The newfound power of Anas Sarwar

On Sunday, Sir Keir Starmer made Scotland the first stop on his inaugural tour of the UK since becoming Prime Minister. The trip was nominally about delivering a ‘reset’ in relations between the UK and Scottish governments, which had grown particularly strained in the latter years of the Conservative administration. Starmer’s visit was also about reassuring the Scottish electorate, which heavily backed the Labour party once again, that he would continue to value them now the votes have been counted.

But the visit also reflected the changing dynamic between the Scottish and UK Labour parties, and the growing importance of the Scottish leader Anas Sarwar, who is now the most powerful Labour figure outside the cabinet. As the two leaders embraced in front of Edinburgh Castle, it was clear that Scottish Labour – and particularly Sarwar himself – are now central to the success of the Starmer project.

It was not always thus. Before Sarwar took over the Scottish party in 2021, the party was the ugly duckling of the UK-wide Labour movement. It was written off first as complacent, then as incompetent, as it lost its decades-long stranglehold on Scottish politics and seemingly left the SNP impregnable, thereby depriving UK Labour of its most straightforward route to a parliamentary majority in the process.

Sarwar has, however, not just bucked that trend but dramatically reversed it. Under his leadership, the party won 37 seats in Scotland, up from one in 2019. It won 36 percent of the vote, more than Labour managed elsewhere in the UK and an increase of 17 percent on its 2019 vote share. If anything, Sarwar’s win in Scotland was more emphatic than Starmer’s was across the whole of the UK.

This electoral success has given Sarwar a newfound political power. With such a sizeable Scottish Parliamentary Labour party – most of whom will remain on the backbenches, at least initially – Sarwar has the opportunity to wield significant influence. Of course, with such a vast majority, Starmer need not fear parliamentary rebellion, but such a substantial grouping should at least yield Sarwar a hearing.

In this respect, we can expect Sarwar to push Starmer on the issues that caused Labour difficulty on the doorsteps in Scotland, such as the party’s commitment to maintaining the two-child benefit cap. Such overtures are unlikely to yield immediate results, but Starmer cannot afford to ignore Sarwar indefinitely, either. The Scottish Parliament election in 2026 will be a key mid-term test for the new government, and Starmer would be wise to give his Scottish Labour leader some policy wins to take on the campaign trail. To the UK leader’s credit, he clearly recognises Sarwar’s value and his need to act independently of the central leadership. Starmer’s team are prepared for Sarwar to be a ‘critical friend’ of the new administration and are not opposed to him pushing the UK government to go further on some issues.

The analogy that immediately springs to mind here is that of Ruth Davidson, who as Scottish Conservative party leader played a similar role in the Cameron-Osborne government, including helping to soften proposed cuts to child tax credits. Certainly, Downing Street recognised it was vital to the Scottish Conservatives’ electoral prospects that she was seen to have influence, and she was even invited to attend cabinet as an observer. It would be prudent for Starmer to extend the same invitation to Sarwar ahead of 2026.

In the meantime, however, it is clear that – after many bitter years in the wilderness – Scottish Labour is right back at the heart of the UK party, and that Sarwar is now one of the most influential figures outside of the government.

Andrew Liddle

Andrew Liddle

Senior Advisor

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