The Holyrood battle on May 6th is a “pandemic election”, Anas Sarwar has declared. That might sound like an obvious thing to say: the coronavirus crisis has been squashed down after tough lockdowns across the UK, but we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. The Scottish Labour leader is making a point, though, that explains his particular approach to the campaign. His party manifesto unveiled yesterday is not actually a manifesto at all, he says, but a “national recovery plan”. It mostly prescribes solutions for the here and now, issues made urgent by Covid, such as getting cancer treatment back on track, guaranteeing jobs to under 25s and increasing the Scottish child payment.
There are long-term ideas, too, such as a National Care Service and wholesale improvement of the social security system. But the underlying principle was neatly expressed at the launch event by Labour-supporting football commentator Archie MacPherson, who remarked that the manifesto is “almost apolitical” as its proposals simply reflect “common sense”. Who can argue with the statement that tackling child poverty should be the top priority of Scottish politicians? This is Sarwar’s focus. It is paired with the belief that Scottish Labour will appeal as “the grown-ups in the room” (as he told me during the leadership campaign). His insult to Douglas Ross, “grow up”, is carefully chosen.
Sarwar was given a bit of a grilling at the post-launch huddle with journalists. They asked: aren’t you pitching to the country as you want it to be (i.e. not overly bothered by constitutional questions), rather than as it is in reality? He came back with a somewhat surprisingly tough answer: “The political bubble is getting this election campaign wrong rather than the public.” Basically: your distortion of politics is the problem, not the priorities of voters. Sarwar says he differs from his opponents, who only want to “speak to the half of the country that agrees with them”. On the same unity theme, he is also determined to show that Scottish Labour is not simply a “central belt party” but one for every corner of Scotland, including coastal, rural and island communities.
Polling suggests that this messaging may not be able to make a difference to Scottish Labour’s fortunes before May 6th. The SNP could narrowly miss out on a majority and be reliant on the Greens, but research yesterday suggested it would be the Tories benefiting rather than Labour, despite Ross’ poor performance at debates. Trust in Scottish Labour is going up and Sarwar’s personal approval ratings are positive. This is not yet translating into votes, however, and according to Savanta ComRes the party could lose three MSPs next month. With the UK leadership also wishing for more time to allow the ‘sleaze’ stories to cut through, it appears that the May 6th elections may be coming just a few weeks too early for Labour. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.