Derek McArthur argues that Sarwar is looking abroad in his frustrated quest to re-establish Scottish Labour, but that these efforts are unlikely to yield results.
When WikiLeaks posted transcripts of Hillary Clinton’s private Wall Street speeches, she noted that both a public and private position must be taken in politics. This approach has been fully absorbed by the Labour Party: in the 1990s Tony Blair modeled himself after Bill Clinton’s presidency; Keir Starmer has adopted the public/private dichotomy in a bid to win over English voters; and in Scotland, Anas Sarwar has come to represent the unassuming tartan variant of the right-wing of the Democratic Party.
During the collapse of the Corbyn project, Richard Leonard’s leadership of Scottish Labour seemed to be the final hurdle standing in the way of another New Labour takeover. Jackie Baillie had already been elected deputy leader, and Starmer’s ascension to leader of the UK party put everything in place for a Scottish counterpart to be knighted. Monica Lennon’s soft left campaign, while rooted in practical concerns, was insufficient to beat Sarwar in a leadership race. Scottish Labour had learned its lesson: the game of policy was far less important than the game of image management, apparently. His successful leadership campaign saw Biden aide Mae Dobbs hired to head up digital strategy, not an inconsequential decision in an age of pandemic-restricted campaigning.
Searching for answers in the US is emblematic of the exhaustion of Labourism and the direction the British state is taking after Brexit. The push and pull between a fantastical image of social democratic Europe and a laissez-faire America now frames UK politics. But the American model still requires a veneer of public consent and necessitates a wider buy-in. Through this process, platitudes and a co-optation of language have become weaponised.
The Democrats branded themselves as the party of social and racial justice in the last election. This rhetoric tipped the hat to people’s anger towards injustice, while maintaining the neoliberal hegemony that generates injustices. In other words, hearing the pain became a tool to placate a desire for change.
In Scotland identity politics had already been co-opted by several Holyrood parties, and the labour movement has deeper roots, so this was not the best path for Sarwar’s New Labour 2.0. The co-optation of language had to come from traditional Labour values. Instead of policy announcements, the focus was on paying lip service to the solidarity that brought many to the Labour Party in the first place. Sarwar was a “proud socialist” in interviews, twisting the word to fit his worldview. “Socialism can mean we create the right framework for a thriving private sector”, he told an interviewer.
Ladies and gentlemen, step right up and see the only socialist who wants socialism for the benefit of the private sector.
From Washington to Holyrood
Sarwar, newly minted as leader, was immediately thrust into the 2021 election campaign. The strategy was clear: define Sarwar as a personality. His new position as head of the Scottish party became the focal point of Labour’s campaign. The strategy resulted in relatively strong leadership polls but unexciting results, with a lost seat and no demonstrable change in support from the previous election. But the final vote tally could easily be blamed on previous leaders, and were hastily swept under the rug.
But a calculating media-driven leader should thrive during elections. In the blitz of a campaign, its easy to hide behind soundbites, with occasional obligatory nods to past ideals when pressed. Perhaps the most transparent attempt at public relations management was the “gatecrashing” of a children’s dance class. The source video, filmed on a camera phone, gives the impression of an impromptu gag that just happened to be recorded. The song, “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, is universally recognizable, and a “cool” cultural symbol to latch onto. This was all remarkably reminiscent of Biden playing “Despacito” from his phone in an “off the cuff” act designed to appeal to Latino voters. Both acts featured a calculated spontaneity, meticulously choreographed in campaign HQs to prove their candidates were in fact human.
The adoption of American political strategy by Labour has been a recent topic of debate, with ex-Lib Dem leader Vince Cable and various establishment journalists making the assertion that Labour’s electoral success will hinge on building a progressive coalition much like Biden’s. So far, however, the “progressive coalition” under Biden has been nothing but smoke and mirrors. Basic demands like the $15 minimum wage failed to be included in the Covid stimulus bill, due to the bargaining of right-wing democratic senators like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. Meanwhile the Congressional Progressive Caucus were unassertive, allowing the right’s agenda to win out.
Any sort of coalition in the UK or Scotland will inevitably experience the same diversionary tactics from the right. If the left is to work with the right, it must be in areas where the left refuses to stray from its position. Biden’s strategy towards the left has resulted in progressives giving up on implementing their policy goals in favour of recognition. Biden has managed to placate elected progressives with meaningless task forces and pats on the head. This capitulation to liberalism has been disheartening, but is not unexpected, given the pull of the Washington machine. Scottish and UK Labour don’t have the advantage of government power, but the US nevertheless offers concrete lessons in the necessity of demanding accountability rather than recognition.
Mobilization or Surface Level Makeover?
Corbyn’s project aimed to bring disenfranchised people back into the political process. The Sarwar project, conversely, is predicated on appealing to registered voters whose interest in politics is superficial at best. This was evident in Sarwar’s media appearances as well as his reactions to contemporary issues, which were reminiscent of Biden’s courtship of wavering suburbanites in the US election.
Whenever independence is brought up, Sarwar aims his rhetoric at individuals who haven’t considered the nuances of the topic, but who are fed up with hearing about it. In each debate he refused to take a position, writing off independence as one of the “old arguments”. To a certain comfortable subsection of voters, this might seem appealing. To others, it comes across as patronising and gives the impression that he’s above issues people care about. This was Sarwar’s public stance during the election campaign.
Behind the scenes, however, Sarwar held talks with outgoing Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, discussing how to curb the momentum for independence. This informal alliance may be an attempt to survive, one last attempt to carve out a future that results in neither independence nor the Tories becoming the default preference of anti-SNP voters. But this is centrism bereft of ideas; a cry of confusion at what lane could be occupied.
Is the Mask Slipping?
When running against Richard Leonard in 2017, Sarwar refuted criticisms by painting himself as an anti-establishment candidate. Followed up later by Starmer’s “I’m still a socialist” rhetoric, it illustrates an obfuscation of the reality we live in. When a façade becomes the object of meaning, it contributes to a post-modern elimination of material reality. When Labour, the supposed representatives of working people, wear the mask of platitudes the ultimate result is the undermining of the working class. It is an exercise that contributes to the erosion of the traditional worker, where a political identity is stripped and replaced with the precarious trust that Labour leaders will work in their best interests.
Unfortunately, outside of Scotland many members of the left commentariat have fallen for Sarwar’s surface charms. Novara Media founder Aaron Bastani was quick to accept a snapshot impression of Sarwar, vicariously using him as a weapon to beat up on his main target Keir Starmer. Bastani didn’t cite political reasons for his preference for Sarwar over Starmer, just that he was a better ‘frontperson’. This invokes the danger of legitimising Sarwar’s amorphous leadership style.
Sarwar can’t hide in the whirlwind of election fever as the day-to-day process of politics plays out. Like a presidential candidate, he can’t bow out until after the next election. He will have to take hard political positions if he is to have any chance of stopping his party from atrophying further. The spotlight of leader tends to leave no stone unturned, and without a policy anchor he may just see his party in permanent decay.
Going forward, this balance of public and private will be harder to maintain. As Starmer struggles to gain steam, so too will Sarwar. The myriad of issues within Labour are too mountainous for any leader to fix, and the problems are further cemented when the current leadership is so formless. In England Labour will continue to enjoy the privilege of being the default choice of anyone opposed to the Conservatives, but that ship has sailed with Scottish Labour. Scotland has left them behind, and plastering affirmative language like “Bold and Ambitious” on campaign materials won’t change that. They are now a non-entity, left to rot as an artifact and former friend of working people. All good will has run out.