Wanted: a worthy opponent to Nicola Sturgeon


At risk of spoiling the ending, Nicola Sturgeon is going to win next year’s Holyrood election.

Barring some unforeseen scandal or government catastrophe, Scotland is likely to hand the Nationalist leader another term in Bute House. It is not impossible that she secures an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament. Election 2021 is hers to lose. 

The SNP’s gravity-defying poll numbers are a source of consternation for that half of the country that hotly disdains the separatists and their leader. They resent the failure of their compatriots to see through the sham and spin and realise they are being governed by a cynical clique of incompetents and grievance-mongers. 

These frustrations are understandable. Three terms of Nationalist rule have produced little of substance and on education and health we have seen progress stall and even go into reverse. Meanwhile, sizeable reserves of political capital, parliamentary time and government resources have gone into a constitutional war of attrition. What exactly about the past 13 years would make anyone want another five?

Angry people want someone to blame and Unionists are no different. They blame the media for giving Nicola Sturgeon an easier ride than Boris Johnson gets from network news. There is some truth to this: Scottish broadcasters are generally less adversarial and one outlet in particular is positively chummy with the ruling party.

Next they blame the First Minister herself, for her Machiavellian political skills and for casting her mind-bending spell over the electorate. Castigating a politician for winning elections is like castigating the CEO of Coca-Cola for shifting too many bottles of fizzy pop. 

Finally, they turn their ire on the voters. They must be fools or rubes or fanatics for being so readily taken in. No doubt some are but the political party has yet to be created that could scold the voters into electing it. 

More difficult for Unionists to confront is the lacklustre quality of their opposition to the SNP. Never has such a mediocre government been blessed with an opposition that daren’t aspire to the dizzying heights of mediocrity.

Eight years of Ruth Davidson spoiled us and now Sturgeon is without a match on the opposition benches. Davidson kept the First Minister on her toes in a way the current Scottish Tory leader and the Scottish Labour leader cannot. 

As a parliamentary sketch-writer, I see it with my own eyes. Peering down from the press gallery at Holyrood, you can pick up even the slightest tic or twitch. I know when the First Minister is furious (she draws back a little, ready to pounce), when she is wounded (her shoulders spike) and when she is bored (eyes down, pretending to read a briefing book she already knows by heart), but I don’t think I have seen her fearful of a question from Jackson Carlaw or Richard Leonard.

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both spoke of their apprehension at stepping into the Commons chamber for Prime Minister’s Questions. Sturgeon strides to her place with the confidence of a woman who had the full measure of her opponents early on and has had no cause to change her mind.

Jackson Carlaw has only been leader in his own right for four months and there is still time and scope to fix the problems with his leadership, most of which lie outwith the debating chamber.

Richard Leonard gives no similar cause for optimism. The Scottish Labour leader has been in post for two-and-a-half years and has made almost no impression on his party or the public consciousness in that time. Carlaw may be no Ruth Davidson but Leonard is no Wendy Alexander.

His time in charge of Scottish Labour has been a ghost leadership. There is no speech that sticks in the mind, no policy or campaign that bears his name, no political victory of any significance. A Labour leader must be an activist yet Leonard’s captaincy has been marked by torpor and drift. He is the worst Scottish Labour leader not to have the words ‘Henry’ or ‘McLeish’ in his name. If he left tomorrow, he would leave no trace of ever having been there.

Under his tenure, Labour’s general election performance, upon which previous Scottish leaders were judged, has been mesmerically bad. The 18.6 per cent it racked up last December was its lowest share of the vote in 109 years. The last Holyrood election saw Labour’s vote collapse and Leonard’s top priority should be rebuilding it, but the last time the party was polling above the 2016 results was 17 months ago. 

This isn’t personal or factional. By all accounts, Leonard is a decent sort with sincere principles and a commitment to public service. He has always been friendly and courteous in his encounters with me. He is a good man but a terrible leader. 

Despite this, he has been in the job longer than Kezia Dugdale and Jim Murphy combined. Should he lead his party into next May’s Holyrood poll, he will do so as devolution’s longest-serving Labour leader after Jack McConnell. Yet his only qualification for the job seems to be the absence of anyone else willing to do it.

Whenever I ask the question of Labourites, they suggest one of three names as a potential replacement. Monica Lennon swung in too hard behind Corbyn and some on the Labour right still haven’t forgiven her for it, but she has proved in the health brief that she can make life difficult for the Scottish Government. 

Jenny Marra is very capable, has a forensic policy mind and sees in how the SNP has failed Dundee a microcosm of its misgovernance of Scotland. She has a young family and, like it or not, women are still the primary caregivers in most households. It would not be impossible (just look at New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern) but it would be trying.

The name that comes up most often is the man who stood against Leonard in 2017. Anas Sarwar is a confident parliamentary performer with a populist grasp of the issues and the most dangerous place in Scotland is between him and a TV camera.

Sarwar Labour could recover Unionist voters lost to the Tories over Indyref2 but, more importantly, eat into the SNP’s support by putting forth a dynamic agenda that moves Scotland beyond constitutional limbo onto what matters: generating prosperity, creating opportunities and lifting people out of poverty. He could even reach soft independence voters with a simple message: you don’t have to wait for a referendum, we can start making Scotland a better country today.

Unfortunately for Scotland, and particularly for Scottish Labour, I am reliably informed that Sarwar is not interested in the job at this stage. This is most unfortunate of all for Sir Keir Starmer. He’s had a strong start as Labour leader but, absent a Blair-esque landslide, it is hard to see a path to Number 10 that doesn’t run through Scotland. Sir Keir needs double figures of Scottish seats and while Ian Murray is worth a dozen MPs, numerically he still only counts as one. 

The want of a capable Scottish Labour leader is undermining that party’s electoral fortunes and may ultimately frustrate the political ambitions of its UK leader, but that is not where the real harm is being done. Political parties come and go but we have only one country. The damage being done to Scotland’s economy, public services and civil discourse by an arrogant, tribal and unaccountable government will take years to repair.

Nicola Sturgeon and her party deserve a good deal of the blame but by no means all of it. A government is only as good as the risk is real that it could be replaced at the next election. That risk does not exist for the SNP and that is the fault of those whose task it is to provide opposition and supply the country with a viable alternative. 

Not being interested in the job is not good enough. It is not just a ‘job’. It is a duty and it’s long past time someone stepped up to it. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

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