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5 issues facing Scottish Labour as Anas Sarwar leads party conference

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar and UK chief Sir Keir Starmer meet in Glasgow this weekend knowing they have a mountain to climb in returning their party to previous successes.

Politicians, activists and members are gathering at the city’s Royal Concert Hall between Friday and Sunday, hoping to hear policies and plans to take on the SNP at Holyrood and Tories at Westminster.

Mr Sarwar, one year into the job, is lining up eye-catching proposals for free residential care for over 65s, but he also has to make a mark before this May’s council elections.

Here are five key issues facing the party:

1. Need to get votes beyond the central belt

If Mr Sarwar wants Labour to regain power in Holyrood, the party will vastly need to improve its fortunes outside the central belt.

While Labour have lost plenty of ground across all of Scotland in the past decade, Glasgow and the west of Scotland is where they continue to perform strongest.

The party lost their only MSP in the Highlands and Islands region in last year’s election as they slumped below 10% in the list vote.

Elsewhere, they were only able to get 11.4% in the north-east with support in Scotland’s more rural areas for the party remaining low.

Speaking on The Stooshie – the politics podcast from DC Thomson – he accepted there’s no route to Bute House without winning in places like the north-east.

2. Council election hopes

Anas Sarwar will be keen to make his mark as party leader by helping boost Labour’s fortunes in May’s council elections.

Under the leadership of Kezia Dugdale Labour lost over 100 councillors across Scotland with many local authorities swinging to the SNP and Tories.

More of the same just won’t cut it.”

– Anas Sarwar

The upcoming local government ballot will be a key indicator as to whether Mr Sarwar’s leadership is moving Labour in the right direction.

Ahead of the conference, party chair Cara Hilton said: “These elections are a real opportunity for us to make the positive case for Scottish Labour and elect local champions up and down the country.”

Maureen Devlin, who chairs the association of Labour councillors, said: “The pandemic has only served to underline the crucial role that Labour councillors can play in building a fairer Scotland.”

But Labour could find themselves struggling to gain power in many councils after Mr Sarwar ruled out any coalition deals in January.

Currently his party works alongside the SNP in a number of local authorities and in 2017 nine Labour councillors controversially struck a deal with the Tories in Aberdeen.

3. Cutting through on the constitution

The Scottish independence debate has been a constant headache for Scottish Labour in recent years, costing them voters on both sides of the divide.

Since the 2014 vote in favour of the UK, the party has struggled to win back left-wing independence supporters who would have traditionally backed Labour.

But the Tories have also regularly attacked them with accusations Labour are too soft on opposing independence and not strong enough when it comes to backing the union.

With Anas Sarwar ensuring the party remains avidly against independence, he will need to hope his policies can cut through with any disillusioned SNP and Green voters.

And Labour will be hoping some pro-unionist Tory voters can be tempted to back them in the wake of Boris Johnson’s Covid lockdown breaches.

Ahead of the conference, he said: “More of the same just won’t cut it. The same old arguments won’t change anything.”

4. A ‘jobs first’ approach

Mr Sarwar believes Scotland must focus on a “jobs first” approach in Scotland’s north-east as the country moves away from fossil fuels.

The Scottish Labour leader has previously said measures introduced to tackle climate change must support workers in the oil and gas sectors.

Sir Keir Starmer
Sir Keir Starmer

He also wants to see a focus on creating new “green jobs” in the renewables sector.

The party launched a national recovery plan for jobs last spring ahead of the 2021 election with the aim of ensuring everyone who is able to work has the offer of employment.

5. Signs of a funding boost

On the eve of the conference, Mr Sarwar claimed that the party has raised £1 million in donations since he took up his post as leader.

The figure represents a major jump from the mere £250 raised in 2019 when Richard Leonard was in charge.

Mr Sarwar said he believes increased financial support for the party showed a “level of competence and credibility”.

But he will need to prove to donors he can use their money to rebuild the party and win votes.

Listen to our exclusive interview with Anas Sarwar on The Stooshie podcast here: