Anas Sarwar: SNP grievance thrives on a strong Tory party – so let’s build up Labour across every part of Britain

7th July, 2017 2:00 pm

We can’t elect a Labour government across the UK unless we elect a significant number of Labour MPs in Scotland.

So anyone who believes in progressive politics across the UK needs to care about the fate of the Labour party in Scotland.

Sadly, our politics in Scotland is still framed by constitutional questions. How does Labour break out of that?

Some argue that Labour should just opt out of the independence debate and take a neutral stance on it. I strongly disagree. I don’t think we’d be forgiven for doing that. How could we persuade the public that we are a credible movement for change that is ready for government if we aren’t able to state a view on Scotland’s biggest and most divisive question?

Instead, we should be firm that we are a pro-UK party. That is a position that speaks to our Labour traditions and values of unity, solidarity and equality. We are internationalists not nationalists.

We have lost Labour voters who believe that we have not been strong enough on this issue. We must win them back. But that is not enough.

We also need to recognise that Labour in Scotland can’t win an election unless we build a coalition of support that goes beyond the yes versus no divide.

Not everyone who voted yes in 2014 is a nationalist. Not everyone who voted SNP in 2015 and 2016 is a nationalist. There are progressives who believed that the only chance for transformative change was a yes vote and that the only hope on offer was independence. I would argue that that was wrong and that what the SNP offered them was not real hope, but the illusion of hope.

But the general election has shifted the political sands again. Scotland has clearly rejected another independence referendum. Indyref2 is dead. Not because Nicola Sturgeon has backtracked, but because the Scottish people have killed it.

There is now quicker, better and bolder change on offer and that will come in the form of a radical Labour government across the whole of the UK.

As we reach a decade of SNP government in Scotland, it is clear that they are not the progressive party that some in the Labour party in England mistake them for.

The SNP take a different position and tone in Westminster – where they have no power – from the decisions they actually make in power in Holyrood.

They say they oppose austerity on UK stage, yet impose austerity in Scotland. They take a Tory cut, treble it and hand it down to local councils.

They support progressive taxation in Westminster but oppose it in Scotland – where we now set our own income tax rates.

They support breaking the public sector pay cap in England and Wales, but voted it down for NHS workers in Scotland.

The problem for Nicola Sturgeon is that the mask has slipped.

People now see through her party’s spin and see a leader and a party that is so obsessed with independence alone that they are managing the decline of our vital public services and hampering life chances.

Therein lies the path back to government for Scottish Labour – radical, progressive, re-distributive and relevant both in Scotland and across the UK.

What has also become clear is that a strong Tory party across the UK means a strong SNP in Scotland. A strong Tory party is what their grievance thrives on.

But a strong Labour party across the UK means a weak SNP in Scotland and a strong Labour party in Scotland.

So what do we do? First, we have to have consistency on the constitution so we don’t have to spend another entire election campaign persuading people that we support the UK. That should be a given that then allows us to focus on the policies.

Second, we need to continue to expose 10 years of SNP mismanagement and failure.

On health, for example, cancer waiting times are on the rise, health inequality widening, Life expectancy is falling and there are numbers of vacancies and low staff morale.

On education, tens of thousands of college places have been cut and more than half of children leave school with less than adequate literacy and numeracy skills. Despite all the SNP’s rhetoric, if you are from a poorer background you are less likely to go to university if you live in Scotland than if you live in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

And on the economy, which in Scotland is on the brink of recession, burdened with uncertainty and growth lagging behind the rest of the UK.

But third, and most importantly, we need to have a policy platform that reaches out to voters – a credible and radical programme for government with fair and progressive taxation at its heart, ensuring those who can afford to pay more do so.

We can appeal with a programme for government built around fair pay and worker’s rights, scrapping of the public sector pay cap which has seen worker’s incomes eroded and a real living wage in the private sector.

We can appeal too with policies for an NHS which rejects privatisation, is fully funded, that gets to grips with the workforce crisis and that is rebuilt to cope with the health challenges of future generations and an education system that delivers for the global market, not just now, but for the world in 20, 30 and 40 years.

Finally, we have to persuade people that a Labour government in Scotland matters. We need to pledge that we will use the powers we have to tackle the problems we face now and that Labour will be not just a beacon for change in Scotland, but a beacon for progressive change across the UK.

Anas Sarwar MSP speaks at the Fabian Society’s summer conference, Path to Power, tomorrow in London. Tickets are available here.        

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