Gerry Hassan argues the end of an era of SNP domination is a major opportunity for Labour
Scottish politics in recent times have been defined by the dominance of the SNP – 16 years in office, four Scottish Parliament elections and three Westminster contests in a row won.
Numerous political opponents have been vanquished. Scottish Labour were humbled in the 2015 Westminster election and reduced to a single seat. Several Labour and Tory leaders have come and gone, unable to challenge the SNP.
Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon presided over this era of Scottish politics. They turned the SNP into a fearsome electoral winning machine, one which could not be challenged by its opponents but which, despite all this, even at its peak could not win its ultimate goal: independence.
This era came to an abrupt end when Sturgeon resigned as First Minister on 15th February. This was followed by a rushed SNP leadership contest, won by Humza Yousaf over Kate Forbes by 52% to 48%. Both are sitting Cabinet ministers – Yousaf for health and Forbes for finance. Yousaf positioned himself as the ‘continuity’ candidate backed by the party establishment, Forbes as the ‘change’ candidate.
A Labour insider commented: “It was clear to everyone that whoever came after Sturgeon would be a big step down, but there is now a bigger opening. There is no leadership impetus, ideas or action. It is horribly obvious that they are the reserve team for an outfit that was already struggling.”
Yousaf is now confronted with the wheels falling off the SNP bus. In the midst of the contest, the SNP were found being dishonest about falling party membership levels leading to the resignation of Peter Murrell, party chief executive for the previous 24 years and husband of Sturgeon: a concentration of power in one couple which long caused concerns in the party.
Yousaf’s election as SNP leader and First Minister produced no electoral boost or honeymoon. The party’s ongoing crisis accelerated post-Sturgeon and Murrell. Police raided their home, seized documents from party headquarters and arrested Murrell. The reason for this was the murky, messy state of SNP finances, with £660,000 raised in an appeal for an indyref not ringfenced, while Murrell loaned the party £107,000 without initially declaring it.
The SNP have become victims of believing their own hype and in their own invincibility. The cumulative effect of two all-powerful leaders – first Salmond and second Sturgeon – has come at a cost to party democracy and decision-making, with detrimental effects on government effectiveness.
That Sturgeon manipulated and truncated democracy concerning how the SNP was run had been apparent for years. No-one was trusted or empowered in the party or allowed to make serious strategic decisions. This impaired how the party was run, how decisions were made and contributed to the atrophying of the party and growing policy mistakes and problems.
Even allowing for the reputation of Sturgeon’s command-and-control leadership, the extent of the mess revealed – financial mismanagement which may border on illegality and criminal charges (and at the minimum raises major ethical issues) – is going to have a commensurate effect on the SNP. The combination of these multiple problems for the SNP – a crisis of the party, of how it does government and politics, and how it does leadership after the long era of Salmond and Sturgeon, which cast a long shadow over the party – will be difficult, possibly insurmountable.
What has happened to the SNP story of Scotland? One question for the SNP now is, what does it realistically stand for, with independence off the agenda for the foreseeable future? The party’s claim to stand for competent government has been shot to pieces. Its belief in its unique ability to represent a successful centre-left administration and be electorally successful is now less credible.
The SNP once had a compelling story to tell of Scotland and its future – of an increasingly confident, self-governing nation – which, in the 2007 and 2011 Scottish elections and SNP victories, had a conviction and authenticity. They at these points filled a void which had been left by Scottish Labour.
Labour had campaigned for a Scottish Parliament for decades, but when it was established, they seemed to have little idea of what this new institution was positively meant to be for and do. This was felt at the time in the Labour-Lib Dem administrations of 1999-2007 led by Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell. The SNP made people feel that the devolution project had a purpose, vision and story. But now that perspective has grown exhausted and become discredited.
The changing electoral landscape
The SNP are well entrenched in Scottish politics, having won 48 out of 59 seats at Westminster in 2019 and 64 out of 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament in 2021. Yet there is now a serious chance of a sustained electoral challenge to the SNP from Scottish Labour led by Anas Sarwar.
