Anas Sarwar has been elected to lead the Scottish Labour Party. His win is a boost for Keir Starmer—but promises further disaster for Labour in Scotland.
Sarwar’s win is being celebrated by the right, with Progress—the hard right faction of the Labour Party—hailing it as “excellent news.”
It is also more evidence of the rout of the left in the party—Sarwar beat the left’s candidate Monica Lennon, with 57.56 percent of the total votes cast. And it shows that Scottish Labour’s few remaining members are opposed to a second referendum on Scottish independence.
The question of whether to back a second independence referendum was the central dividing line in the leadership contest. And Scottish Labour’s refusal to back independence is at the heart of its deep, prolonged crisis.
Labour’s support in Scotland collapsed after the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014.
Working class people saw independence as an opportunity to break from the austerity and poverty of Westminster governments’ rule.
But Scottish Labour put the unity of the British state first, and wheeled out former prime minister Gordon Brown to line up with the Tories in a right wing campaign against independence.
In a long arc beginning with revulsion against Tony Blair and the Iraq war, it has gone from being a dominant party in Scottish politics to now having only one Westminster MP.
Sarwar is also Scottish Labour’s fifth leader since the referendum. His election comes as support for a second referendum is growing in Scotland.
In the campaign, Lennon said Labour should support a second referendum, but only support more devolved powers for the Scottish government rather than independence. Sarwar opposed a second referendum outright.
The right will say his victory shows Labour supporters oppose independence—and proves that Labour shouldn’t back it.
In Labour leadership elections, members and “affiliated supporters”—mostly trade unionists—vote separately. Lennon won very marginally among affiliated supporters, with 50.64 percent.
But Sarwar won overwhelmingly among Scottish Labour members, with 61.21 percent over Lennon’s 38.75 percent.
Yet the size of Scottish Labour’s membership is shrinking drastically. Figures leaked earlier this month showed it has just 16,467 members. That’s down from 25,836 in 2018 and 35,309 when previous leader Richard Leonard was elected in 2017.
Leonard was seen as a left wing leader, aligned to former British party leader Jeremy Corbyn. But Leonard and Corbyn also refused to back independence.
As a result, Labour’s membership in Scotland did not get the massive growth in membership that Corbyn’s leadership caused in the rest of Britain.
Instead Scottish Labour’s membership continued to shrink—which gave the right the opportunity to attack him.
In his victory speech, Sarwar had to admit that Scottish Labour “has a lot of work to do to win back” support. “You haven’t had the Scottish Labour Party you deserve,” he said.
Yet he insisted on Labour’s refusal to back a second referendum. “For too long politicians have presented binary choices, whether it’s Yes or No, Leave or Remain,” he said. “They have forced you to pick a side. We can’t go back to those old arguments.”
Instead he promised to focus on “what unites our country, not what divides us” and said he wanted to create “a better future for Scotland.”
Yet the right backed Sarwar over Lennon because he represents a return to the old politics. Instead of a “better future”, Sarwar promises a Scottish Labour Party aligned to the British State and the status quo.