The Scottish Election: Defining the Difference

In the second article for the Young Scottish Fabians' election takeover, Milad Sherzad makes the case for Anas Sarwar to define the difference between Scottish Labour, the SNP, and Tory Unionism

The SNP, a single-issue party in disguise, has been the dominant political power in Scotland for a decade now and may be on track for a majority government at this election. Nicola Sturgeon and her party have been, for the most past, heavily praised for their response to the Coronavirus pandemic and yet somehow many SNP supporters find themselves distancing from the First Minister, unable to commit themselves as vehemently, as she is, to a second referendum on Scottish Independence. Could this be a spark for the turning point for those traditional Labour voters, that had switched allegiance to the SNP in the decade prior, to float back to Anas Sarwar and his revitalised Scottish Labour? Well, the answer is complicated.

The union will forever be a touchy subject in Scotland and has been especially so since the EU referendum in 2016. This will always be a hindrance towards Scottish Labour as, currently, the main difference to a left of centre voter, between the SNP and Labour, is their position on the union. If Sarwar cannot create a new identity for Labour and distance the party from the similar socially democratic views of the SNP, how can he expect voters to switch? While yes, he has the charisma to win over undecided and fresh voters, the real uphill battle is winning back these SNP supporters. This target group are individuals that are satisfied with their SNP MSP and with the general leadership of Sturgeon and her handling of the pandemic, but do not currently wish to hold another independence referendum. These voters need to see a Scottish Labour that isn’t scared to challenge Sturgeon deeply on her values and one that can truly differ from the SNP on an opinion other than unionism. So far, Sarwar has successfully challenged the First Minister’s leadership and has begun to frame Scottish Labour as a more responsible and relevant party. However, much work is still to be done on defending the union.

It will always be difficult to argue for a present system when there is a referendum on it, case in point the UK voting to leave the EU; for those unhappy with the SNP, Sturgeon’s leadership, and a potential independence referendum, the Tories seem a far more attractive choice than Labour: their views on the union are far stronger and they are less engulfed by factional infighting. What Sarwar can do, though, is distance himself from the Conservative Party and their traditional union views; by advocating for tactically increased devolution,  Labour can build itself a fresh sphere by which to influence Scottish Politics and hopefully grind down the SNPs near-inevitable majority. On top of this, he must also emphasise Labour’s roots in the working class in order to overturn many former Labour seats. If he allows the party to float too close to centrism, all definition of the party, from its opponents, will disappear, along with the party's electoral hopes.

Ultimately, Sarwar will make up ground this election, but he has the potential to cement Scottish Labour’s future by defining the difference between his party, the SNP, and Tory Unionism. If we do not see him do this, if he fails to attract former SNP voters at this election, and fails to reconnect with the working class, the future of Scottish Labour looks ever more dim.


Milad Sherzad is and economics and politics student at the University of Edinburgh with a keen interest in transport policies and international relations. Milad tweets at @milad_sherzad

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