“Only Labour will unite our country” – Sarwar’s speech to the Fabian Society

Anas Sarwar

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar to the Fabian Society today:

Thank you Katherine for that introduction. And thank you to the Fabians for inviting me to address you today. In these challenging times and twenty years on from devolution, it is essential that Scotland and the UK has dedicated and independent public policy organisations to ensure the health of our democracy and policymaking to improve outcomes for our people.

As we build up to the next general election, and we offer a clear vision for the future of the British people, we need organisations like the Fabians to be part of that process. That’s why it’s fitting that I am launching Scottish Labour’s first paper on reform of Scotland and the UK at a Fabians event.

Before I outline that paper, I want to reflect on where we are as a party today. Little over one year ago, Scottish Labour was so far behind in the polls that we were in danger of being pushed into fourth place. We had suffered two of the worst election results in our history, back-to-back, and we faced a fight not only for relevance, but for survival.

We hear a lot about the ‘Red Wall’, but I constantly remind colleagues and commentators here in London – the first Red Wall to fall was Scotland. And since becoming leader, I have been clear that unless we rebuild that Wall and rebuild Scottish Labour, there won’t be a UK Labour government.

In the 2021 Scottish parliament election, we started that work. We stopped armageddon. We then took the first step from survival to relevance. The next step was relevance to credible opposition. We have done that.

Today, there is no doubt that Scottish Labour is back. In the council elections this year we returned to second place. But we don’t aspire for second place – we aspire for first place. That is our mission.

We are now leading local administrations in our capital city, Edinburgh, and in East Lothian, East Renfrewshire, Fife, Inverclyde, South Lanarkshire, Stirling, West Lothian and majority Labour-controlled West Dunbartonshire And in Glasgow, we gave Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP one hell of a fright.

But we haven’t stopped there. We are continuing the work of rebuilding this party so we can get a chance to rebuild the country for the future. Our next step is from credible opposition to credible alternative government.

I also want to reflect on our wider politics today. Last week, once again, our political debate in Scotland was dominated by talk of a second referendum. While households stared at their soaring energy bills, rising water bills, astronomical prices at the petrol pumps and steeper costs at the checkout, Nicola Sturgeon prioritised her obsession with division.

It is important to look at the context of the election last year. Over 10,000 of our fellow Scots had lost their lives due to Covid. Covid hasn’t gone away and our recovery hasn’t even started yet. Since that election when Nicola Sturgeon gave that promise, 5,000 more Scots have lost their lives, 51 in the last week, due to Covid.

The First Minister said in that campaign that those who didn’t support independence or a referendum through the recovery should vote for her, safe in the knowledge that Covid recovery would be her priority.

The truth is the pandemic Nicola we saw on our TV screens during the pandemic and who promised to pull has through has gone. She has been replaced by the partisan Nicola Sturgeon who wants to pit Scot against Scot for her own obsession.

Worse still, she has taken the “thank you” she was given from the public in last year and the promise she made to lead us through the recovery to instead pursue a referendum the vast majority of Scots do not want.

I appreciate that for people in London and across the rest of the UK another referendum seems such a strange priority for anyone in government when we face the greatest cost-of-living crisis of modern times. And it is the case that the majority of Scots believe that too. The SNP is trying to drag people back into the arguments of the past because it has no ideas for the future. The statement from Nicola Sturgeon last week was all about the next general election and – the relevance for the SNP in it.

But it won’t work. Because the SNP is not Scotland. And Scotland deserves better than their bitterness and division. Don’t fall for the trick. The SNP is not a progressive party. Just look at its record in power. There are more than 700,000 Scots on an NHS waiting list – that is one in eight Scots waiting for appointments and treatment. More than 10,000 children and young people are waiting for a mental health appointment. There are almost 20,000 fewer business in Scotland today than when the pandemic began. The highest drug deaths rate in Europe. Climate pledges broken and our NHS on its knees despite the incredible efforts of the workforce.

And to compound it all, we have a Tory Government here in Westminster that has turned a blind eye to the cost-of-living crisis that is causing pain and anguish for families from Cornwall to Shetland. A Chancellor who tinkers round the edges rather than offer real help to households. An out-of-touch Prime Minister who is a serial liar. A criminal who broke the very laws he told the rest of us to follow. A charlatan who degrades a great office of state and weakens the United Kingdom every day he clings to power.

Boris Johnson is a gift for the SNP. Every time they fail, they either shout independence or say at least not as bad as that lot over there. I shouldn’t have to say this, but sadly I do. Honesty matters. Integrity matters. Decency matters. And it is on us, the Labour party, to bring those values back to our politics.

For more than a decade, the SNP and the Tories have stoked up bitterness, division and anger – creating a politics of us versus them. But Boris Johnson is not Britain. And Nicola Sturgeon is not Scotland.

While both their parties abandon their promises and become increasingly marred in sleaze and scandal, there is new hope, energy and positivity in our politics. And it comes from the Labour Party. Only from Labour.

We are looking to the future and working to unite our country, so that we can change lives for the better. Keir Starmer has restored the credibility our party needs so that we are trusted by the British people to govern again. Keir believes, as I do, that the best days for our country, the United Kingdom and Scotland lie ahead. He has reminded everyone of the values of honesty, integrity and decency. I am proud to work with Keir, and we have a mutual recognition and respect for our roles. He will be a Prime Minister for all of the United Kingdom.

Our contract will be directly with the Scottish people. A contract for change for Scotland and whole UK for the better. Together, we are going to unite our country for change, build the future and get the Labour Party where it needs to be, in government, changing lives – with a Labour Prime Minister in Downing Street.

Because the next electoral test in the UK will be the General Election. Not another referendum. Nicola Sturgeon knows this, and she gave the game away last week. When we get to the election, an out-of-touch SNP cannot claim to be the party of change and the future. That is exactly why they have started ramping up their efforts to stoke division and are talking up the prospect of another referendum.

The reality is that the election will be a straight choice between Boris Johnson’s Tories and Labour. Labour is the only party that can replace the Tories. The SNP can only oppose Boris Johnson, but Keir Starmer and the Labour Party can replace him.

That’s why we are building a coalition of the people in Scotland and across the United Kingdom – not between parties, but a coalition for change so we can defeat the Tories. Despite what Nicola Sturgeon wants you to believe, the next election will not be Scotland v England. It will be Boris versus Britain. And Britain will win.

We know what our opponents will try to do in the next election campaign. Despite knowing it is not true, the Tories will talk up the prospect of a deal between Labour and the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon, if there’s a rare moment when she’s not talking about independence, will also talk up the prospect of working with Labour, knowing the damage that it causes.

It suits both parties to make this process story the focus of the campaign. You see, the SNP and the Tories know what they are doing. They both want to cost Labour votes – yes in Scotland, but even more votes in England. We know the Tories ruthlessly want to hold on to power. But another Tory government is precisely what the SNP wants too. Because it allows them to continue their grievance campaign.

Time after time, the Scottish government fails to take action and use its powers to tackle poverty or the problems in our public services, because, thanks to the Tories, they can pretend they are still in opposition. That, somehow, we should all be content if things are just a little bit better than they are under Boris Johnson’s Tories. All this nonsense talk of deals is straight from the Trump playbook of fake news. It does a disservice to our political debate.

I aspire for more for Scotland than “just being a wee bit better than the Tories”. That’s why the SNP fears a Labour recovery more than anything. Because we can offer hope, and change, and a credible, positive vision for our future.

So let me make one thing crystal clear today. It doesn’t matter what lies Boris Johnson tells. It doesn’t matter what Nicola Sturgeon demands. Regardless of the outcome of the next UK general election. Labour will do no deal with the SNP. No deal. No pact. No behind-closed-doors arrangement. No coalition.

