Scotland needs Labour and Labour needs Sarwar

If you want to understand why Richard Leonard had to resign as Scottish Labour leader, there’s a recent poll that will assist you. ComRes interrogated voters earlier this month on their opinion of the Central Scotland MSP. They found 31 per cent neither favourable nor unfavourable and a further 28 per cent not sure enough to answer. 

In all, six in ten Scots, presented with the name of the man at the helm of Scottish Labour for three years, either shrugged or took on a blank expression. There are witness protection programmes that don’t offer that level of anonymity. 

Just 11 per cent were keen on the Left-wing ex-union organiser. A 2020 YouGov survey revealed that 15 per cent of Scotland thinks it likely ‘there are aliens living on earth’. More Scots believe in extra-terrestrial life on this planet than believe in Richard Leonard. 

I was often critical of him but there’s little sport to be had in kicking the man any further. He has done the right thing in standing down to make way for fresh blood and Scottish Labour could certainly do with a transfusion. 

The party that once dominated Scottish politics without challenge is a pitiful creature to behold these days. In third place at Holyrood, with just one MP at Westminster, haemorrhaging what voters remain, and utterly at a loss for how to turn things around. 

It’s not as though there isn’t material to work with. There is an SNP government gaffe-happy in its handling of Covid-19 and a Health Secretary with one foot out the door in the middle of a pandemic. Even before the virus hit, cancer and mental health patients were habitually not treated within the Nationalists’ own waiting time standards.

There is the grindingly slow progress on closing the attainment gap and the fact that what narrowing there has been is the result of better off pupils doing worse rather than worse-off pupils doing better. Education Secretary John Swinney ought to be on the edge of his seat every day for fear that his latest pitfall — on exams, ‘blended learning’, lack of support for pupils and teachers — costs him his job. 

The SNP’s record on poverty and inequality is far from illustrious and their standard excuse (‘it’s all Westminster’s fault’) a shoddy piece of dishonesty. The UK Government has made mistakes and for that it should be criticised but since this is public policy and not a playground punch-up something more substantive than ‘they started it’ is called for. 

Businesses are at breaking point because of lockdown and only a fraction of the cash promised by Finance Secretary Kate Forbes has made its way into bank accounts. Small business owners have given their all, investing in additional distancing and hygiene measures to keep employees and clients safe, only to be let down by government. If they could pay their bills in Nicola Sturgeon TV appearances, they’d be able to retire by now. 

There is a need for a party that makes the SNP confront its failings and attaches a political price to them. It’s a long time since Scottish Labour aspired to be such a party. Under the reign of the self-indulgent ideologues, Labour has preferred to talk (or shout) to itself, as though Keir Hardie had set up a debate club that somehow got out of hand and starting standing for Parliament. 

The Labour Party does not exist for the soothing of its members’ egos or the strange excitements of factional war games. It exists to make life better for ordinary people by creating a fairer society and an economy with opportunity for everyone. It’s a bold new idea called ‘social democracy’ and will be all the rage soon enough. 

For Scottish Labour to get back into the business of practical politics it needs a sense of purpose, confidence in its principles, an appetite to fight and a strategy for shunting the constitutional question off the agenda. Before it can do any of that, it needs a new leader.

So far, two MSPs have put their heads above the parapet: Anas Sarwar and Monica Lennon. Lennon is a highly effective health spokesperson and a hard worker, but her colleague is better placed for the task in hand.

Sarwar is young, ruthless, media-savvy and brimming with ideas. He shows a lively commitment to public service and brings experience from both Holyrood and Westminster, as well as a three-year stint as deputy to Johann Lamont. He can work the debating chamber and especially First Minister’s Questions like few others. He knows what gets headlines, what tugs heart-strings, what makes Sturgeon squirm. He’s against a second independence referendum and wants to move beyond arid constitutionalism. 

Just as important as any of that is the question of values. Values are everything in Labour politics, as we saw in the past five years when the worst sort of values took hold of the party and corrupted it into something extreme and intolerant and prejudiced. Sarwar’s values are those of the Labour mainstream, where Labour is at its most vital and from where it wins. He believes in common endeavour and the common weal. He represents not just an opportunity for Labour to get back in the game but a reminder of why they play.

Tories tempted to revel in their opponents’ misfortunes should pause, at least if they believe in the Union. The Conservatives alone cannot present the alternative to nationalism; there has to be a party that speaks to traditional Labour voters and those not inclined towards Toryism. Whatever your ideological leanings, it is to the benefit of the Union that there be a strong, vibrant Labour Party to help take on the SNP. 

Sarwar as leader could do more than that. While he is not going to reverse more than a decade of decline overnight, he would begin Labour’s long march back to relevance. If he is clever, he will avoid the constitutional trap by rejecting indyref2 firmly and early, then moving on to the issues that matter to the lives of ordinary Scots. The SNP has been allowed to set the agenda for long enough. It’s time to talk about what they don’t want to talk about: their record. 

Even then, simply disparaging the Nationalists’ performance in government is not enough. Sarwar would have to set out what Scottish Labour was for, how it would do it, and what Scotland would gain from giving the party another chance. 

A drover’s dog knows Scottish Labour isn’t going to win the May elections, but the party membership faces a choice: terminal decline or a fightback. It’s in Scotland’s interests, not just Labour’s, that they make the right choice. 


Calamity Jeane strikes again. First the Health Secretary was forced to apologise for disclosing the location of a secret vaccine storage facility in England. Then her vaccination strategy had to be yanked down from the Scottish government website after Downing Street pointed out that it contained sensitive information. Despite all the consultancy hours she used to clock up, it’s safe to say none were for MI5. 

Even before the pandemic hit, Jeane Freeman was struggling to meet waiting times standards and deliver promised infrastructure. Now we learn that the opening of Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children, a facility supposed to be up and running by winter 2012, has been delayed yet again. 

Freeman has had a dire pandemic, with medics handed out-of-date PPE, details of an Edinburgh outbreak withheld from the public, elderly patients transferred to care homes before testing, and misleading figures made public.

Freeman was brought in as a trouble-shooter but the only targets she’s been able to hit are her own feet. 


This column has been arguing for some time that the UK Government should bypass the carnival of grievance at Holyrood and start spending directly in Scotland. So it’s welcome news that Whitehall will do just that via the Shared Prosperity Fund, with the first tranche bringing £100 million to Scotland. See? Told you we were better together.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:

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