Analysis: Anas Sarwar starts on comfortable, but fruitful ground in first speech

To suggest Anas Sarwar is facing anything other than a severe uphill struggle to wrestle back second place from the Scottish Conservatives on May 6 would be delusional.

His party is a mess and has been for several years, floundering in constitutional no-man’s land, unable to direct the narrative away from independence.

In the new Scottish Labour leader’s first major speech as the election campaign gets underway, there was an opportunity for Sarwar to reset the conversation, reset voter expectations of what Scottish Labour stands for, and differentiate the party from their blue unionist cousins.

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Choosing education as his focus was a clever choice, if lacking in imagination.

Anas Sarwar focused on education during his first major speech as Scottish Labour leader
Anas Sarwar focused on education during his first major speech as Scottish Labour leader

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Anas Sarwar: Labour leader launches election campaign with education plan and at...

The SNP’s record on education is dismal and is an easy target for Labour.

With PISA scores in maths and science dropping since the SNP came into power, and reading seeing a sharp drop before recovering to 2012 levels, there is much to be gained from attacking such a poor track record.

It will also sit well with younger voters, particularly those who were subject to the unmitigated disaster of the exam results scandal last year.

Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney have managed to alienate almost everyone attached to Scottish education in the past 12 months at the worst possible moment.

Pupils and university students were let down over exams and the return to campuses, teachers feel unsafe working in schools without appropriate Covid-19 mitigations, and many parents feel abandoned and left to fend for themselves as make-shift teachers.

Sarwar’s approach, one focusing on ‘catching up’ pupils (one for the parents), priority vaccination for teachers, and a resit guarantee and outdoor activity programme over the summer for pupils, hits the mark which each group.

It is comfortable territory for Labour and one that will appease the party’s base.

The overriding theme of a ‘recovery Parliament’ may well be best expressed through education, but Labour will face stiff competition to focus electoral minds on such an issue.

Like it or not, independence and the constitution is the dominant political discussion in Scotland.

Demanding people judge the First Minister’s record on education, just as she challenged voters to do in 2015, could provide the basis for a much-needed, for Scottish Labour, shift in political narrative.

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