fatal blow to Leonard’s tenure, ushering in Sarwar’s reign. 

After finally achieving his long-held ambition, what change has Sarwar delivered and what impact has he made?

Well, the party has a new thistle logo to emphasise its “Scottish credentials”. Freshening up branding is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is no substitute for radical, transformational policy ideas. On this, Team Sarwar has been largely silent (its conference announcement of free residential social care aside). 

Sarwar must also address the abject state of the party, a state of affairs he helped create. Scottish Labour is a shell of its former self.

Eight years on from the independence referendum little has changed in Scottish politics – every issue from dog fouling to international crime is viewed through a constitutional lens. We have a polarised binary politics which sees appalling governance excused and left unscrutinised as loyalty to a particular constitutional side trumps all. A position that plays right into the hands of the Tories and SNP. 

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour continues with the failed strategy of denial, deluding itself by ignoring the national question and having no tangible alternative, believing this will win back all those voters who deserted the party. 

For years, internal Labour polling has shown its former supporters who transferred to the SNP are far more likely to return to Labour than former Labour voters who now vote Conservative. Unfathomably, Scottish Labour has refused to move towards them, offering nothing by way of an appealing constitutional position. Indeed, the unionist ultras led by Jackie Baillie and Ian Murray want to move in the opposite direction.

Whilst this may see Jackie Baillie and Ian Murray shore up their own constituency support base, in seats where Labour has to make progress this approach has repeatedly failed. The only time inroads were made was under the ‘For the Many’ Corbyn manifesto in 2017, when the party went from one to seven seats, coming a very close second in another twenty. 

Sarwar’s position on the constitution is unknown. When asked, he defers to the Gordon Brown commission. Will this come up with a winning formula? I am not so sure. If the commission produces a radical set of proposals to redistribute power and wealth as an alternative to the SNP’s neo-liberal Growth Commission it has a chance, but if it is seen as a cynical ruse or fix to stymie independence it is doomed to fail. 

Sarwar must also address the abject state of the party, a state of affairs he helped create. Scottish Labour is a shell of its former self. It struggled to get people to stand as candidates at the 2021 Scottish election, constituency parties are moribund and skint and are desperately trying to fill vacancies for council seats. 

Financially, Labour is in a desperate state and, with Peter Mandelson back at a UK level pulling the strings, the Left is under attack and trade unions are ostracised. Membership in some constituencies has fallen by half in just two years and the number of activists on the campaign trail is a fraction of what it was. 

The Corbyn approach was to make Labour a mass membership party – the biggest political party in Europe. The Starmer/Mandelson approach is to expel socialists, attack open debate, neuter the Left, ignore the unions, and instead rely on high-value donors to fund a party that can build a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. 

Dare I say it, Sarwar’s Labour needs much more than a presentational rebrand – it needs a vision, policies and ideas that actually resonate with people.

Read the most recent article written by Neil Findlay - Comment: We need to talk about the quality of debate in the Scottish Parliament

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