Anas Sarwar, not Richard Leonard, should lead Labour north of the borderby John McTernan / November 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
There are two closely related myths that bedevil Scottish politics. The first is that Scotland is more left-wing than the rest of the UK. The second is that the Scottish National Party dominates politics north of the border because it is a left-wing party super-serving Scots with left-wing policies. These fallacies are being tested to destruction in the election for the leader of the Scottish Labour Party.
If it weren’t for the misconduct allegations swirling around Alex Rowley, who stepped down as interim leader this morning, the casual observer could be forgiven for ignoring this contest, the result of which will be announced on 18th November. Judging by its track record—five leaders in the last ten years—another leadership election will be along shortly. In fact the choice that Labour makes between Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard—the two contestants—will define whether there is an effective challenge to the SNP or not.
The choice is being played out in terms of whether the party should become more Corbynite in the wake of the impressive general election result in June, or steer its own course, and the emblem of this is Leonard’s proposal for a wealth tax. The fact that this is beyond the powers of the Scottish Parliament is—oddly but characteristically for Scottish politics—considered irrelevant. (If Scotland wants a wealth tax then Scotland should get a wealth tax, is the attitude. And if Scotland doesn’t get what it wants then it always has a grievance—which, in many ways, is better.)
The central delusion of this wealth tax is not that it is practical or feasible but that it is both desirable and—more to the point—desired by Scottish voters. To double down on ultra-Corbynism would be a huge strategic error for Scottish Labour, not least because the notion of Scottish political exceptionalism should have been dealt a death blow by the general election result. Of course, the resurgence of the Scottish Conservatives owes much to the charismatic and witty leader Ruth Davidson. But the surge in the polls which netted them 12 gains and confirmed them as Scotland’s second party showed the true nature of Scottish politics—it is a battle for the centre ground, not a struggle on the left.
To be fair to her, Nicola Sturgeon has always known this and acted accordingly. As First Minister she has run a ruthlessly centrist government. Her unswerving dedication to the construction of a middle class welfare state has been a parody of “Blairism”—centrism without any redistribution. Free prescriptions, free university tuition, free social care—each of the flagship policies has given financial benefit to the middle classes at the expense of working class families who have lost out, as resources spread widely cannot be targeted on those with the greatest needs.
“Scottish politics is a battle for the centre ground, not a struggle on the left”
The big gap in Scottish policies is for a plain-speaking progressive politics. One that sees that the task of government is to spend public money well rather than to try to raise more for spending. One that believes in helping the neediest through targeted policies. One that believes public services involve responsibilities as well as rights. The race is on to own this space. The SNP government is shackled by its record—which is poor on health, education and policing—and by its obsession with holding a second referendum, which is both unpopular and for the foreseeable future unwinnable.
Ruth Davidson has made a strong start in occupying this territory—she has a bluntness that allows her to speak for most ordinary people who worry that government is not efficient enough and that the SNP’s new “rights-based” welfare system may be a very efficient way of wasting much more money in future.
Scottish Labour needs a leader who can match the eloquence, charm and humour of Davidson—in Anas Sarwar they have just such a candidate. But more importantly, in Sarwar they have a suite of centre-left policies on homes, schools and hospitals that can seize and hold the contested centre ground. If, on the other hand, the party decides to get high on tax and spending then we shall see a Conservative First Minister of Scotland in the not too distant future.