As members and delegates form a bustling queue to get into the main hall of the Scottish Labour conference on Friday afternoon to see Anas Sarwar’s speech, one delegate jokes about how busy the room is: “Who’s speaking now, Nicola Sturgeon?”
With the conference taking place in the same week as the First Minister’s shock announcement that she will step down after eight years at the head of Scottish politics, she was always likely to be the star in absentia.
But figures from across the party are keen to stress that Labour will not recover the ground it has lost here in the last decade by simply “sitting back and watching a battle for power within the SNP,” as Keir Starmer puts it in his speech on Sunday, which draws the event and the most turbulent week in Scottish politics for some time to a close .
Immediately before Sarwar takes the stage, the PA system blasts out the somewhat obscure John Mayer song, Back to You, the chorus of which states: “it always comes around, back to you”. A tongue-in-cheek nod, perhaps, to the hope that Scottish voters may well soon return ‘home’ to Labour under his leadership.
Sarwar - a seemingly universally popular leader who many credit with restoring the party’s reputation over his two years in charge - lays out a few eye-catching policies in his keynote speech, including a pledge to introduce an “Amazon tax” which is somewhat light on detail but will likely prove popular. Equally interesting - though perhaps more potentially troublesome - is the promise to introduce £1 homes. Sarwar will make up to 27,000 empty homes in Scotland available to purchase for £1 and provide state-backed loans for buyers to restore them “into homes that will be lived in and loved”.
The second policy in particular feels like something that Starmer’s Westminster party would not touch with a barge-pole, for fear of being criticised as too pie-in-the-sky. That Scottish Labour see winning back progressive voters from the SNP as one of their main tasks on the route to government leaves much more leftward space to operate in, which is apparent from the tone of Sarwar’s speech.
In one of his strongest lines, Sarwar says that every vote for either the SNP or the Tories is “a vote to block change,” a reminder that he will have to take on both parties to complete the mammoth task of securing Bute House in 2026. Pointing to the failures of administrations run by both parties will no doubt be a potent feature of Labour’s messaging here.
Renewed role for Scottish Office under Starmer
After a night of celebrations on Friday, with members, staffers and the odd MSP enjoying first the hospitality of the Kimpton hotel and later a nearby piano bar until the wee hours, the main hall is slightly more subdued for shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray’s speech on Saturday.
Murray promises that a Labour government in Westminster would restore the Scottish Office’s role as a “strong voice around the cabinet table” and a “shop window to the world”. His criticism of the current administration for not leading international trade missions, and pledge to “promote our great nation to every corner of the planet” seems to slightly contradict his jibes at SNP culture secretary “air miles Angus Robertson” for being “too busy swigging back champagne launching Scottish embassies in foreign capitals”.
And where Sarwar focused more on positive messaging, Murray deals a bit more directly with some of the most likely candidates to replace Sturgeon. Finance secretary Kate Forbes, who has since confirmed she will run for the leadership, was accused of allowing “scarce resources to be spent on legal challenges and referendum prep,” while “the worst health secretary of the devolution era,” Humza Yousef, also does not escape Murray’s ire.
As Labour’s only MP in Scotland currently, it remains to be seen whether he would actually keep hold of his brief should Labour manage to take back many of the seats it has lost north of the border at the next election. Some believe it could be Douglas Alexander, the party’s recently-announced candidate for East Lothian and a former minister who served under Blair and Brown, who may actually end up leading Murray’s promised trade missions.
Yousef formally announces his candidacy on Saturday night, which comes as no surprise to anyone at the conference. For several people in Labour, Yousef is the preferred choice to take over from Sturgeon, while Forbes is viewed by many as a potentially more challenging opponent than any of the other frontrunners.
‘No deal under any circumstances’
Aside from the talk of SNP leadership contenders, chatter at the conference on Sunday is centred around recent polling and an op-ed in the Sun on Sunday by polling doyen John Curtice, which notes that a five-point swing to Labour could see the party increase its MPs in Scotland from 1 to 16 at the next election.
A much-touted YouGov poll released days earlier, puts Labour just two points behind the SNP in Scotland, with further analysis by pollsters suggesting this would result in Labour being the biggest party, with as many as 30 seats to the SNP’s 21. Thought to be more realistic is the Scotsman’s Savanta poll, which has Labour on 32% and the SNP down just one point since mid-December, on 42%.
With Labour maintaining a lead over the Conservatives in UK-wide polling for some time now, Starmer will be quietly encouraged by developments in Scotland, where the departure of Sturgeon is considered likely to benefit his party to a much greater extent than Douglas Ross’ Conservatives.
It was perhaps with this in mind that a visibly relaxed Starmer took to the stage on Sunday to deliver one of his better speeches so far as Labour leader. Again, the difference in tone when Starmer addresses a primarily Scottish audience compared with a UK-wide one is, if not striking, then certainly noticeable. He seems less focused on overstating how Labour has changed since Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure.
He tells the conference that more devolution is needed right across the UK, including Scotland, and that a “huge power shift out of Westminster can transform our economy, our politics and our democracy”.
There is still the emphasis on “sound money,” with Starmer keen to stress that “every policy we announce must be fully costed,” and warning that a sharp focus on the economy is necessary “even when it puts a brake on things we might like to do in power”. But talk of an expanded role for the private sector within the health service is notably absent, instead he says only that “we can’t let sticking plaster politics destroy our NHS”.
The Labour leader only briefly references Brexit, saying that he will seek “a reset in relations with the European Union,” but his biggest applause line comes at the mention of a very different kind of ‘no deal’. Of a potential pact with the SNP - which has long been a favoured attack line by the Conservatives against Labour - Starmer is unequivocal. “Whatever happens in the coming months, my message is the same,” he says, “no deal under any circumstances.”
Starmer leaves the stage to a standing ovation only slightly less enthusiastic than the one received by Sarwar on Friday, having been well received throughout. Fittingly, there seems to be a higher concentration of non-applauders among the section of delegates on the left hand side of the room during his speech.
Throughout the conference, there has been a strong sense that fate has conspired to present the party with a major opportunity. But unearned opportunity breeds unease, and there is also a feeling that the party should not overestimate the position it is in. In the final remarks of the conference - before a rousing rendition of the Red Flag for which Starmer does not remain on the stage - conference chair Karen Whitefield urges those with shorter memories against complacency.
“My first conference was in 1992,” she says, “and we thought we were on the verge of change then, too.”