Sarwar on Scotland: “We pretended we had a political party for ten weeks”

Sienna Rodgers

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has warned the ‘Progressive Britain’ conference today that his party’s performance on May 6th “wasn’t a good result” and said “we pretended we had a political party for ten weeks”.

Sarwar was elected to the role at the end of February, when he was tasked with rebuilding the party in Scotland following a sustained collapse in support. Holyrood elections were already set to take place ten weeks later.

He has been praised for good personal approval ratings and for results last week that were better than originally expected, but Scottish Labour nonetheless lost a net total of two seats in the Scottish parliament.

Sarwar said: “People feel good about the result in Scotland, but it actually wasn’t a good result in Scotland. The reason why people feel good about the result is because we see what could have happened and we averted an absolute disaster happening.

“We’ve got a sense of hope and optimism again. But in many ways, we pretended we had a political party for ten weeks, since I became leader, in order for us to get through the first four weeks of the parliament, to get through the six weeks of election campaign.”

Emphasising his determination to “build a party in Scotland”, Sarwar added: “I would remind people that the first Red Wall to fall was Scotland. Unless we rebuild the Scottish Red Wall, we’re not gonna have a UK Labour government.”

He said: “For too long, we’ve seemed angry with the electorate, as if we’re annoyed with them. ‘How dare you not vote for us?’ Or we look like we think we’re more intelligent than the electorate. ‘We’ve got the best ideas in the world. Are you too stupid not to vote for us?’”

The Scottish Labour leader used the ‘Progressive Britain’ event to argue that Labour has “looked like we’re lecturing working-class communities” and instead should recognise that it is “not their fault they didn’t think we were good enough”.

“Let’s not talk down to them, let’s give them something else to vote for that meets their ambition but also meets their emotional connection,” he urged. “We have got to compete on the politics of emotion as well as the politics of ideas. We don’t do it by further dividing our country.”

Sarwar also warned UK Labour members from outside of Scotland not to support the SNP. “There is nothing progressive about trying to break up the UK. There is nothing progressive about imposing… austerity,” he told the conference.

“There are so many people in England – with all due respect, I’m just going to be upfront and say it – who think one of the ways of having a go at the Tories is to side with the SNP or to talk up what the SNP are doing.”

He added: “We already have a progressive alliance – it’s called the Labour Party. Let’s call out the SNP for what they are. Let’s not do it in an angry way.

“Let’s not do it by talking down Scotland or giving them that easy get out of jail free card that somehow we think Scots aren’t able to do things themselves. Let’s do it in a positive, alternative way.

“If you want to build a progressive alliance, do it by finding progressive people and voters across the country, building an alliance that can return a UK-wide Labour government. That’s how we do it, and that’s my plea to people: don’t think the SNP are our friends.

“They want to break up the UK. They want to defeat the labour movement and the Labour Party, because they know that’s how they get independence. Don’t fall for the trap.”

Bridget Phillipson, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, offered her views on the task before the Labour Party and how the leadership should approach it.

“The challenge for us as party is not just having a perfect policy offer, but in persuading people they can trust us to deliver on it. That we don’t just have the right values, the right policies, but that we’re trusted and credible, we can do it and deliver it.”

She said she was more interested in looking ahead than at the 2017, 2019 or 1997 manifestos, reflecting comments made by Keir Starmer at the conference, as he said the new policy review would not use past manifestos as a basis.

Talking about Labour’s election victory in 1997, Phillipson said: “It was then written that there’d been a realignment in British politics and the Tories would never win again. And yet here we are right now, with a Tory government with a whopping great majority.

“We’ve got a big job ahead. 2019 was a terrible election for us. But I’m confident that in Keir Starmer people see someone who could be the Prime Minister of our country.”

Sarwar concluded the event by telling viewers that there is no “silver bullet policy” that can lead Labour to electoral success and “there is no quick constitutional fix that resolves all of our problems”.

He argued that Labour can win by being “authentic” with “energy, ideas, emotion, getting out there, empathy, unity and giving people hope”, adding: “We do it by being ourselves and not looking inwards.”

Labour organisation Progress, which was founded in 1996 to support Tony Blair’s leadership, relaunched today as ‘Progressive Britain’. This has brought it together with think tank Policy Network, of which Peter Mandelson is president.

“We think that Labour and the centre-left require fundamental reconstruction. We have to stop taking for granted that voters will stick with Labour because of ancestral loyalties,” its launch statement read.

“Labour’s continuing difficulties are not because it has changed too much, but because it hasn’t changed enough to respond to the social and economic challenges that face the country and the wider world.”

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