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Anas Sawar

Anas Sawar speaking at conference. Photo: Flickr – Scottish Labour / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article.

The promise of radical transformation in Scotland will not come from inside Scottish Labour, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica.

On 27 February, Scottish Labour announced its leadership election results. Anas Sarwar, the candidate of the right, took 57.56 percent of the total vote to win.

Sarwar beat Monica Lennon, the left wing candidate, in the battle to succeed former leader Richard Leonard.

The vacancy arose in January after wealthy party donors demanded Leonard’s resignation in a meeting with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, as revealed by The Times.

These events came on the back of a coup attempt by several Labour MSPs in September 2020 and the resignation of the party’s general secretary, communications director and deputy general secretary in December 2020 and January 2021.

Disappointingly for many on the party’s left, Leonard appeared unwilling to fight his corner.

Turnout is understood to have been at 42.44 percent this year, compared with 62.3 percent in November 2017 when Leonard was elected, on the back of Jeremy Corbyn’s strong showing in the June general election that year.

Decline

It is clear that enthusiasm for Scottish Labour is now very low even in its own ranks. The party has been in visible decline since 2007, when it first lost a Scottish parliamentary election to the SNP. Its role in defeating the ‘YES’ campaign in the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 proved to its final, pyrrhic victory.

By joining forces with the Tories, the party entered a period of severe decline. It was all but wiped out in the 2015 UK general election. Despite a slight bump in its support in the 2017 election under Corbyn, the party failed to recover as it remained wedded to deeply unpopular policies and stances.

Its unionist rhetoric, commitment to Trident, and inability to shake off its Blair-era top brass in Holyrood and at municipal level meant it ultimately looked hopelessly out of step in Scotland.

And Sarwar himself refuses to draw any lessons. Sarwar presents himself as a Brownite, a follower of the former British PM Gordon Brown, a key architect of Labour strategy in the 2014 Indy referendum.

Indeed, Sarwar stood as the candidate who opposes another Scottish independence referendum, unlike Lennon, who was also against independence but at least correctly argued that if a mandate existed in Scotland for another referendum, Westminster should not stop one.

Days after this election, Sarwar indicated the direction of travel of Scottish Labour by referring to nine suspended councillors in Aberdeen – who had been suspended after entering a coalition with the Tories in May 2017 – as ‘still part of the party’ and ‘doing a good job’.

Sarwar will now hope that the party’s overall federal solution to the UK’s constitutional crisis and democratic gap will help differentiate Labour from the SNP and the Tories in the Holyrood elections in May 2021.

He will also desperately wish that the feud between current First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and former FM and SNP leader Alex Salmond will allow Scottish Labour a bounce in May 2021 at the SNP’s expense.

Promises that Labour’s radical manifesto pledges will be kept under Sarwar will prove as much of a mirage as when Starmer made the same claims last year when he ran for leadership. This is nothing more than window-dressing.

The Scottish party will now follow UK Party’s sharp turn to the right which started with the election of Sir Keir Starmer.

Dead end

Rather than taking on the Tories, Starmer has been preoccupied with smashing the positions of the left in the party.

He has managed to suspend his left wing predecessor, Corbyn, from the Parliamentary Labour Party on entirely false accusations of anti-Semitism.

Starmer’s main policy platforms, meanwhile, have been to emphasise his differences with the left. He insisted on slogans like the vacuous ‘a new leadership’. He has outflanked the Tories to the right on the return to schools in summer 2020 and more recently on corporation tax in late February 2021.

In recent days, Labour has also underlined an unprecedentedly enthusiastic defence of Trident renewal.

Overall, Starmer and Sarwar represent the return of the right that ran Labour before Corbyn and that is responsible for neoliberal policies at home and imperialist foreign policy abroad.

The road to transformative policies through Labour as represented by Corbyn’s leadership is surely definitively dead in Scotland too.

Looking forward

Many on the left will consider their position in Scottish Labour over the next months. But it would be tragic if they decided to leave politics altogether.

The hope for transformative change is still open and the road to it lies in extra-parliamentary struggles like the British Gas workers’ strike against fire and rehire.

Moreover, the SNP’s neoliberal vision of an independent Scotland is hardly inspiring. The heavily working class protests, led by All under One Banner (AOUB), over the last few years and the birth of a new pro-independence organisation on the back of this called Now Scotland, suggests that openings exist for the kind of exciting vision offered in 2014 by the likes of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC).

There is now a space for the left inside and outside Labour to coordinate and campaign in Scotland. We should seize this chance.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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