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View from the Street: Inside Sarwar’s Big Tent: Policy Issues That Could Bring it Crashing Down

A big red tent with the word

Fergus Mcgowan

Fergus McGowan

Senior client manager

There is an air of excitement in a section of Scottish politics that has long looked glum and disregarded. A party that until not long ago was gripped by Corbynism, basked in the glory of miner strikes and shirked from any credible economic policy. How far they have come since then. Under the leadership of Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour has been made anew and there is now a realistic path to the office of Scottish first minister.

However, with recent polling success, Sarwar and Scottish Labour chiefs face a fresh obstacle: keeping a new and more diverse voter base happy. This is Sarwar’s big tent challenge.

The big tent epithet has mostly been associated with the SNP: a coalition of voices from left and right all focused on one goal, constitutional change. This union of votes secured them – at least – 19 years of government.  However, with the two main parties of Holyrood haemorrhaging votes to Scottish Labour, Sarwar has become the great consolidator, providing a haven for voters whose views on the constitution, economy, social issues and business are widely divergent.

Sarwar must appeal to young and old. Urban and rural. Yes and No. Pro-business and pro-environment.  Thus far, he has done well. But this tent of I-will-probably-vote-Labour-next-time is a more fragile coalition.  Under the SNP, the single issue of the constitution held discipline until the Alex Salmond trial.

And there are already clear dividing lines under the red canvas.

First, there is an ongoing battle for Labour’s position on oil and gas. London hopes to safeguard its green credentials not allowing any further exploration licences.

This, and Keir Starmer’s plans for a windfall tax, have gone down badly with business groups, and like a choked pipe in the north-east where so much of the economy is dependent on oil and gas. Indeed, Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce highlighted a new report which said up to 100,000 jobs could be put at risk by Labour’s stance. Any north-east voters in the tent? Please exit now.

Second, many Scottish Labour MPs and MSPs have taken a more nuanced stance on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, aware that views in Scotland differ slightly to England. But how far can Sarwar distance himself from Starmer without confusing voters? Is he loyal or independent? Practical or principled?  This weekend protestors will gather at Labour conference in Glasgow to ensure that he sees and hears the anger of many ordinary Scots. Navigating this challenge will truly be a test of his personal brand and electability.

Third, Scottish Labour is focused on the easiest path to more Scottish seats at Westminster: the central belt. Sarwar’s electoral strategy focuses on dense urban areas and in the process has forgotten rural Scotland. On the eve of conference the Scottish party has yet to announce more than one candidate for rural Scotland. Sarwar and his team have pitched themselves as the change that Scotland needs. But, for Labour does that need extend across the whole country?

Add in a pinch of gender reform (yes, Labour voted for the proposals too) and a side salad of I-am-not-really-sure-about-Keir-Starmer, and a rammy could break out in the tent at any time. Will the prize of power at Westminster and Holyrood be enough to keep the tent together? This weekend is another key test.