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19 July 2023

Can Anas Sarwar stand up to Keir Starmer?

Labour’s refusal to scrap the two-child benefit cap is a test of the Scottish party’s independence.

By Chris Deerin

Keir Starmer’s refusal to consider abolishing the two-child benefit cap has quickly turned into a test of what kind of leader he really is. The decision has put him at odds with many in his party, and not just the usual suspects. Labour left-wingers such as John McDonnell and Zarah Sultana have spoken out against the decision, but so too have more centrist MPs such as Meg Hillier and Rosie Duffield.

Starmer is determined to reaffirm Labour’s commitment to fiscal discipline. For now this includes not reversing the Tory policy under which families no longer receive additional means-tested support for their third or subsequent children, which can be worth up to £3,235 a year per child.

The public, as is traditional, takes a tougher view than most of the Labour Party. As Freddie Hayward points out, a poll last week found 60 per cent of people want to keep the two-child limit in place. Even Labour voters are inclined to do so, by 47 per cent to 35 per cent.

But rebel MPs point out that abolishing the cap would lift 250,000 children out of poverty at the relatively low cost of £1.3bn. It would also end the revived distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. 

Starmer must choose. Is he a Tony Blair, happy to run against his own party, perhaps even seeing the political benefit of doing so? Or does he want to avoid a bruising internal scrap and potential longer-term disillusionment? After all, most senior Labour politicians – including Starmer himself – had previously committed to abolishing the two-child limit.

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Starmer’s change of heart has been received particularly badly in Scotland, where the SNP administration has ensured the policy maintains a high profile, dubbing it the “rape clause” because it applies to women regardless of the reasons for their pregnancy.

Anas Sarwar insists Scottish Labour remains opposed to the “heinous policy”. “We continue to believe that it exacerbates poverty, and we continue to believe that it needs to change,” the leader said. But he avoided a full-on confrontation with Starmer, pointing out that “an incoming Labour government will inherit economic carnage and that means we will not be able to do everything as fast as we want”. There has been more unforgiving criticism from high-profile Labour MSPs, including the education spokesperson Pam Duncan-Glancy and the prominent social justice campaigner Monica Lennon.

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[See also: Does Labour’s soft left have a future?]

The position taken by the Westminster leadership places Sarwar in a difficult position. He is desperate to avoid the “branch office” charge laid against Scottish Labour by the SNP – that the Scottish party has no real independence and must ultimately fall into line with policy devised in London. This, the nationalists argue, means Sarwar and his team are unable to stick up for Scottish interests and opinions if they conflict with those of the Westminster leadership. It has been an effective argument, and the desire for a strong voice contributed to voters electing hordes of SNP MPs over the past decade to “stand up for Scotland”.

Sarwar is described as being among the most influential voices in UK Labour – Starmer, it is said, listens closely to him due to the importance that a recovery for the party in Scotland will play in securing his path to No 10. Influence, and its visibility, is indeed important, and would be well received by voters north of the border. But there will inevitably be times when the interests of Starmer and of Sarwar diverge, due to the separate political cultures in Scotland and England.

The “branch office” jibe is one that Sarwar’s predecessors proved unable to shake off – indeed, in her 2014 speech resigning as leader, Johann Lamont accused the Westminster leadership of treating the Scottish party as precisely that. A balance between UK unity and independence at Holyrood has so far proved elusive.

Sarwar must seek to find it, however, especially if and when Starmer becomes prime minister. The days when Scottish voters looked only to London for wisdom and leadership are long gone. The Union is now a more transactional relationship, and, as the Brexit referendum showed, there are likely to be more rather than fewer points of disagreement in the future. 

Any Scottish Labour leader who wants to be seen as an effective and durable potential first minister, and to harness the confidence and spirited identity of the Scottish people, must stand up for those people and their views. This will include going against a Labour government at Westminster when need be. 

It could even be argued that a few big rows with the mothership would be helpful in establishing Sarwar as his own man. It’s not just Starmer’s leadership that will be defined by controversies such as the two-child cap.

[See also: Labour’s fiscal paradox]

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