WE will discover shortly whether Scottish Labour’s long-awaited revival of electoral fortunes really is underway at last, or whether the polls and forecasts merely flatter to deceive. Certainly, Anas Sarwar is beginning to look – and feel – as though he deserves some success, even if success in this context continues to be measured by who comes second to the SNP, not who wins.

Anas Sarwar reminds me of my old boss, Ruth Davidson. In the parliament in which I served, it was obvious that only two politicians had what it took to take the fight to Nicola Sturgeon (who, in Holyrood, resembles not so much a big fish in a little pond as a shark in a puddle). Ruth was one of them, but she quit and walked away. The other was Anas.

And, in this local election campaign, Anas is having a ball. Like Ruth, he enjoys the campaign trail more than the weekly grind of FMQs and other bothersome parliamentary rituals. Like Ruth, he exudes charm and reaches easily beyond his own base to impress folk who have not considered voting for his brand for a generation or more. Like Ruth, he loves a cheeky photo-shoot. And, like Ruth, he leaves his lieutenants in the shade, hogging all the limelight for himself.

The difference is that, unlike Ruth, Anas Sarwar actually wants to be First Minister and thinks that it may be within his political reach not merely to stop the SNP (which was and always will be the limit of the Scottish Tories’ ambitions) but, one day, to replace them in power. It’s a long road back, and Mr Sarwar’s troops are still nearer the beginning than the end of it. But what do he –and they – need to do to build on this year’s campaign, to really start motoring?

The first step is already taken. Since Ruth commanded her party to the giddy heights of second place, Scottish Labour have not known what direction to face first. For every four ex-Labour voters to have migrated to the Tories and the SNP, one went to the Scottish Conservatives and three to the Nationalists. Mr Sarwar knows that, in the end, there can be no way back for Labour without getting those new-found SNP voters to come home to him.

But, in order to move from third place to first, you first have to come second (if you see what I mean). Before going after the Labour-to-SNP voters, under Anas’ direction his party is first going after the Labour-to-Tory voters. That’s why, in this election, a huge part of Scottish Labour’s pitch is that there will be no deals done between themselves and the SNP. Unionists will carry on holding their noses and voting Conservative if they get even a whiff that the Labour party would in any sense go soft on the Nats.

Personally, I don’t much care for this particular pitch. Under the proportional representation system of the single transferable vote that we use for local government elections in Scotland, it is natural that coalitions will need to be formed so that councils can function. In some places it will make sense for Labour to share power with the Nationalists; in others it will make sense for them to share power with the Tories. One day our political leaders will wake up to this, and stop the juvenile tribalism that rules out all and any such pacts in advance of a single vote being cast: one day, but not yet, alas.

Leaving that aside for a moment, if Mr Sarwar’s ploy works and if – as the pollsters are predicting – Labour do manage to finish second in this race, thereby consigning the Tories to lowly third place, then and only then will Anas give his party licence to go after the much larger target group of Labour-to-SNP voters.

Once there, his pitch to such voters is so obvious as to write itself. “We know you want change,” he will say. “We know you want better schools, a cleaner environment, more secure jobs, a higher standard of living, and a more inclusive economy.

"We know the Tories aren’t interested in change – they are conservatives, after all – but we also know, as you do, that the SNP have manifestly failed to deliver meaningful change. They’ve had fifteen years. They have all the powers they need. And they’ve fluffed it, big time.

"You may have revered Nicola once, but what has she actually achieved? What’s she delivered? Where’s her legacy? Baby boxes?! Is that it?! We can do so much better than this, and we don’t need independence to do it. Indeed, independence would only get in the way.”

Like Alec Guinness playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars film (“these are not the droids you are looking for”), Mr Sarwar’s message to the SNP’s hordes of disappointed voters will be “independence is not the change you are looking for”. If his charm has (as it were) the force to pull it off, this is his party’s route back to power.

Of course, it’s not all in Mr Sarwar’s gift. To look and sound a credible First Minister he needs – and he knows he needs – Keir Starmer to look and sound a credible Prime Minister. But, unbelievable though it may have felt only a few short months ago, that too is beginning to happen, as Boris Johnson and his acolytes implode in self-imposed ignominy and disgrace.

I’m not saying Scottish Labour are about to win an election. The SNP remain miles ahead in every electoral race they enter. To reiterate, success for Mr Sarwar is still calibrated in terms of winning silver, not gold. But, after a decade and a half in the doldrums, if not in the wilderness, Scottish Labour look like they might finally be back in business.

Adam Tomkins is the John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow School of Law. He was a Conservative MSP for the Glasgow region from 2016 to 2021.

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