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JENNY HJUL: Scottish Labour fightback is down to Sarwar, not Starmer

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On the second day of the Labour Party conference, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester and a past and future leadership contender, had kind words to say about…Michael Gove.

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is “good news” for levelling up, said Burnham during a fringe meeting.

“The thing about Michael Gove is at least he does things. You may disagree with me, but he acts as a minister. He creates an agenda, and he then implements it.”

As a measure of how little impact Sir Keir Starmer has made in Brighton, his Labour rival’s endorsement of the Conservative enemy was telling.

Burnham has made no secret of his ambition to have a third go at the leadership and is the preferred choice of not only voters in general but also among the party’s own supporters, according to a poll for The Independent on the eve of the conference.

But Burnham, with his threatening northern power base and disrespect, was not the worst of Starmer’s problems this week.

On Monday, Andy McDonald, the last Corbynite in the shadow cabinet, quit over minimum wages and was later accorded hero status by the party’s Left.

Starmer’s grip on discipline had already been undermined when his deputy, Angela Raynor, refused to apologise after referring to the Tories as racist scum.

Women’s case shows a leader out of touch

In another, more worrying, sign of Starmer’s weakness, he failed to support the Labour MP Rosie Duffield who stayed away from the conference over fears of a backlash from trans activists.

Asked by Andrew Marr on Sunday if Duffield had been transphobic for saying “only women have a cervix” Starmer said her comment was “not right”.

An educated man, his denial of scientific fact suggests he has forfeited his integrity, as well as his judgement, to improve his popularity among extremists.

What are Labour women, in and out of the party, to make of such a betrayal?

Perhaps some of them attended the feminists’ meeting in Brighton, which had to be held at a secret venue under tight security.

That fact that women are being forced into underground gatherings in the modern Labour Party is a disturbing indictment of how out of touch Starmer is with the concerns of ordinary people, male or female.

When he lost Labour’s “red wall” of northern seats to the Tories in the last election, his critics said that with his right-on, London centric myopia, he didn’t understand working class voters.

How then is he going to tempt traditional Labour heartlands in Scotland away from the SNP and bring them back into the fold?

Is Scotland another lost cause for Labour?

For Starmer to have any chance of making it to Downing Street, Labour would need to win 25 seats north of the border, a report by the Scottish Fabians found last week.

That is 24 more seats than they currently have and, with Sir Keir at the helm, a seemingly impossible target.

It is clear that if he wants Scottish Labour to win elections for him, it is going to be up to Anas Sarwar to produce a miracle.

The Scottish leader has what Starmer lacks: authenticity.

But while he performed well enough in the Scottish election campaign in May, both in televised debates and on the stump, he failed to inflict much damage on the SNP on the day.

This week, in his first speech to conference since becoming leader, he warned the UK party against forming a progressive alliance with the Scottish Nationalists.

Starmer has previously hinted at such a pact, possibly with the Lib Dems and Greens, but has ruled out including Nicola Sturgeon in any deal.

Scottish Labour must focus on indy peril

Sarwar has to fight on two fronts, against the SNP at home and the Tories nationwide, and he used his speech to attack both.

Scotland, he said, was the “first red wall to fall”, but he didn’t articulate a plan to regain ground lost a generation ago, in 2007, when the Nationalists came to power.

Labour’s strategy in Scotland must focus on the constitution and the perils of independence, as well as the SNP’s record in government, which Sarwar has so far seized on to effect in Holyrood.

He must ignore the metropolitan preoccupations of Starmer and harness old Scottish Labour war horses to the cause.

He has signed up former Labour MP Brian Wilson to head up an energy commission and he can also count on the formidable skills of the shadow Scottish secretary and only Scottish Labour MP, Ian Murray, not to mention his own redoubtable deputy, Jackie Bailie.

To an SNP now bereft of talent, this could present the foundations of a daunting fightback.

But if Sarwar and his team are to give the people of Scotland “the Labour party they deserve”, as he promised, they will have to do so on their terms and without help from Starmer.