Nicola Sturgeon's politics of flags have done nothing about life-shortening poverty. Labour is now Scotland's only hope – Susan Dalgety

The man who created the National Health Service, Labour’s Nye Bevan, once said there “is no test for progress other than its impact on the individual”.

Nicola Sturgeon, seen looking on as John Swinney speaks in the Scottish Parliament, must be held to account by a strong opposition party over issues like poverty, says Susan Dalgety (Picture: Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/via PA)

On that straightforward, human measure, the SNP government, in power for nearly 14 years, has failed the people of Scotland.

Figures released this week show healthy life expectancy has dropped to 61 years across the whole country and, in the most deprived areas, a man can look forward to only 47 years of healthy life, compared to 73 for his neighbour in a more affluent postcode.

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The statistics, published by Scotland’s chief statistician, are a heart-breaking read. Adults in Scotland’s poorest communities are three times more likely to have poor mental health.

They are five times more likely to be admitted to hospital with alcohol-related problems and 18 times more at risk of a drug-related problem that needs medical attention.

And the mortality rate amongst people aged 15-44 years old is eight times higher in most of Scotland’s deprived areas.

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Poverty kills

Anas Sarwar has a plan to rebuild Scottish Labour and then rebuild Scotland, says Susan Dalgety (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

There came a point, while poring over an expert analysis of the data, when the numbers started to blur. “In 2019 coronary heart disease mortality rate was five times greater in most deprived areas than least deprived (217.6 compared to 44.7 deaths per 100,000 of population)” but the import of what I was reading was clear.

Poverty kills, and our Scottish government, the one that waves our flag in our face at every opportunity, has failed our most vulnerable communities.

On every measure – healthy life expectancy, heart disease, mental health, alcohol and drug deaths, low birth-weight – the statistics damn Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers.

The Scottish government has power over every aspect of our lives, from our health service to our education system. It sets the rate of income tax, decides – as we saw in Thursday’s Scottish budget – the level of public sector pay and has, thanks to the Barnett Formula, a bigger share of UK public spending cash per head of population than England.

We must “decide what kind of society we want to be” after we emerge from the pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon said recently. Well, I know what kind of society I want Scotland to be right now. One where your postcode and annual earnings don’t condemn you to a lifetime of ill-health, then a premature death.

A shadow of its former self

I want a society where progress is judged by the health of the women who have kept our supermarkets open during a global pandemic. A society where a baby born in a housing scheme can flourish alongside its peer from a leafy suburb. A decent society.

But we can no longer expect progress from the SNP government. Its priority, as it always has been, is leaving the United Kingdom. That is why it was established in 1934, it is what drives its base and preoccupies its leadership. Even as Sturgeon is grappling with the impact of Covid-19, she is calculating how it will affect her primary political ambition – independence. Everything else is incidental.

That is why the most important political contest right now is not the dog fight between Sturgeon and Salmond, riveting though that is. It is not even the Boris and Nicola show. The future of Scotland will be decided by the leadership battle for the Scottish Labour party.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I hear you shriek. “The Labour party is dead in Scotland, finished, kaput. It doesn’t matter who leads it…”

But it does. Scottish Labour may be languishing in the polls, humiliated into third place at Holyrood by the Conservatives, a shadow of its former self, but it remains the only hope our country has of building a fair society.

‘Make or break’

If Scottish Labour does not claw its way back to be, first, the main opposition to the SNP, and then the party of government in Scotland, our country will be in thrall to nationalism for the foreseeable future. Flags will be all that is on offer.

There are two contenders for the most difficult job in British politics – former town planner Monica Lennon whose recent Period Poverty bill made global headlines, and Anas Sarwar who, at 37, has chalked up an impressive CV as a dentist, an MP and, since 2016, a Glasgow MSP.

This is where I declare a personal interest. I have worked with both. They are equally charismatic, energetic, committed Labour people. They are of the post-devolution generation, eager, rightly, to wrest control of the people’s party from its weary elders. But only one has a plan to rebuild Scottish Labour, then rebuild Scotland and that is Anas Sarwar.

“It’s make or break time,” is the most common refrain among experienced Labour members, and for once they are not indulging in hyperbole. The new leader must rescue the party from itself, then offer the Scottish people a credible alternative to nationalism. And the first staging post is the Scottish Parliament elections in May, a battle Sarwar relishes, as he told the Scotsman earlier this week.

“We don't just wait to see what happens in May, we get to influence what happens in May and I think we can stop an SNP majority,” he said. But first he must win the confidence of Scottish Labour’s members.

I gave up predicting Labour leadership elections in September 2015 when the hapless Jeremy Corbyn beat off folk like Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, but I hope, for Scotland’s sake, that come 27 February, Anas Sarwar emerges victorious.

In the months and years ahead, Scotland needs an opposition party that can hold the ruling party to account, that can expose its many failings – not least its terrible record on tackling inequality – and one that offers a positive vision of Scotland, secure in the UK.

Scottish Labour can be that party, but only if it accepts the challenge set down by Sarwar to look outwards, united in a common cause. The future is up to you, comrades.

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