At our Congress last week, we were addressed by both the First Minister and Anas Sarwar. The speeches were variously described as attempting to woo the trade union movement in advance of the looming General Election.

Each speech in turn was notable in the sparsity of references to the constitutional debate. To be fair to both political parties and these leaders, there has always been a fair degree of respect afforded to the STUC and a recognition of the divergent views our members hold on this issue. Our delegates don’t take kindly, either way, to being hectored on the constitution.

However, this year’s particular shyness about raising the issue provokes a wider question of what impact the independence debate might have on the coming election and the ultimate choices that workers make.

Labour is seeking to recover from a near wipe out in Scotland. As current polls stand, Labour is not reliant on Scotland to win the reins of power at Westminster. It would however be seen as a serious negative for them if they do not emerge with at least double figures of Scottish MPs.

The Herald: Anas Sarwar at the STUC conferenceAnas Sarwar at the STUC conference (Image: free)

Indeed, their ambition will be higher than that given that they are neck and neck with the SNP. They will argue that voting Labour is the best way to get rid of the Tories whilst trying to capitalise on the falling popularity of the SNP. For their part, the SNP are saying that returning their MPs to parliament makes a UK-wide Labour win over the Tories no less likely. What are the messages these two leaders are trying to deliver to our members? Where are the weaknesses? and what part will the independence debate play, both later this year, and in the Scottish elections in two years’ time and beyond?

Beyond the ‘get the Tories out’ which is a message that arguably works similarly for both parties, Sarwar focussed on Labour’s New Deal for Workers. It is perhaps the single policy approach which has remained consistent since the Corbyn years.

Whereas we balk at the mimicking of Tory rhetoric on UK tax, borrowing and public spending coming from UK Labour, the New Deal is a real prize. It offers a genuine rebalancing of power between workers and employers. Returning to workers the fundamental freedom to take industrial action; outlawing zero hours contracts and strengthening collective bargaining is core to our demands and essential for the rebuilding of our economy. It is non-negotiable.

Sarwar knows that and was laying down a clear marker that Scottish Labour will be our allies in any post-election battle as erstwhile New Labour figures, allied with big business, seek to push Labour off this policy.

This, added to his vocal support for the devolution of employment law, is designed to project a message that we need Scottish Labour MPs, not just to help to form a majority Labour Government, but also to be a voice for Scotland’s workers within that Government. This has understandable attractions for many in our movement.

With Labour in power at Westminster, why wouldn’t our movement want to see a decent number of Labour MPs who we would naturally seek to influence in terms of the direction Labour will take?


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Equally, though, just having stronger Scottish Labour representation at Westminster will not be enough for many of our members. Labour will need to look carefully, as will the SNP, about how two governments will work together for the benefit of Scotland and about the additional powers the Scottish Parliament will need to effectively do its job.

For his part, Yousaf clearly sees alignment, if not on independence, then between him and the STUC on more powers for the Scottish Parliament too. This is the case with the devolution of employment law but extends to other areas such as migration policy and increased tax and borrowing powers.

More broadly he sees some other Labour policy weaknesses as his strength. “We will support increased investment in public services – not a continuation of Tory tax and spending plans,” he said, in a straight-forward appeal to a policy area in which, from our perspective, the future Labour Government’s plans are weak.

It's not entirely straight forward though. Crediting us with persuading him towards the adoption of a £75,000 additional tax rate in this year’s budget, the First Minister made much of his commitment to progressive taxation, whist failing to address other tax reforms that are essential to a rebalancing of wealth and investment in public services right here in Scotland. Still, the cautious approach to reversing Tory borrowing, tax and spending policies are a weak flank for UK Labour and the First Minister knows it.

Then we come to foreign policy. Anyone who knows either man knows of their deep commitment to a ceasefire and justice for Palestinians. However, whereas the First Minister can speak on behalf of his MPs in Parliament, Anas cannot. The gulf between the SNP’s leader Stephen Flynn and Keir Starmer on this issue is as clear as it is deep.

And yes, foreign policy does matter. Support for independence over the past 50 years has tended to align with who holds power at Westminster. Unsurprisingly increasing during period of Tory rule and decreasing with Labour in power. This trend has been bucked once, and only once, that being after the War on Iraq, an event which saw a steep increase in the support for independence, a discernible spike in the production of young SNP supporting activists and was a probable major factor in propelling the SNP to power at Holyrood in 2007.

The Herald: Roz FoyerRoz Foyer (Image: free)

As for independence itself. I expect it not to feature anywhere near as prominently as in previous elections. Whilst the polls on yes or no have barely changed, the degree of importance attached to it by the electorate currently appears to be in decline. This is very different to saying that the debate over independence has gone away for good. Far from it.

The Scottish Parliament still retains a majority for a second referendum and the STUC recognises this as a democratic mandate to hold one. Moreover, the public appetite for future constitutional change is not sated and could easily grow dependent on the next government’s attitude towards Scotland.

Labour should grasp the opportunity to devolve more powers and in government, both SNP and Labour must grasp the opportunity to co-operate on policies to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis, to increase the role of public ownership and to invest in the green economy. Raise a cynical eyebrow if you wish, but when we shift the Tories from Westminster, I predict a new era of co-operation between our two Parliaments, and yes even the two parties, may begin.

Roz Foyer is General Secretary of the STUC