Michael Doyle

Michael Doyle

Sarwar’s First Move: Attack Democracy

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Michael Doyle looks at the opening weeks of Anas Sarwar’s Scottish Labour leadership and concludes that the most debilitated and anti-democratic form of Labourism has returned.

Such is the tumult of Scottish politics that the predictable victory of Anas Sarwar in the Scottish Labour leadership election went largely unnoticed.

His success over soft left challenger Monica Lennon and replacement of Richard Leonard presumably pleased the Labour Party establishment in London who will see this as yet another step towards the full restoration of the party machine after the Corbyn interregnum.

Leonard’s resignation came after consistently poor polling and visibility, but this is the general condition of Scottish Labour. Even Keir Starmer’s leadership team will know that the Scottish party’s current weakened state is unlikely to be changed by a new leader.

Sarwar brings the number of Scottish Labour leaders since 1999 into double digits (not including interim leaders). A succession of mediocre leaders who were all steeped in New Labour’s tradition drove the party’s decline in electoral success. For Starmer, Sarwar’s election is about ensuring that Scottish Labour complies with the restoration position that rules-out any question of support for a second referendum, and more generally draws Scottish Labour into alignment with the leaders’ office.

In general, constitutional policy will again focus on the well-worn practice of establishing numerous

commissions, to look at possibly devolving more powers from Westminster without actually

implementing those recommendations. Leonard’s policy was weak and failed to strike a cord with an uncaring Scottish public, but his support for a ‘devo-max’ option in a future independence referendum was incongruent with Starmer’s firm commitment that there should not be any such referendum.

During the leadership contest, Sarwar repeatedly said that the constitutional question is a distraction from tackling issues such as inequality, educational under-achievement, and high levels of drug use in working class communities. It is inconceivable to Scottish Labour that social and economic problems could be connected in the public mind with the failures of British democracy.

These arguments might make more sense if Labour proposed a serious reform to inequalities of power and wealth. Like UK Labour, Scottish Labour do not consider themselves to be neoliberals because they offer criticisms of Dickensian levels of poverty. This view was articulated by Starmer during the 2020 Labour leadership contest when he said what distinguished him from the Tories was that he would not walk on when someone needed help. After thirteen years of a Labour government that saw its job as the maintenance of the loathed Thatcherite settlement, the SNP’s electoral victories in the Holyrood elections in 2007 and 2011 broke – apparently decisively – the party’s hold north of the border.

The referendum debates, particularly amongst life-long Scottish Labour voters in working-class areas, was not based on arid constitutional debates about the 1707 Act of Union. Rather, they were about whether a better social and economic future could be forged, free of Westminster. Labour’s disaster was to ignore these voters’ growing discontent over decades.

Apparently, and predictably, no lessons have been learned. On 9 March, Labour activists reacted with fury when Hollie Cameron, Glasgow Kelvin candidate, was dropped by the new leadership for making pragmatic noises on the national question. Her simple proposition was that Scots should have the right to a vote on Scottish independence, should they so desire one.

In a sense, the formal end of Labour left leadership in Scotland has closed the contradiction between conservatism on constitutional, national and democratic questions, and openness to economic and social reform. The rise of Sarwar means a return to support for the current, appalling social settlement on every front. Labourism, which cannot conceive of an alternative to the Westminster parliament’s pre-eminence, is firmly ensconced before a voting public which has simply moved on.

With UK Labour, and now Scottish Labour under ‘new management’, the SNP can rest easy

in the knowledge that no matter how dysfunctional they appear, and how many embarrassments and conflicts emerge from within the nationalist camp, they will feel little pressure from this, apparently vanquished, old foe.

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