Scottish Labour’s Holyrood election campaign has urged voters to back its “national recovery plan” as it seeks to become Scotland’s second-largest party once again.
New leader Anas Sarwar has attempted to pitch Labour’s message to all sides of both the constitutional and Brexit debates, and repeatedly said he wants to listen and represent the whole country, “not just the 50% who agree with me”.
During the campaign, Mr Sarwar has insisted that focusing on an independence campaign during a pandemic and its aftermath would be “reckless” and “irresponsible”.
Instead, Mr Sarwar has argued that this election should be about recovery from the pandemic’s impact rather than any mandate for another referendum.
Scottish Labour is not alone in talking up its focus on a recovery from the pandemic, with the Scottish Liberal Democrats campaigning on a similar message and the Tories using their opposition to another referendum in an attempt to woo unionist voters.
Mr Sarwar has shunned the “typical macho suggestion” that he could become First Minister following the election on May 6, and instead is aiming to overtake the Scottish Conservatives to became Holyrood’s second-largest party, while depriving the SNP of an overall majority.
Shortly after he defeated Monical Lennon for the leadership, Mr Sarwar told reporters: “The pathway that I want to take the Labour Party on is its survival to relevance to credible opposition to a credible alternative.”
The party’s manifesto is billed as a national recovery plan to rebuild Scotland from the impact of the pandemic, launched with pledges on cancer treatments, jobs, education, the climate emergency and a desire to increase free childcare to 50 hours per week.
Mr Sarwar has said the recovery must be the next parliament’s “collective national mission” and the manifesto policies are a “route map back to stronger and better times for our country”.
In an effort to counter arguments for Scottish independence, Mr Sarwar has highlighted areas where the Scottish Government could use devolved powers to tackle issues of poverty and unemployment, such as a proposal for a fund to reimburse over 75s’ TV licence fees and £500 grants for unemployed Scots to retrain.
The party also plans to abolish council tax and replace it with a “fairer alternative based on property values and ability to pay” as well as ruling out any income tax rises for Scots earning less than £100,000 a year.
Zero-hour contracts in the public sector would be banned, while proposing a certification scheme that would be awarded to businesses that avoid zero-hour contracts, pay the Scottish living wage and produce an emissions reduction plan or commit to net zero.
Describing the situation facing the NHS and cancer services as a “national emergency”, Scottish Labour has highlighted official statistics suggesting up to 7,000 people in Scotland may unaware they currently have cancer because of a diagnosis backlog.
By the end of 2020, 100,913 patients were waiting for key diagnostic tests and 44.1% of them had already waited longer than the six-week target.
Their manifesto sets out a catch-up initiative across cancer screening programmes, pledges to increase staff numbers and processing capacity to clear the backlog of appointments before the end of next year.
It also calls for rapid diagnostic centres to be established in every health board area so GPs can refer patients who have suspicious but unclear symptoms for a diagnosis within two weeks.
Mr Sarwar added: “I want to see our NHS not only restored to pre-pandemic levels, but see it strengthened and our workforce reinvigorated.
“The SNP cannot be relied on to prioritise recovery because it has already made clear that it will prioritise a referendum.”