Scottish Labour has entered the Holyrood 2021 campaign in its best spirits for a decade. Anas Sarwar’s sure-footed performance in the first televised leader’s debate of the five week marathon until 6 May showed us why. For Anas, the priority is a Covid Recovery Parliament. One which heals a Scotland in which every family and community has been affected by the pandemic. Investing in the NHS, cancer treatment and social care, particularly our heroic health and social care workers. Levelling up attainment for pupils in the poorest areas. A youth jobs guarantee for the generation most affected by the Covid economic slump. Ambitious plans for a green recovery kick-started by a historic Glasgow agreement at this year’s COP. With a clear and unambiguous position on Indyref, he stands up for the best of those values which unite us in Scotland rather than refighting old constitutional battles on what divides us. And the polling backs this up – the more people see of Anas, the more they like him. In the debate he showed empathy for people who need better health care and the young jobless, and a willingness to work with other parties at Holyrood to get things done. For a Scottish electorate wearied by the endless infighting and division of the last few months of Holyrood politics, it’s a breath of fresh air. An SNP majority Government and a renewed push for Indyref 2 afterwards seemed an odds-on bet just a few months ago – now the election is on a knife edge and Scottish Labour is in with a good shot of retaining its constituency seats and performing well on the regional lists too.
When Anas succeeded Richard Leonard as leader, Scottish Labour was polling 16% on the constituency and regional list votes. In a few short weeks, that has risen to 20%. Scottish Labour under Anas can win new support in two ways – first, appealing to voters who supported the Party in December 2019 but who switched to the SNP in polling last year; and second, those pro-UK voters who want an end to division between the two polar opposites on the constitution. Anas’ measured tone in the debate appealed to both groups of potential new supporters. It is early days, but Scottish Labour has the momentum, ideas and enthusiasm in this campaign to make the battle for second place in seats a very close one with the Tories. It is not impossible for Scottish Labour to make seat gains for the first time since the first Holyrood elections in May 1999.
It was also clear from the debate that Nicola Sturgeon, as the incumbent rather than the insurgent role she has enjoyed in past UK General Election leaders’ debates, has to navigate the thin line between the safety-first campaign she would have wanted to run a few months ago, and having to speak more on the process and tactics for another Indyref to her base given the challenge Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party presents to the SNP on the regional list vote. After 14 years in office, the SNP’s domestic record is coming into sharper focus, although views on the constitution and Brexit are still the biggest predictors of Scottish voting intentions. Scotland has been deeply polarised by the two referendums of the last 7 years – much more so than at the last Holyrood elections in May 2016 – with the average of the last half a dozen polls putting support for independence and the Union at 50-50.
The Liberal Democrats and their leader Willie Rennie show no sign of any Scottish recovery from the electorally disastrous choice in 2010 to form a coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives at Westminster. The Greens seemed poised for a record haul of list MSPs until a week ago. They will be watching anxiously how the new Alba Party performs in initial polling this week.
The Scots Tories have had a rollercoaster few weeks with their handling of the Salmond Holyrood Inquiry and the Hamilton report. The albatrosses around their necks remain Boris Johnson’s continued unpopularity in Scotland, and the effects of Brexit on the Scottish economy and opportunities for Scotland’s young people. It is clear that Douglas Ross will struggle to emulate the cut-through and profile of his predecessor-but-one as Scots Tory leader, Ruth Davidson. In the debate, he often seemed to be talking only to his base on the Union, not seeking to grow it. If Jackson Carlaw was described by his internal opponents as an example of a golf club Scots Tory, too often did Douglas Ross come across in the debate as a one club golfer. Turning every question back to process issues on the constitution, without making much of a case for the Union, nor offering any positivity at all may tire an electorate looking for an optimistic vision of Scotland’s future, not more of the same on what divides Scotland.
A revival for Scottish Labour is the pre-requisite for the election of a majority UK Labour Government. With its new leader, growing support, new policies, new generation of candidates and bold messaging, Scottish Labour has a spring in its step for the first time since the 2014 Independence Referendum. Cautious optimism, but from Anas’ fresh start for Scottish Labour, great things can happen over the next 5 weeks and 5 years.
William Bain was MP for Glasgow North East from 2009 to 2015. He now works in Trade Policy for a business organisation. He served as Shadow Minister for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Transport and Scotland in the 2010-15 Parliament. He is also a former EU and Public Law academic. He tweets @William_Bain