Last May, as she celebrated re-taking her Glasgow Southside constituency, Nicola Sturgeon took a moment to reveal a little secret.
She was, Scotland’s First Minister said, friendly with her main rival for the seat, Labour leader Anas Sarwar.
“We are opponents but we actually quite like each other,” she said, her voice echoing through the counting centre PA system.
.@AnasSarwar absolutely smashed it.— Eunis Jassemi (@EunisJassemi) September 27, 2021
‘Let’s not pretend the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon are our progressive allies.
“The SNP are not progressive and they are not our allies.’ 🏴🌹 pic.twitter.com/zlKAu3ycEL
Sturgeon is not alone. A lot of people seem to warm to Sarwar, a former dentist who has largely campaigned on health and social justice issues and has, at times, been uncomfortably frank about the racism he and his family have endured in Scotland.
His personal favourability rating remains positive, a real feat in Scotland where many politicians score well in negative territory. Sarwar is on +5 per cent, well behind Sturgeon, who is on +14 per cent, but way ahead of the pack, according to a poll for Politico late last month. (Some of the best-kent names in politics are stunningly unpopular in Scotland: former first minister Alex Salmond, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had approved rating so -47 per cent, -43 per cent and -38 per cent respectfully in the survey).
So a fair number of Scots quite like Sarwar, the privately-educated son of a cash-and-carry millionaire former Labour MP, but not many of them want to vote for him. Not yet anyway.
The SNP - this is rough-and-tumble Scottish politics, after all - was not prepared to wait to see the detail. They had a ‘Gotcha': one of Labour’s two surviving first ministers, Henry McLeish, late last month declared for independence.
He and his party remain squeezed out of Scottish politics. Worse, their numbers are going the wrong way. Ahead of Labour’s Brighton conference last month, polls suggested they were down to 18 per cent, compared with the SNP on 51 per cent, in Westminster voting intentions.
SCOTLAND'S POLITICS LOOM LARGE
That, as every pundit in the land knows, makes it much harder for ailing UK Labour to replace the Tories. Once again Scotland’s constitutional politics looms large across Britain.
Scotland has only had five First Ministers & one of the two living former Labour FMs - Henry McLeish - has just come out finally for independence. Whatever some in Labour say this is significant.https://t.co/G4SbADEJoj— Gerry Hassan (@GerryHassan) September 24, 2021
In Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved parliament, Labour have gone from being the biggest party with 56 seats to also-rans with 22 in just two decades. At Westminster, with the unforgiving first-past-the-post system, its decline has been precipitous. The party lost 40 seats after the 2014 independence referendum, including in working-class neighbourhoods where, the joke goes, Labour used to weigh its votes, not count them.
The party now has one Scottish MP, a centrist called Ian Murray who has successfully built a grand unionist coalition of local voters to keep his Edinburgh seat, posing for pictures in a Union Jack suit to do so.
Murray was the man who had to put on a good face about Scotland during the Labour conference. It was he who trailed the party’s big plan to stop independence: a constitutional compromise still to be developed by a special commission set up by Gordon Brown, the last Labour, and Scottish, prime minister of the UK.
Such policies, of course, take time to develop. Years, in fact. The SNP - this is rough-and-tumble Scottish politics, after all - was not prepared to wait to see the detail. They had a ‘Gotcha': one of Labour’s two surviving first ministers, Henry McLeish, late last month declared for independence.
HENRY MCLEISH ‘Yes, I would support independence… If it’s only economic fears that are binding us within the Union, that’s a pretty poor state of affairs. I believe that Scotland could be independent tomorrow.’ #indyref2 pic.twitter.com/rfdZywvRVi— Independent Voices (@Celebs4indy) September 24, 2021
An elder statesman of Scottish Labour and one of the fathers of Britain’s devolution settlement of the 1990s, McLeish had been publicly agnostic on the big constitutional divide for years. But Labour insiders were hardly shocked when he made his position clear. It had, they felt, been a long time coming.
That is the thing about Labour and the SNP. There is not, actually, that much between them, or between their voters. They are both social democrats. They campaigned together for Devolution in the 1990s.
Labour, moreover, has long contained activists and elected members who were at the very least small n-nationalists
Bydd Cymru yn aros ar lefel rhybudd sero am y tair wythnos nesaf, ond dyw’r pandemig ddim ar ben.— Mark Drakeford (@fmwales) October 10, 2021
Mae’n rhaid i ni dal ati i wneud y pethau syml i gadw Cymru’n ddiogel ac ar agor dros y gaeaf.
Rwy’n annog pawb i gael y brechlyn a’r pigiad atgyfnerthu pan ddaw’r cynnig. pic.twitter.com/nDHjWBprBV
This is also true in Wales where the Labour leader and first minister, Mark Drakeford, was re-elected earlier this year after convincing voters he was best placed to stand up for Wales and its autonomy.
Drakeford - whose stance has been dubbed “ambivalent unionism” - was last month reported to be entering co-operation talks with the pro-independence Plaid Cymru.
Contrast this with Scotland. Labour and SNP figures do sometimes work together at a local level. They share power in Edinburgh, the capital. In Glasgow, Labour’s former Clydeside bastion, the party is at loggerheads with the ruling SNP.
Scottish social democrats - pro and anti-independence - can feel as if they are in a bitter non-violent civil war, however similar they are on paper.
'Labour, presently, does not have a dog in the race that is Scottish politics,' writes Brian Taylor https://t.co/ec6X54Dqmi— The Herald (@heraldscotland) October 2, 2021
At Brighton it was clear that Labour in Scotland was determined to define itself against nationalists.
“Let’s not pretend the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon are our progressive allies,” Sarwar told the conference. “The SNP are not progressive and they are not our allies.”
Scottish politics watched have been warning Labour for some time about why it is shedding voters. It lost Yessers - independence supporters, that is - en masse to the SNP after the indyref. It has since been haemorrhaging ambivalent or “contractual” pro-Uk voters, especially Remainers, and it cannot compete with the Tories for hardcore unionists.
But there is a strategy for recovery.
Brian Taylor is the former BBC political editor in Scotland and now a columnist for a heavyweight Scottish daily, The Herald. Taylor has been watching the in’s and out’s of Labour over the Sea of Moyle for a good deal longer than Sarwar has been alive. He says independence v union is now what politics is all about.
“For as long as that is the driving narrative in the Scottish play, then Labour’s contribution will be from the sidelines, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing,” Taylor wrote in the Herald last week.
Labour, Taylor summed up, still needs a USP, a unique selling point to challenge the SNP’s independence and the Tories’ union.
The pundit has a point. Some voters may like Sarwar and Labour but they do not know what they are for.