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In praise of Anas Sarwar’s speech – well sort of!

Scottish Labour’s Deputy Leader Anas Sarwar made a set piece speech earlier this week that has been attacked from the fringe left and the right. It is worth reading in full rather than relying on some of the commentary that doesn’t do it justice.

I am someone who is likely to consider his words with a critical eye. I didn’t support Anas as Deputy Leader largely because he was a Vice-Chair of Progress, although he has subsequently resigned that post. I am also not a great fan of professional politicians, although in fairness he did at least do a real world job. His strengths are presentational rather than ideological, so a policy speech focusing on political principles is interesting.

So what did he say? The introduction covered some common Miliband themes of social justice and inequality, broken politics, attacking the banks, energy companies and tax dodging. While not new, these are themes even the right recognises are dangerous for them. Hence Cameron is at least talking tough on tax dodging and energy prices.

His pitch for Scottish Labour’s principles of Community, Solidarity, Fairness, Equality and Social Justice won’t find many opponents within the party, although many of us would add a few more. He wisely targeted the references to universal provision, learning lessons from the less well crafted Johann Lamont speech on the subject. As I commented at the time, the reaction from some quarters to that speech was hysterical as she no more condemned universal provision than the SNP have adopted it. The legal aid debacle has demonstrated that. However, while I understand the differentiation strategy over universalism, I still believe it does more damage than good.

But for me the most interesting part of the speech was when he, at least partially, tackled the issue Johann ignored – taxation. While his focus was on geographical redistribution he also pointed to a gap in Nicola Sturgeon’s speech, which he argued had:

No progressive argument in favour of those with the broadest shoulders sharing the biggest burden. How can you talk about social justice without talking about wealth redistribution?”

So overall it wasn’t the speech that I would have written and of course it doesn’t go far enough. But it was none the less a significant move in the right, or left, direction. For a former Vice-Chair of Progress to even talk about wealth redistribution is real progress with a small ‘p’. It is a recognition that faced with the most reactionary government for a generation; this is the territory we need to be on. Anas Sarwar may not be a conviction politician, but he appears to at least recognise that Scottish Labour needs more than managerialism to motivate members and capture the support of Scottish voters.

I won’t spend much time commenting on the predictable reaction to the speech from the fringe, exemplified by Robin McAlpine’s rant at the Reid Foundation. The key is in the last line of his post, “Or stay where you are”. This reflects the fringe left view that if Labour moved to the murky middle they can capture the left vote in Scotland. That isn’t going to happen and in real world politics you have to build broad alliances to achieve change. In that context, if I can adapt Mark Antony’s words – I come to broadly praise Anas’s speech, not to bury him.

Dave Watson is UNISON’s Scottish Organiser (Bargaining & Campaigns). He is a member of the executive and former chair of Scottish Labour. This article first appeared at his own blog.

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