IN my time as a journalist, I have covered one or two notable by-elections. Govan, Monklands, Kincardine and Deeside, the Paisley duo, Glasgow Central, many more.

Somehow, this week, it was the Perth and Kinross contest in 1995 which came to mind.

I recalled Roseanna Cunningham’s potent SNP campaign, with the mischievous media pursuing her over her republican views. She coped, admirably.

I recalled the news conference at which the Conservative candidate, John Godfrey, struggled and failed to name the Scottish lowland regiments, when their future was under discussion. Told you we were mischievous.

And, as Labour conferred in Brighton, I recalled another episode from that long-past battle in Perth.

At the end of a long day, I chanced to be in conversation with a senior Scottish Labour figure. We were joined by a Blairite youth from party HQ in London.

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He informed us, sententiously, that Perth and Kinross, seen in Scotland as a Tory-SNP contest, was “the sort of seat Tony expects Labour to win”.

I very much doubt that “Tony” thought any such thing. Still, my exhausted Scottish Labour interlocutor restrained himself, just, from inflicting physical retribution upon his colleague.

I reflected once more upon the distinctive nature of the Scottish body politic, and the occasional failures in comprehension which can arise. To be clear, such cross-border puzzlement can be mutual.

This week in Brighton, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar was on a mission. As he basked in praise from the platform, he reminded his comrades, politely as is his style, that they needed to pay rather more attention to Scotland than throwaway lines in a conference address.

He suggested that, while they were right to focus upon the Red Wall of seats they had lost to the Tories in the north of England, they should also glance further to the north, beyond yet another wall, that built by the Emperor Hadrian.

Unless, he argued, they regained Westminster seats in Scotland, they would weaken the party’s chances of regaining the keys to Downing Street.

Party strategists in Scotland tell me they are confident that Sir Keir Starmer has absorbed the message and is prepared to act upon it.

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They say there is a simple syllogism to bear in mind. If Labour looks like winning UK power, it can begin to regain credibility with its lost Scottish power base, in both Westminster and Holyrood elections.

One senior insider told me that Scottish Labour canvassers no longer faced slammed doors or awkward glances, as it was claimed they did during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

The sources I spoke to this week were privately clear about the extent of the challenge facing Labour in Scotland. After all, the party has slipped back in every Holyrood election since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened, to borrow Winnie Ewing’s word.

Folk, my sources said, were not yet voting for Labour. But they were prepared at least to listen. Which made the next phase critical, for both Sarwar and Starmer. They had a potential audience, if they could get the message right.

Aye, there’s the rub. What dreams may come during conference, only to shrivel in the frosty electoral reality of Scotland.

Labour, presently, does not have a dog in the race that is Scottish politics. That contest is founded upon the fault-line of Scottish discourse, our future governance. On either side are ranged the SNP, the largest party advocating independence, and the Conservatives, who have contrived to corral the Unionist vote.

For as long as that is the driving narrative in the Scottish play, then Labour’s contribution will be from the side lines, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

I think Anas Sarwar understands that only too well. I think he knows that he currently struggles to prise a way into the SNP/Tory contest.

Consequently, he is trying to reframe the discourse; to focus upon issues such as poverty, benefits and social care, hoping thereby to posit a duopoly of failure by Scotland’s two governments, Holyrood and Westminster.

In Brighton, Keir Starmer tried to help him. Sir Keir depicted the SNP and the Tories as walking “in lock step”, perhaps like two boxers in a ring, propping each other up.

Labour insiders insist that Sir Keir Starmer is “comfortable” with the distinctive nature of Scottish politics; implicitly conceding that his predecessors have struggled with such issues.

Maybe so, although, for me, there was little sign of that in the Brighton speech. The Scottish section sounded formulaic, by contrast with the decidedly personal tone elsewhere. And it was scarcely helped by a gauche reference to blood donations.

Still, Scottish Labour strategists are adamant that Sir Keir will be a decided asset in their quest to regain support: that he will make repeated sojourns to Scotland, as routine public engagement rather than state visit.

There is, however, an obvious quandary. In stressing the pursuit of UK power, Scottish Labour risks shelving or neglecting the Holyrood dimension. Risks reminding us of the past depiction of the party in Scotland as a “branch office”.

Again, Anas Sarwar is acutely aware of that. He believes that Scottish and UK Labour can be mutually supportive, provided they can find common ground and pursue the collective interests of their potential voters.

The difficulty is that Scottish voters may reach an alternative conclusion: that UK Labour leaders only want Scottish support to gain Westminster power for themselves.

At the same time, of course, Labour’s rivals will scarcely remain inert observers.

The Conservatives will argue that Labour is weak on the constitution, cannot be trusted to resist indyref2. If Starmer’s vote rises, they will suggest that he can only win power with the acquiescence of the SNP.

The SNP will say that there is an obvious solution available to remedy Labour’s complaints about UK Tory governance in Scotland. Guessed it yet?

There is a more fundamental challenge for Scottish Labour. They need to find a USP. For the SNP, it is standing up for Scotland’s interests, without casting an eye over their shoulder to Westminster.

For the Tories, it is standing up for the Union, without peradventure or quibble. Sarwar and Starmer have work to do. Together.

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