Iain Macwhirter Iain Macwhirter

Can Scottish Labour really vanquish the SNP?

Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar (Photo: Getty)

There is a distinct air of unreality about the position of the Scottish Labour party as it enters this election campaign. Frankly, many in the party don’t believe opinion polls suggesting, as YouGov did last week, that they are 10 per cent ahead of the SNP and could return up to 35 MPs on 4 July. ‘In yer dreams, pal’ say canvassers tramping the rainy pavements of urban Scotland. The collapse in the fortunes of the Scottish National party, and their own corresponding rise, has just been too sudden.

Perhaps Anas Sarwar’s biggest task is to get his battered troops to believe

After all, the Scottish Labour party currently has only two MPs in Scotland out of 57 – that’s the same as Alex Salmond’s tiny Alba party. Even the Scottish Liberal Democrats currently have four. Only a couple of years ago, the SNP was registering over 50 per cent in some opinion polls and Labour was 20 points behind – rather as the Tories are today in the UK. Politics has become increasingly volatile in western democracies, but the transformation of the Scottish political landscape in the year since Nicola Sturgeon resigned is something else. 

So, perhaps Anas Sarwar’s biggest task is to get his battered troops to believe. To take themselves seriously after a decade in which the SNP has dominated politics at every level in Scotland, and is even the third largest party in the House of Commons. Scottish Labour has been in the doldrums for a decade. Its activist base has been hollowed out and party membership is still only around a quarter of that of the SNP, even after the nationalists’ own difficulties. Sarwar had to enlist candidates from south of the border to make up the numbers in this election.

But victory is there for the taking. On any sober assessment of the opinion polls Labour is clearly poised to take 20 plus seats from the SNP on 4 July. The SNP has had a dire year in which it has lost two leaders, suffered a succession of spectacular policy failures, and has seen its alliance with the Scottish Green party collapse in acrimony. The new SNP leader, John Swinney, a retread who was spectacularly unsuccessful when he was leader 20 years ago, is already in difficulties. His campaign launch yesterday was overshadowed by a scandal over ministerial expenses and the latest development in Operation Branchform. As Swinney rose to speak, Police Scotland announced that they had finally sent their report to the prosecution service charging Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, the former SNP chief executive, of embezzlement of party funds. Well, at least it wasn’t raining, said one SNP insider.

So there is everything for Labour to play for. Keir Starmer’s message today at Labour’s campaign launch in Glasgow was ‘don’t just send a message to Westminster [as the SNP say] send a change of government’. Their USP is that only a vote for Labour in Scotland is a vote to kick the Tories out in Westminster.

Mind you, Labour is doing so well right now, UK-wide, that that message may have lost its edge. It is anyway a rather negative way to appeal for votes. 

Sir Keir Starmer’s big offer to Scots today was the promise of a publicly-owned energy company, GB Energy, to be based in Scotland. He promised it would deliver jobs and reduce bills. However, Anas Sarwar is not without his own local difficulties on energy, one of Scotland’s biggest employers. Starmer’s moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the North Sea has not gone down well in the North East of Scotland where some 100,000 jobs rely on fossil fuel extraction. Labour’s plan to increase and extend the windfall tax on oil and gas profits could, say energy analysts, destroy most of those jobs. The Unite union wants Labour to allocate £6 billion to save 30,000 jobs by 2030. We heard nothing from Sir Keir Starmer in his Glasgow launch today to give them much hope of getting it.

So, Sarwar’s main problem in the next six weeks will be aligning his programme with that of his UK leader. There have been a number of other policy discontinuities. Sarwar is committed to scrapping the two child benefit cap; Starmer isn’t. Nor is the UK leader an enthusiast for that ceasefire in Gaza for which Sarwar has been an outspoken advocate. There have been disagreements too on support for frontline workers on picket lines.

Sarwar was ridiculed by nationalists at the last Labour conference when he said he was ready and willing to ‘stand up’ to Starmer. Critics said that just confirmed that the Scottish leader is in an inferior role. The claim that Scottish Labour is merely a ‘branch office’ will be a running theme of the SNP campaign. The nationalists will paint Keir Starmer as a pale imitation of Tony Blair – a figure who has a special place in Scottish political demonology. They’ll attack Labour over Starmer’s rhetoric on immigration, his support for nuclear power and his abandonment of its promise to spend £28 billion a year on the transition to green energy. Above all they will say that the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, plans to extend ‘Tory austerity’ by imposing rigid restraint on public spending.

The Scottish Labour party has traditionally been significantly to the left of UK Labour on issues like taxation and nuclear disarmament, and many activists are unenthusiastic about Keir Starmer’s apparent adoption of Tory fiscal rectitude and issues like lifting the cap on bankers bonuses. But we will hear little dissent from the Labour ranks in the next six weeks. Anas Sarwar has imposed tight discipline in the three years he’s been in charge. Moreover, the SNP is now run by two small ‘c’ conservative politicians , John Swinney and Kate Forbes, both of whom are pro-business and fiscally responsible. Attacking Labour for lurching to the right may backfire on the nationalists who are staggering in the same centrist direction.

The SNP has changed almost as much as Labour since the departure of the Scottish Greens. Change is very much in the air in Scottish politics right now. By 4 July Anas Sarwar fully intends to bring the nationalist decade of dominance to an abrupt end. 

Written by
Iain Macwhirter

Iain Macwhirter is a former BBC TV presenter and was political commentator for The Herald between 1999 and 2022. He is an author of Road to Referendum and Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland.

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