Where now for Scottish Labour?

The process has begun for Scottish Labour to find yet another leader in Scotland, their fifth in a decade, a remarkable feat for a party that once dominated the Scottish political landscape.

The clear frontrunner for the post is Anas Sarwar, the party’s constitution spokesperson, who has received the backing of most of his MSP colleagues. Sarwar, beaten by Richard Leonard for the leadership four years ago, will face off against Monica Lennon, who nominated Richard Leonard during that very same leadership contest. Lennon currently has the support of four MSPs.

It could be argued that Sarwar would represent the safer option for the party. An articulate and effective debater, Sarwar has served the party well at both Holyrood and Westminster, and has the name recognition and experience to lead Scottish Labour as the country heads towards the polls.

Meanwhile, Monica Lennon could be viewed as the continuity Leonard candidate and a case of changing the messenger rather than the message. Nonetheless, she has impressed in parliament, most notably as a period poverty campaigner, which helped ensure that Scotland became the first country in the world to provide free sanitary products.

The new leader will be announced on 27th February following a truncated contest in the run up to the Holyrood elections. If the country does indeed go to the polls in May, and that remains an if, the new leader has their work cut out trying to re-establish Scottish Labour as a credible political force once again.

In the immediate term, the objective must be to leapfrog the Scottish Conservatives to become the main opposition party; and from there, they ought to build towards becoming the alternative governing party. However, that cannot proceed before the party takes a clear and unambiguous line on the constitution.

But we have been here before: Kezia Dugdale attempted to shift the party beyond tiresome debates on the constitution and steer a middle course between separation and the status quo. She spoke of a federalised Britain and a new Act of Union but that failed to reap any electoral dividends. Instead, Dugdale ended up digging through fish guts on I’m a Celebrity.

Fish innards aside, perhaps that leads to a more fundamental question: what exactly is the point of Scottish Labour?

It is clear what Scotland’s two main political parties stand for. The SNP, a left-leaning catch-all party, offers voters social democracy through distributing funds from HM Treasury, while simultaneously lambasting Westminster and banging the drum for independence. The Scottish Conservatives, right-leaning and resolutely unionist, will continue to reject any notion of separatism or giving the green light for a second independence referendum.

Where does that leave Scottish Labour?

Do they accede ground to the nationalists, pushing the ill-defined and little understood ‘Devo Max’ concept while acquiescing on demands for second independence referendum, all in an attempt to claw back some soft indy supporting voters from the SNP? Such an approach would fail to impress voters who lent their votes to Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives in 2016, partly as a consequence of their resolute and firm support of the Union.

Instead of a diluted version of Scottish nationalism, Scottish Labour could focus on the issues that most concern voters at the present time: the Covid-19 vaccination roll-out, protecting jobs and livelihoods, and building back better to ensure a fairer and prosperous Scotland. Unlike the Scottish Conservatives, they don’t have the baggage of an unpopular Westminster leader holding them back.

Whoever becomes Scottish Labour’s new leader needs to find a clear and consistent position on the Union, as well as defining what their party stands for in 21st Century Scotland.