Change is coming to Scotland

Anas Sarwar MSP - Credit : Open Scottish Parliament Licence \ WikiMedia CC

Gerry Hassan asks can Scottish Labour seize the opportunity?

This is a change election; both in the UK and Scotland. A sense of wanting to punish the Tories after 14 years pervades the UK. A similar, if less emphatic, desire can be felt in Scotland with regard to the SNP after their 17 years in office.

Scottish politics are in flux. This is the end of the era of SNP’s effortless dominance under Salmond and Sturgeon. The SNP is in a crisis of leadership – both of party and of government. Without independence on the horizon, the party is now judged and held to account on its paltry record in office – education, health, police, local government, ferries (which are important to the Highlands and Islands), and the remorseless centralisation in Scotland of the Scottish Government.

Scottish Labour are back in business, after a long period in the doldrums and being written off. After years of leaders who failed to cut through, Anas Sarwar – Labour’s tenth leader since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament – at the very minimum appears articulate and competent. Labour have learnt how to campaign against the SNP and to appeal to voters it needs to win back from them; these are disproportionately former Labour voters who shifted over to the SNP and who are now in significant number moving to Labour while many remain pro-independence.

Will this amount to serious change in Scottish politics – lasting and impactful? Or could it be transient and a one-off as Scottish voters pile behind the Starmer bandwagon to get the Tories out – but then leave as soon as political storm clouds gather?

Scotland matters electorally

Firstly, Scotland’s electoral dynamics need to be understood. Scotland has 57 out of 650 Westminster seats. Labour won a single seat in 2019 and now hold two, after winning the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election in October 2023. The SNP won 48 seats in 2019 and now hold 43: losing as well as the by-election, two defections to Alex Salmond’s Alba, one to the Tories and one suspended leading to expulsion.

SNP supporters forever state that “Scotland never matters” and never provides the crucial numbers in Labour’s UK election victories and prospects. They argue that Scotland cannot be the decisive factor, with only 57 out of 650 seats, being dwarfed by England which has 543 seats where any election is decided.

Scotland has in electoral terms only proven decisive in a UK post-war election on two occasions: 1964 and February 1974. In these Scottish Labour’s 40 plus seats were critical to Labour winning UK office: the first as a majority government and the second as a minority administration. On both occasions these proved to be short-lived Parliaments, with Labour calling elections and winning by a subsequent more emphatic margin.

Yet a bigger picture is at play than this literal reading of numbers. There is a profound political difference between Scottish Labour winning one seat and making possibly two dozen or more gains. If it made two dozen gains north of the border that is 24 less seats that Labour has to gain in England and Wales.

There is an English dimension. Labour has up until now won the popular vote in England on a mere six occasions in its history: 1945, 1950, 1966, October 1974, 1997 and 2001 – the last time 23 years ago as myself and Eric Shaw explored in our book on Labour and Britishness: The People’s Flag and the Union Jack. To put in context Labour have won elections where it has formed a government prior to 2024 on eleven occasions.

The Nationalist retort is that voting SNP and delivering SNP MPs does not hinder a Labour Government, because it adds to the non-Tory tally and doesn’t increase the number of Tories. But this is deliberate obfuscation blurring the boundaries between an anti-Tory majority in the Commons and the possibility of a minority Labour Government where SNP votes matter and a majority Labour Government.

Secondly, the political atmosphere is now more conducive to Labour. The message “vote Labour to get a Labour Government” is simple and cuts through. The SNP are meant, according to party policy, to treat every vote as a mandate for independence. But recognising that they will get an electoral kicking they have backpedaled on this. Stephen Flynn, SNP Westminster leader, even denied party policy was to treat winning the most seats as an actual mandate to open independence negotiations: an anti-democratic policy overturning the will of Scots in the 2014 referendum.

Instead, in this election the SNP leadership under John Swinney have fallen back on familiar old lines: that only the SNP can ‘stand up for Scotland’ and somehow do this more effectively from Westminster opposition benches than Scottish Labour MPs on government benches.

