The election of Anas Sarwar is good for the Union and the Conservatives
Alex Salmond’s extraordinary allegations against the Scottish Government threaten to tear the SNP to pieces, but that isn’t the only front on which unionist prospects may be improving. Yesterday Anas Sarwar was elected as leader of Scottish Labour.
It was not a walkover. Monica Lennon, a Left-winger who starred in this slick but anonymous attack ad, secured a respectable 42% of the vote.
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But Sarwar was the favourite, and widely viewed both inside and outside the party as the MSP most likely revive Labour’s fortunes ahead of this year’s Holyrood elections.
Even the Conservatives ought to welcome his appointment, and not only because grassroots Tories prioritise defeating the separatists over avoiding a Labour government.
The Opposition can reach parts of the Nationalist coalition who will never vote Conservative. It was Labour’s woeful under-performance in 2019 that helped to unseat half the Tory MPs in Scotland. Even a modest revival in their vote would bring most of those seats back into contention.
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, has even gone so far as to challenge both Sarwar and Lennon to sign up to a ‘Better Together’ coalition to oust the SNP. They both rejected it.
Unionists should not be too hasty to blame them. Whilst the Conservatives have a relatively uncomplicated job trying to sell themselves as the ‘party of the Union’, Labour’s electoral challenge is more complicated. They need to woo back voters who have left for the Nationalists without so alienating their remaining, pro-UK voters so much they plump for the Tories instead.
It’s certainly true that, as ex-MP Tom Harris has pointed out, some Scottish Labour politicians have overreacted rather hysterically to the SNP’s efforts to tar them with the Tory brush after the 2014 referendum. The expulsion of the party’s Aberdeen councillors after they formed a pro-UK administration with the Tories on the council was certainly an overreaction.
But contra the fantasies of those touting electoral pacts (or a merged ‘unionist party’), Labour does need to be a distinct force to maximise its vote — and thus the damage it does to Nicola Sturgeon’s re-election prospects.
Sarwar’s real challenge is, if anything, intellectual. The idea that separatism can be ‘solved’ through granting more and more powers has become an idée fixe for Labour — most recently embodied in Sir Keir Starmer’s calls for ‘federalism’ — but there is still no sign it will work.
Others, perhaps taking inspiration from their Welsh comrades, suggest the party adopt an ambivalent stance towards independence itself, as if voters were hungry for a half-hearted version of the SNP.
What’s missing is a party making an unabashedly Left-wing case for Britain, one that highlights not only the mercenary benefits of the Union but also the moral virtue of solidarity with people in other parts of the country. This, combined with attacks on the Nationalists for delivering poor education and health outcomes whilst prioritising middle-class bribes such as free prescriptions and tuition fees, would be electorally potent.
It remains to be seen if Sarwar is the man to make that case — but everyone who wishes Britain well should hope that he is.