LABOUR endured a difficult 2021 – starting the year with a leadership contest in Scotland and suffering its worst Holyrood election result since devolution – while the UK party struggled to cut through to voters and suffered an embarrassing by-election defeat.
Things appear to be looking up for Sir Keir Starmer’s party as it approaches 2022 – with polls suggesting Labour is now favoured over the Conservatives by voters as the sleaze scandal and reported Whitehall lockdown parties have started tilting the scales.
But fortunes for Anas Sarwar’s Scottish Labour remain in the balance – with May’s local elections set to be a gauge for whether or not his message is starting to seep through to the public.
The year began with then-leader of Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard, facing “mass exodus” concerns after Anne McGinley, his deputy general secretary, quit her job. That forced Mr Leonard, his leadership a hangover from the Jeremy Corbyn experiment, to insist that a devolved parliament within the UK “is still the popular choice of the people of Scotland”, as he came under pressure for his stuttering stance on the constitution.
But less than a fortnight later, Mr Leonard had resigned.
Mr Leonard claimed his decision was in the “best interests of the party”, four months before Labour faced a daunting Holyrood election and four months after he saw off a failed coup from a group of his MSPs, worried they were set to lose their jobs without a change in direction.
Four years on from missing out on the Scottish Labour leadership at the hands of Mr Leonard, Mr Sarwar shocked no-one when he threw his hat into the ring to lead the party into May’s election.
The Glasgow MSP was challenged for the top job by Monica Lennon.
Sir Keir, acknowledging the need for Labour to restore its fortunes in Scotland if he is to have any chance of leading his party to a UK majority, admitted there is “a lot of work to do” north of the Border to rebuild trust with voters.
In February, Mr Sarwar became leader of Scottish Labour, seeing off Ms Lennon’s challenges with 58 per cent to 42% of the vote.
Focus turned to May’s Holyrood election. But with less than three months to get his message across to voters, Mr Sarwar was busy managing expectations – insisting he was in it for the long haul.
Labour returned just 22 MSPs, a two-seat decline on its 2016 result and the worst election performance since devolution.
But Mr Sarwar put on a brave face, stressing voters are no longer “embarrassed” to support Labour, adding that his party “have credibility again”.
But it’s not just in Scotland that Labour is struggling to get its message across. May’s Hartlepool by-election, a Westminster seat won by Labour at every opportunity since the constituency’s inception in 1974, was a huge embarrassment for the UK party.
For only the second time since 1982, the UK governing party gained a seat in a by-election as Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer secured a stunning victory with almost 52% of the vote, while Labour suffered a 16% swing in support as the Tories won the key “red wall” seat with a majority of 6,940 votes.
Sir Keir, despite insisting he would take full blame for the embarrassing defeat, was accused of “cowardly avoidance of responsibility” for sacking Angela Rayner as chair of UK Labour in the wake of the by-election and a less-than-impressive performance in local elections in England.
Despite claims credibility had been restored to Labour under his leadership, Sir Keir’s popularity with voters slumped to lower levels enjoyed by his predecessor at the same stage in their tenures.
Meanwhile, in Wales, Labour equalled its best-ever Senedd election result – coming in just one seat short of an overall majority and retaining power.
Sir Keir’s next big test was the Batley and Spen by-election in July – triggered by the resignation of Labour MP Tracy Brabin, who become the mayor of West Yorkshire.
Despite Labour going into the election holding a majority of more than 3,500, Kim Leadbeater clung on to the seat – defeating the Tories’ Ryan Stephenson by a slender margin of 323 votes.
In September, Sir Keir delivered his first full speech to the Labour conference, stressing to party delegates that he will not bring forward an election manifesto “that is not a serious plan for government”.
But the Labour leader faced heckles from the audience, with Corbyn loyalists interrupting him as he paid tribute to his late mother – leading to Sir Keir responding with “shouting slogans or changing lives?”
The content of Sir Keir’s keynote speech focused on education, justice and mental health and branded the Prime Minister “a trivial man, a showman with nothing left to show”.
Back in Scotland, Mr Sarwar’s party begin to have cause for optimism – with the Scottish Government formally including plans for a National Care Service, a policy long-advocated by Labour, in its Programme for Government.
Ms Lennon’s persistent pressure over controversial plans for a new oil field near Shetland eventually forced the First Minister to finally concede the Cambo plans should not be given permission to proceed by the UK Government – signalling a huge shift in policy by the SNP.
Mr Sarwar also ramped up pressure on Nicola Sturgeon to act over an infections scandal at a Glasgow hospital.
The Labour leader and Glasgow MSP, who raised initial concerns about the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus, brought up more deaths suspected to be linked to the facility.
Mr Sarwar called on Ms Sturgeon to sack the health board for what he claimed was a “culture of bullying and cover-up”.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde strenuously denied the claims, while the Scottish Government pointed to the ongoing public inquiry into the alleged failings at the hospital campus.
Despite the UK Government being consistently criticised for its handling of certain aspects of the pandemic, along with a cut to a Universal Credit uplift, Sir Keir’s party struggled to cut through to voters.
That was until the Conservatives became embroiled in a sleaze scandal. After Tory MP Owen Paterson was found guilty of breaking lobbying rules, Boris Johnson’s Government attempted to change the regulations, while Labour demanded an investigation after Sir Geoffrey Cox was found to be earning almost £900,000 outside his parliamentary work including travelling to the British Virgin Islands to offer advice on a corruption inquiry.