The scale of Labour comeback and Nationalist reverse feels like a massive shift after so many years of SNP ascendancy. Polls consistently have Labour ahead of the SNP in votes and winning more seats, potentially winning a majority, and thus able to claim a mandate across England, Wales and Scotland – something the party last could in 2001; and the Tories have not been able to do once since 1945.

This leaves Labour in a good place to make a decent showing in the 2026 Scottish Parliament elections by which time the SNP will have been in office 19 years. There could be even more of a groundswell against the SNP by then; but a lot depends on how UK Labour act in office and govern in difficult circumstances.

Add to this that pre-2014 Scottish politics had different voting patterns for Holyrood and Westminster with the SNP doing better in the first, Labour in the second. This pattern was broken post-2014 and “the big bulge” of the SNP in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 Westminster contests, which is dissipating. What this means is that a decent Scottish Labour victory in 2024 is not an automatic harbinger of Labour winning in 2026 in Holyrood.

The mood change can be felt across Scotland. One Labour candidate told The Economist of the reception they get canvassing: ‘It’s nice that people don’t call us the c-word as much now.’ Dani Garavelli wrote in The Guardian that the SNP in office ‘talked the talk without walking the walk and took its supporters for granted’ meaning that it invoked a centre-left agenda without delivering on its promises.

Learning from the era of SNP ascendancy and resetting Labour

A wider canvas is needed. The SNP rose to dominance by strategically resetting its message in 2007 when it first formed a minority government, in 2011as a majority government, and in 2014 after a three-year campaign talking about their core subject (independence) brought the subject centre-stage and part of the mainstream.

The SNP have now unlearned the causes of their own success, embraced hubris, and fallen for their own hype. At their most successful as a party – in 2007, 2011 and the post-referendum 2015 Westminster contest when the SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats – the SNP’s primary message was not independence, but competent government and “standing up for Scotland”. The first of these now has less traction and credibility 17 years into SNP rule.

The main drivers behind Labour’s resurgence are the travails of the party’s main opponents: the Conservatives and SNP. What is missing so far from Scottish Labour is a strategic reset of its message and agenda as the SNP did previously in 2007, 2011 and 2014.

The party has an historic opportunity with its opponents in crisis and retreat and suffering a loss of confidence of an epic scale. This is the moment to begin to refashion a distinctive Scottish Labour agenda – breaking with the past clientist, patronage model of the party which was how they ran Scotland. Instead a new message would be dynamic, decentralist and outward looking.

It would champion widening working-class opportunities. Tackle child poverty, health inequalities and drug deaths (Scotland having the highest figures per head in Europe for the latter). It would be unashamedly pro-redistributionist and tackle vested interests, and advocate about a union which is a genuine partnership. This latter point would entail Scottish Labour acting as an unapologetic battering ram for change in the wider British labour movement – explicitly saying the current British state no longer works as an agent of progressive change and needs fundamental reform.

If the party do not do this soon, its re-emergence as an effective electoral force and serious challenger to the Nationalists might be a temporary phenomenon that will not survive the ebbs and flows which UK Labour in office will face.

For now the political weather has remarkably changed, compared to only 18 months ago and the end of the Sturgeon era. Scottish Labour has the wind behind its sails. The SNP are in retreat, demotivated and without a clear story of success in government or vision on independence. The Tories have no real raison d’être to put in Scotland, associated as they are with the declining British party (and to add to their woes their Scottish leader Douglas Ross resigning in the middle of the campaign). The Lib Dems struggle to find a national profile and the Greens have an impact in Holyrood but little in Westminster.

Scottish Labour’s fate is not entirely in its own hands. What the Starmer government, and SNP in the Scottish Parliament, do will be of consequence. But Labour has a rare opportunity to reshape Scottish politics. To do so it must resist reverting to being a party of conservatism and believing that ”normal service” and Labour’s natural dominance has been resumed.

Instead, it has to forge a new path that is ambitious and bold; remain part of the Labour family while standing up for Scottish interests – and daring to disagree with Starmer when necessary. This will be challenging, and the odds are probably against Scottish Labour being able to fully pull it off. Yet at the same time, they have earned the right to be listened to again which is huge progress and a major opportunity compared to where they were only a few years ago.

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