I've been asked by a couple of people what I thought of Mandy Rhodes' article in Holyrood magazine claiming that Anas Sarwar "looks increasingly credible as a future First Minister". The politest way I can put it is that I thought it was an extremely poorly reasoned piece and an example of the Scottish media at its very worst. I say that with some regret, because Mandy Rhodes has been a breath of fresh air in the way she's fearlessly covered the GRA issue. But using the bog-standard weasel word "increasingly" to try to confect an appearance of momentum behind the Labour party is fairly typical of what happens whenever the Scottish media get bored with the political status quo and try to weave a narrative of "change is coming"- with the "change" naturally meaning a return to the old comfort zone of perpetual Labour-Unionist domination. It would obviously be justified if the facts actually supported the notion that we're in the early stages of a changing of the guard, but they simply don't.
Although Labour have managed to reclaim second place in Scottish politics after several years in which they mostly trailed the Tories, they still find themselves a formidably long way behind the SNP. The average SNP lead on the constituency ballot in the last six Holyrood opinion polls is twenty-one percentage points. Realistically, if a change of government was on its way, you'd be expecting to see Labour in the outright lead at this stage of the electoral cycle, not twenty-one points adrift. And even if they were in the lead, you'd still be wondering how likely they'd be to stay there, because it's common for there to be a swing back to the governing party as an election approaches. The reality is that Labour remain light-years from reclaiming top spot and it's very difficult to see what will change that. There was certainly not much sign of a looming breakthrough in the local elections last month, when the SNP took slightly more gains than Labour did.
It's true that if Labour win back power at Westminster, there's a possibility that Sarwar could ride on Keir Starmer's coattails and take a few Scottish seats in the House of Commons from the SNP with a 2017-style result. But remember that even by narrowing the SNP's lead to ten points in 2017, Labour still only won a relatively modest seven seats. And power at Westminster is a double-edged sword, because it means that the 2026 Holyrood election will take place in mid-term for a Starmer government, by which point voters may be ready to give Labour a kicking. It could actually make things a lot harder for Sarwar, not easier.
There is, of course, a caveat to all this, which is that the Scottish Parliament is elected by proportional representation, meaning that there could be a unionist majority after 2026 even if the SNP remain the largest single party by miles. And if there's a unionist majority, it's theoretically possible that Sarwar could replicate what happened recently in some local councils (such as Edinburgh and Fife) by becoming First Minister from a distant second place with support from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The problem is, though, that such a Labour-Tory deal at national level would be much more visible than the equivalent deals in local councils. It would be noticed by voters and it would destroy Labour's mythologising of themselves as an anti-Tory party. They were once seen as "the only possible alternative to Tory rule", but after a deal they wouldn't even be "an" alternative to Tory rule. They would be Tory allies, the Tories' path back to influence.
And in spite of Mandy Rhodes' best efforts, this would not be in any way analogous to the informal understanding that existed between the SNP government and the Tories in the 2007-2011 parliament. The SNP were the largest single party back then, which meant the Tories didn't even have to vote for Alex Salmond for him to become First Minister - they abstained on the vote, as did the Liberal Democrats. For Sarwar to become First Minister from a distant second place, the Tories would have to actively vote for him. It would be clearly seen and understood by voters that he was only there because the Tories put him there. I doubt if Sarwar would be foolish enough to even accept such a poisoned chalice. If he did, the likelihood is that any government he led would fall apart fairly quickly - but the consequences would linger on for potentially decades. It would be a "1979 moment" on steroids.
If Labour have any thoughts about becoming the largest party in Scotland ever again, they'll need to win back the Yes voters who abandoned them in 2015 and have stuck with the SNP ever since. Doing a deal with the Tories would exclude any chance of that for a very long time. By taking power as Tory allies once, they would ensure that the only way they can ever be in power at any point thereafter is as Tory allies. It's fool's gold.
Incidentally, Ms Rhodes blasts the SNP over a sense of "entitlement" in criticising the unionist deals that have frozen them out of power in some local councils. Although I'm not in the SNP anymore, I'm not sure that's entirely fair. OK, coalition deals are a normal part of any proportional voting system, but they're also a choice that political parties freely enter into. It's entirely legitimate to hold up a mirror to Scottish Labour and point out that the choice they have made to deal with the Tories rather than progressive parties is hopelessly at odds with the values they have always tried to project, and that voters should draw some conclusions from that.
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