What the rise of Annas Sarwar reveals about the state of Scottish politics

The winds of change are blowing through Scottish politics. After more than a decade of dominance, in both Holyrood and the Scottish seats of Westminster, a sense of unease is building within the Scottish National Party (SNP). If the Supreme Court’s ruling on the second independence referendum was an expected, if difficult, disaster — then the recent controversy over a transgender prisoner has proved both unexpected and deeply politically charged. Domestic critics argue that the war has sapped the momentum of Scotland’s latest independence push.

All this is combined with constant whispers about Nicola Sturgeon’s own future. The changing of the SNP guard at Westminster, which saw Stephen Flynn (34) and Black (28) oust Ian Blackford (61) and Kirsten Oswald (50) as group leader and deputy respectively, created perhaps ominous problems. While some SNP supporters may find the end of the world easier to imagine than the end of Sturgeon, Flynn has already given some not-so-subtle hints that the SW1 arm of nationalism will operate more independently in the future.

Electoral shares for the SNP have increased significantly in recent months following the revival of Scottish Labor under leader Annas Sarwar. Buoyed by rising poll numbers, the 39-year-old wants to turn the SNP’s identity crisis into one of total survival.

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It has been a long time since Scottish Labor felt optimistic. In the 2015 general election Labor was elected just one MP north of the border. The SNP steamrollered another 56 seats, setting the stage for a still largely unchallenged nationalist surge in Westminster.

Scottish Labor also felt the pain at Holyrood. It has not held the post of First Minister since 2007, and under the leadership of Kezia Dugdale and Corbynite Richard Leonard, the party has at times dipped below 13% of the Holyrood election vote. When Leonard steps down as Scottish Labor leader in 2021, just 10 weeks from the Holyrood election, polling suggests the party is set to finish a disappointing fourth.

After being succeeded by Leonard, Sarwar catalysed a brief revival of Scottish Labour’s fortunes. Bucking the tide of Labour’s sickening support, Sarwar saw his party finish third in the 2021 Holyrood election, with 21.6% of the constituency’s vote.

To be sure, Sarwar’s ascension was not from complete obscurity—rather unlike Stephen Flynn’s millennial compatriot. He is the son of Mohammed Sarwar, the UK’s first Muslim MP, and an MP at Westminster, serving variously as deputy leader of Scottish Labor before becoming shadow minister and even leader under Ed Miliband. But it is only now that Sarwar has truly established a reputation across the UK.

Under Sarwar, Scottish Labor experienced something of a renaissance, alienating anti-independence swing voters disillusioned with the Conservatives’ performance at Westminster and dissatisfied with the Scottish leadership provided by Douglas Ross.

A recent survey of Westminster voting intentions showed Scottish Labor increasing their fortunes by 31%, easily ahead of the Scottish Conservatives by 15% and slowly but surely, the SNP taking over the juggernaut.

Sarwar’s Shadow Culture Minister Faisal Chowdhury MSP, at Holyrood, credited Anas’ “courageous and innovative leadership” for the comeback. Speaking to Political.co.uk, he said Sarwar was “dedicated to innovating the way we work so that the Scotland of the future is not stuck in the same perpetual crisis as we are under this SNP government”.

“[Under Sarwar, Scottish Labour is] Introducing concrete plans that will help transform Scotland’s future and tackle the problems our victims are facing, from the NHS crisis to the cost-of-living crisis”, Chowdhury added.

However, the party is still some distance from the dominant SNP. But Scottish Labor figures claim that nationalism’s tough stance on independence presents an opportunity ready to be exploited.

The party is increasingly comfortable with the “national question”, thanks in part to the work of Gordon Brown’s Constitutional Commission. The publication of Gordon Brown’s report on the UK constitution saw Labor pushing a “third way” on Scotland and, apparently, Sarwar was front and center in introducing the proposal.

Brown’s report offered a “legally binding” replacement for the Sewell Convention, the idea that parliamentarians should only legislate across the demarcated area with the express consent of Holyrood; giving Holyrood additional foreign affairs powers; extended consultation on devolution for Holyrood; and a “cohesion clause” requiring every UK government to work together. The commitment to a “Senate of Nations” upper house, first supported by Sarwar last summer, would prove a significant constitutional innovation.

So with the SNP planning to run the next general election as a “de facto” indyref2, Scottish Labor may feel ready to move past economic woes and challenge Sturgeon on his own turf.

The rest of the challenge

Despite Brown’s evolutionary initiatives, one potential scar of Scottish Labor’s revival under Sarwar is the socio-political tension surrounding the “gender” question. Back in December, 18 of Labour’s 22 MSPs backed the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, although the party expressed its preference for some rejected amendments.

The passage of the bill led to Scotland’s Secretary of State Alastair Jack issuing a section 35 order to block the legislation, causing SNP MSPs to become almost furious. A legal battle with the British government now looks set to derail the legislation and Scottish Labor will not emerge unscathed. Keir Starmer’s intervention in the debate, in which he expressed “concerns about Scotland’s provisions, particularly the lowering of the age to 16”, gave the Scottish party only the old-fashioned reason for the return of UK Labour’s “branch office”. Sarwar later defended Starmer for not falling into the “Tory trap”.

Another problem could be Brexit. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, a fact the SNP is at pains to exploit. In contrast, UK Labor adopted the language of Brexit, largely uncritically accepting Britain’s departure from the EU. Although Starmer has argued for a step-by-step, issue-by-issue approach to UK-EU relations, the acceptance of Brexit potentially locks Sarwar into a position that is still deeply unpopular in Scotland.

Sarwar will need to overcome such problems if he is to transform Scottish Labor from a distant second to an outright front runner.

But Sarwar makes no secret of his ambitions. He argued vociferously that Scotland was Labour’s real “red wall”, and set his sights on building brick-and-mortar fortresses. It will naturally take some time before Labor can reassert itself as the voice of the Scottish people — a position it once enjoyed unchallenged. But a renewed sense of optimism under Sarwar, with poll numbers finally pointing in the right direction, may be able to open an important new front for Labor in 2024.

A small but significant manifestation of Scottish Labour’s wider optimism is that parliamentary candidate selection in Scotland is once again interesting. On February 12, the seat of East Lothian will elect a candidate for 2024 with former cabinet minister Douglas Alexander in the front running. The returning Alexander, at least, thinks that the Scottish Labor Party is the new challenger.

However, Sarwar’s rise is significant beyond his party’s electoral prospects. For him and Flynn, Scotland has a new generation of leaders. Of course, both still have a lot to prove and Sturgeon’s more flamboyant critics would be wrong to suggest that his end is near. But an auld cycle in Scottish politics, where political isolation is almost indefinitely generational, is turning anew.

The unstoppable rise of Millennium Flynn and Sarwar will now put Sturgeon’s Scottish dominance under combined generational pressure.