Scottish Labour conference: Anas Sarwar is joining Sir Keir Starmer and channelling New Labour and Tony Blair

When Anas Sarwar was handed the leadership of Scottish Labour, it was obvious the party was in desperate need of fresh energy.

The decision to focus so heavily on the ‘future’ in his conference speech at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow while announcing a rebrand of party logos was the logical first outward-facing step of this journey.

The thistle – replacing the red rose first introduced by Neil Kinnock in 1986, itself a replacement of the red flag – is an attempt to distance Scottish Labour from Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour in the minds of voters.

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Scottish Labour conference: Anas Sarwar urges SNP voters to return to Labour to ...
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar speaking during the Scottish Labour conference at Glasgow Royal Concert HallScottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar speaking during the Scottish Labour conference at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar speaking during the Scottish Labour conference at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
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It is a symbolic exercise, one which aims to show, rather than tell, the party is not simply a ‘branch office’ of London, so often used pejoratively by opposition.

Sarwar’s speech, however, was a broad, smorgasbord of thinly-spread ideals and principles.

Light on policy announcements bar a £1.3 billion plan to offer free residential social care, Sarwar used the speech as an opportunity to reintroduce himself and provide an update on his work rebuilding his party.

This speech focused on telling voters who abandoned Labour for the SNP and then for the Tories that the party had listened, knows it needs to modernise, change, and learn from past mistakes.

One of the most obvious indicators was the inclusion that Labour – attacked for years as anti-business – are now “unashamedly” pro-business.

Whether he has succeeded will ultimately be tested in the ballot box, but this is not just a Scottish Labour effort.

Starmer, who will address the Scottish conference tomorrow, has been engaged in exactly the same repositioning exercise.

Both are echoing the actions of Tony Blair in the 1990s, pushing their parties in a direction not everyone is happy or comfortable with.

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In a speech to Labour conference in Brighton in 1994 as leader, Blair warned his party “parties that don’t change, die”.

In Glasgow, Sarwar sang the same song, but changed the lyrics, telling members “to win again, we must change again”.

For Starmer, the 2019 general election was a nadir, but for Sarwar, his party struggles to beat the Conservatives into second place, never mind win power back from the SNP.

Both are mammoth tasks, but reversing Labour’s political momentum in Scotland could be the toughest of either.

Want to hear more from The Scotsman's politics team? Check out the latest episode of our political podcast, The Steamie.

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