At the next election, we will be fighting for every vote, and we are aiming to form a majority Labour government. Should we fall short of that and be in a position to form a minority government, the SNP will face a simple choice. It can choose to keep the Tories in power or choose to back a Labour government. And I dare Nicola Sturgeon to back the Tories and put them back in power and see how Scotland responds.

But to get to the point where the people trust us to enter government, we know that we have to set out a positive and clear vision for the future. We can’t just wait for people to believe the SNP and Tories deserve to lose. We have to deserve to win. We have to set out what change looks like under a Labour government. That work is underway, but there is a lot more to do.

It starts by recognising that there is demand for change. Not just in Scotland – but in every nation and region of the UK. Our opponents want you to believe that change can only be delivered by dividing people. Actually, we can deliver change by uniting people. Where Labour is in power, we are already delivering positive change.

In West Dunbartonshire, the Scottish Labour-led council last month unveiled a £5m plan to help residents with the cost-of-living crisis – including plans to create a household energy partnership and abolish residential care charges. In Manchester, Andy Burnham has delivered a public transport system that is already bringing fares down. In Wales, Labour led the way in supporting families struggling with rising energy bills, with a dedicated winter fuel support scheme and delivering £500 cost-of-living payments to unpaid carers.

The demand for change is as strong in Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle as it is in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen. That’s why the SNP is wrong when it says the solution is to walk away. That Westminster’s institutions are beyond repair. It’s easy for politicians to pretend that it’s only Westminster which is the problem and needs fixed.

The truth is that every layer of government in our country needs [to be] changed so that power is closer to people. For people in Lossiemouth or Stornoway, Holyrood feels as remote as Westminster does. And it’s not just about shifting powers between different parliaments. It’s about what we can do with the powers we have, and ensuring they are closer to the people.

In the coming months, Scottish Labour will be launching a series of papers outlining our vision for change for the people of Scotland. They will outline how we can strengthen Scotland in a reforming, changing, modernising UK. We will address how we deliver better government at all levels. We will explore how we make Scotland wealthier. We will promote ideas to make Scotland healthier and fairer. We will unveil plans to push powers out of our parliaments and into communities.

These papers will form Scottish Labour’s vision for change, complementing the work that Keir Starmer has asked Gordon Brown to do, exploring how we change the UK. We don’t need to divide people to offer change. And we don’t need a divisive referendum to deliver it.

So I am proud to launch the first of our papers today, starting with how to deliver better government for the UK. It demonstrates how we can put cooperation and not conflict at the heart of the United Kingdom.

Labour’s driving goal has always been to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of people. We want our institutions to work in the interests of people and communities across the country. So that’s why, for Labour, questions about constitutional reform and devolution must always be about how best to achieve social and economic justice.

This is not about devolution for devolution’s sake or some kind of political wheeze. Yes, we have to look at where power lies, but what matters more is how politicians use their power.

Our proposals are guided by the starting point that the UK is a redistributive union, which works in the interests of every community in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Together, we share wealth, risk and opportunities. And the best forms of government empower local communities and do not hoard that power in our parliaments and governments.

In Scotland, the primary function of our parliament should not be to stoke grievance, but to hold the government of the day to account and scrutinise the management of our public services. And the priority of the Scottish government should not be to find new ways to pick fights, but to take decisions in the best interests of the people of Scotland.

Our proposals set out new ways of working that will help realise this vision so that all levels of government – from Westminster, Holyrood, to local council chambers – work in the interests of the people they serve.

Labour will always be the party which champions devolution. Today, that is more important than ever when we are up against two parties that want to end it – the SNP in Edinburgh and the Tories here in London, whose leader Boris Johnson called it a “disaster”.

Devolution should not be about gamesmanship or dispute. It should be about cooperation and shared responsibility. Unfortunately, today, devolution is being undermined by bad actors – the SNP and the Tories. I acknowledge that you could have the best system in the world, but if you have bad actors on either side with a vested interest in not making it work, then good government is harder. But we can introduce change that will require more collaboration and undo the damage inflicted by the SNP and Tories.