Scottish Labour still only holds a single Westminster seat and is the third force in the Scottish Parliament in votes and seats – with 22 MSPs in comparison to 31 for the Tories. But recent polls have shown Labour closing the gap with the SNP and reducing its lead to a narrow one, with the expectation they may, as SNP troubles mount, establish and sustain a lead over the Nationalists.
The changing terrain of Scotland’s electoral landscape has major consequences, not just north of the border but for UK politics. Given the electoral mountain Keir Starmer and Labour need to surmount, any major shift in Scotland eases the gradient that the party needs to overcome in England.
The Scottish electoral map has numerous SNP-Labour marginals, and it is not inconceivable that Labour could aim to win 20 seats from the SNP and perhaps, if SNP problems continue, to even finish ahead of them in seats and votes.
Richard Rose of Strathclyde University has studied UK elections since 1959 and thinks the SNP will still gain at UK contests from a divided unionist vote, and that by 2026, “the SNP might have a new leader and new strategy for governing [and] could remain the biggest party in the next Scottish Parliament”.
One early test of Labour’s ability will be the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election which will be called if Margaret Ferrier, who has been suspended from the Commons, faces a recall petition. The SNP has a mere 5,230 (9.7%) majority over Labour, and Labour narrowly won the seat back in 2017 with a 265 (0.5%) majority when it had a mini-Scottish revival. Anything less than a convincing Labour win will result in questions being asked.
The SNP are likely to face difficult elections in 2024 for Westminster and 2026 for the Scottish Parliament, but the party is not going away, nor is the ultimate cause it represents – independence. Too many superficial takes from London pro-union commentators have called time on ‘the Scottish question’ – prone as they are to superficial takes on it and short attention spans.
One major factor will be the agenda of any Labour government elected in 2024 and how successful it can be in addressing the big issues: the state of the economy, public services, living standards, and the tarnished, corrupted nature of Westminster and the British state. On the terrain of the governance of the UK and democracy, Labour’s offer is thin and unconvincing, based on the Gordon Brown democracy Commission, which has proposed a series of English local government reforms along with abolition of the House of Lords, while saying nothing about Scotland and Wales.
More damning, not only does the Brown Commission not say anything far-reaching about Britain’s rotten political centre and changing the formal way it relates to and governs the rest of the UK, but it is firmly rooted in Labour’s limited idea of constitutional reform: maintaining FPTP, parliamentary sovereignty and the belief in majority Labour governments elected on a minority vote. And, of course, the Brown Commission does not even have the full buy-in and commitment of Keir Starmer and the Labour leadership, who will take selectively from it while not going further.
All this means that the dynamics which underpin the Scottish question and the issue of self-government are not going to disappear. The SNP are away to experience a period of stormy water and uncomfortable questions about how they have done politics; they will also face a serious electoral challenge from Scottish Labour – their first for many years.
Without fundamental reform and transformation to the nature of the UK by a Labour government which goes far beyond New Labour in office, the Scottish question and independence will return in some form. For this to happen, the SNP are going to have to find a new direction and way of doing things: a different, more pluralist way of doing politics, a more effective way of governing and running Scotland, and a completely new version of independence – one more honest, which acknowledges the risks in the project, and which treats voters as adults and does not try to hoodwink them by pretending that everything will be alright.
An era of Scottish politics shaped by SNP dominance has now ended and a new one of opportunity has opened for Scottish Labour. In ways which have resonance with Starmer’s poll lead over the Tories, none of the new political weather in Scotland has been created by Scottish Labour – although the revival of UK Labour has had an impact.
The Scottish party now even more have to answer the questions: what do you stand for? What do you believe in apart from being against the SNP, Tories and independence? And what positive agenda of change do you want to champion and implement? Just as the SNP have fallen short in recent times on the kind of Scotland they wish to see, so now the attention and scrutiny passes onto Scottish Labour, who will themselves have difficult questions to answer.