'It will take more than a thistle logo to win back Labour voters'

Anas Sarwar will make his first Scottish Labour conference speech as leader on Friday.

Colin Mackay: It’s going to take more than a thistle logo to persuade voters to revisit Scottish Labour STV News

It has been three years since Scottish Labour’s last conference and the party is almost unrecognisable.

Corbyn and Leonard have been replaced by Starmer and Sarwar and they are trying to regain the trust of voters.

This time last year Anas Sarwar had just taken over as Scottish Labour leader and was finding out the scale of the task ahead of him in the run-up to a Scottish Parliament election.

Sarwar had lost to Richard Leonard in the 2017 leadership contest, sparked by the sudden resignation of Kezia Dugdale.

It followed a better-than-expected General Election performance with Scotland returning seven Labour MPs, up from just one in 2015.

By the 2019 General Election, Labour had slumped back to just one MP in Scotland, with the redoubtable Ian Murray holding on in Edinburgh South.

Then in the 2019 European Election, Labour fell to fifth place in Scotland, with less than 10% of the vote.

That was the electoral state of the party Sarwar took on last year.

His immediate task was to stop Labour falling even further behind in the Scottish Parliament election last May.

He had a good campaign. He is relatively young in political leadership terms, he looks good on TV and seemed to speak fairly fluent human.

He received a lot of media coverage as the first Muslim leader of a political party in the UK.

After the Corbyn years, he tried to take the party back towards the centre ground whilst remaining resolutely opposed to another independence referendum.

In spite of all that, Labour suffered their worst ever result in a Scottish Parliament election, but many in the party felt it could have been much, much worse.

Labour remains in third place at Holyrood, way behind the SNP and nine seats behind the Conservatives, which also seems like a lot but in terms of the national vote, they were just 8000 behind the Tories last May.

The next electoral test is the council elections this May.

Labour is still smarting from losing control of Glasgow five years ago and will make a big play of trying to take that back from the SNP.

But Sarwar has made an early mistake. In a media briefing he told journalists he didn’t want Labour to enter into power-sharing agreements with either the SNP or Conservatives in Scottish councils.

Given that Scotland’s local authorities are elected by single transferable vote through multi-member constituencies, they are mostly run by coalitions.

In Edinburgh, for example, Labour is in administration with the SNP, and in Aberdeen there was a huge row when Labour councillors went into coalition with the Conservatives.

Rather than trying to stand alone, Labour should be seeking power wherever they can get it, making themselves look like a party that can deliver for local communities, making themselves look more relevant to voters.

Opinion polls suggest they are still trailing far behind the SNP but edging ahead of the Conservatives.

And at a UK level, Sir Keir Starmer has edged ahead of Boris Johnson in the polls and Labour are ahead of the Conservatives.

That was in the midst of the Prime Minister’s partygate problems, which have abated a bit with war in Ukraine.

Sarwar will make his first Scottish conference speech as leader on Friday.

He has started to rebuild Labour’s credibility with the pundits, and with some wealthy party supporters, but he still has to rebuild it with the voters and that is a much tougher task.

He has rebranded the party, composting the red rose and replacing it with a thistle, which looks a bit like the VisitScotland logo.

But it will take much more than that to persuade voters to revisit Labour.