First, we are proposing a legal duty to cooperate. This would require joint working between governments in areas of shared interest.

Secondly, we are proposing new joint governance councils – or whatever we ultimately decide to call them. They would be designed to heal the bad relationship that exists today and provide a constructive forum for dispute resolution

Too often, the current UK government keeps the Scottish government in the dark. And too often the current Scottish government deliberately seeks disagreement with the UK government. This does not lead to good governance – it undermines the union. And the Tories and the SNP do it day in, day out.

Instead, the joint governance councils we are proposing, would be set out in statute and replace the consultative joint ministerial committees which have failed and collapsed. They would be designed so that every nation operates as an equal. They would bring together the leaders of the UK and the nations on an equal footing, with a finance council to explore the economic challenges we collectively face and a trade council to unlock opportunity and growth.

The political game-playing of recent years has wounded the devolution settlement. We need these new rules of engagement to heal it.

And thirdly, we propose a fundamental change here in Westminster. The House of Lords, in its current form, as an institution has no place in 21st century politics. It is unacceptable, and has been for far too long, to have unelected representatives wielding such power. The House of Lords must be abolished and replaced with an institution which better reflects the make-up and the identity of the United Kingdom.

In calling for its abolition, we must recognise the vital role that members of the House of Lords have played as the revising chamber of the UK parliament. We shouldn’t forget that it is Labour Lords who have stopped some of the worst excesses of this Tory government.

But we need something that is more reflective of modern Britain. And which gives Scotland and other parts of the UK a greater say in UK-wide legislation.

So in our paper today, we are proposing a new Senate of the Nations and Regions. Members should be directly elected, with a mandate to represent their nation or region. And we must learn from international best practice so that our smallest regions, including those within Scotland, have a strong voice in this new institution.

This bold reform would not only deliver better governance, but ensure that those wielding power on behalf of the people are chosen by the people – and sit in an institution which better reflects the diversity of this country.

What we are proposing today is about strengthening and reforming our institutions. This will help to restore public trust, and deliver better governance for every part of the UK.

This first paper focuses on the structures and institutions across the UK. But ultimately, I recognise that parliaments, institutions and structures aren’t about politicians they are about people. For us, unlike our opponents, it’s not about what powers you have but about what you do with those powers on behalf of the people.

That’s why subsequent papers will look at how we reform the Scottish parliament and Scottish government to make it stronger and more accountable. It’s why we will look at how we strengthen local democracy, in the face of SNP centralisation and austerity, so that communities can drive economic renewal and help challenge the climate emergency. We will demonstrate how we shift the balance of justice away from protecting institutions and instead be on the side of victims and families.

Similar to calls for a Hillsborough law we will introduce Milly’s law, in recognition of Milly Main, a young child who lost her life at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, due to an infections scandal so that we deliver justice, not cover-ups. We will explore how innovation and technological advancement can help deliver modern and reformed public services, including a 21st century NHS that meets people’s needs and expectations.

Scotland needs change like this so that we can build a better future. The choice does not have to be between the SNP’s austerity independence and a status quo that is not working. Reform and modernisation of the UK has happened before under Labour, and it can happen again.

We have a positive and hopeful vision for Scotland’s future. One where local communities are supported and empowered to take decisions and deliver services that will transform lives. With a strong Scottish parliament, empowered with the purpose of achieving social and economic justice for the people. With a politics that unites people, rather than divides them. Where Scotland is an equal partner in the UK, contributing and sharing in the wealth of the UK’s resources.

The proposals we are setting out today are the start of that change and the first step as we outline our plan to work with people and communities to build the future of our country.

Only Labour will deliver the reform that our politics needs. Only Labour will end the division created by the SNP. Only Labour will boot Boris Johnson’s Tories out of government. And only Labour will unite our country.

Join us on that journey and let’s build that future, together. Thank you.

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