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  1. Election 2024
31 May 2024

Scottish MPs will be central to a Starmer government

Labour will have to move quickly to prove to Scottish voters that their support matters.

By Chris Deerin

What on earth will Keir Starmer do with all these new Scottish MPs? After 4 July he will, according to most polls, have somewhere between 20 and 30 of them. Given there are currently just two, Labour high command is preparing to welcome a high-spirited tartan army to Westminster. Late-night debates about socialism over cans of Tennent’s on the London Sleeper are about to become a thing again.

There will, of course, be many new Labour MPs from all across the UK. But the Scottish contingent will carry extra weight and arrive with heightened expectations. The calculation will change from what Scotland can do for Labour to what Labour can do for Scotland.

The party has been predominantly English since the 2015 general election, when it lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats to the great SNP sweep. It has taken a decade for that debilitating and psychologically damaging defeat to be redressed.

The contrast with 1997 couldn’t be starker. Throughout the Tory administrations of the 1980s and 1990s, Labour was a shrunken force south of the border and relied heavily on its rock-solid Scottish seats. Tony Blair’s first cabinet was stocked with experienced, talented Scots who had stuck around through the bad years: Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, George Robertson, Alistair Darling, Donald Dewar and Gavin Strang. Not to forget Derry Irvine.

Today’s Labour front bench contains only one Scot – the shadow Scotland Secretary Ian Murray. All the biggest jobs are held by English MPs, who will doubtless expect to retain their current briefs in office.

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But Starmer is aware that he must quickly prove to Scottish voters that their support for him has changed things. This means their representatives must play a significant part in running a British government that has come to seem very southern. There will need to be Scottish accents around the cabinet table, throughout Whitehall and on the airwaves. Out of those 20 to 30 MPs, Starmer will have to select a few to turn into stars. This will matter visually, aurally and subliminally as Labour seeks to re-establish its Scottish hegemony and restore the Union as a comfortable home for an electorate that continues to flirt with independence.

I’m told one option being considered is the appointment of a Scottish MP to every government department, aside from purely English portfolios such as health and education. The question is, is Starmer willing to go further?

Reports suggest Douglas Alexander, who held the cabinet jobs of international development, transport and Scotland under Blair and Brown, might replace David Lammy as foreign secretary (though Labour sources have described the rumours as “nonsense”). He certainly has the chops for it – since his shattering loss in 2015 to the SNP’s then 20-year-old Mhairi Black, Alexander has pursued a global career, teaching at Harvard and a number of the world’s other top universities, and worked with Bono to tackle global poverty.

Alexander, who is almost certain to win in East Lothian, today cuts a far more interesting figure than the princeling of the New Labour years. The hints of cockiness and entitlement that occasionally surfaced then are gone, and he is a more rounded, considered man. He will be among the smartest, most eloquent and most experienced Labour MPs and is an obvious candidate for a big post.

Other prospects for senior appointments are being kicked around. Kirsty McNeill, who is standing in Midlothian, was an adviser to Brown during the financial crisis, is executive director of Save the Children and is highly rated by everyone. The wily Blair McDougall ran the Better Together campaign in 2014 and is fighting East Renfrewshire. Martin McCluskey is a well-regarded young policy wonk who is expected to win in Inverclyde and Renfrewshire West. Patricia Ferguson, in Glasgow West, was a Holyrood cabinet minister under Jack McConnell.

It doesn’t seem like installing Murray in Dover House will be enough to satisfy the Scottish appetite – or to give Anas Sarwar as smooth as possible a run at Bute House in 2026. And so Starmer may have some tough decisions to take. Given his apparent ruthlessness, he is perfectly capable of taking them. If Rachel Reeves has a firm grip on the Treasury, what about the foreign office, or defence, or international development, business and trade, work and pensions, energy security, the environment?

Civil servants have been preparing for a Labour government for many months, even as they have continued to serve Tory ministers. As well as a tartan tinge running through the Starmer administration, they expect Labour to throw some early policy baubles northwards, and have been working on options.

They are interested in proposals put forward by Murdo Fraser, a Conservative MSP, which include Westminster legislating to empower the Scottish Parliament to initiate judicial inquiries, independent of the devolved government; potentially increasing the number of MSPs; and giving them Westminster-style parliamentary privilege. Neither Labour nor the mandarinate seems keen to hand Holyrood significant additional powers in areas such as, say, immigration or corporation tax (both of which really should be considered). But they do want to do something.

When the new ministers take office, the civil service is likely to present them with a palate of sweeteners for Scotland. Another idea being considered is preferential funding treatment for young Scots travelling around the UK.

Fair enough. But in the end, bribes won’t make the biggest difference to how Scots view the Union. That will come through a Labour government that looks and sounds sufficiently Scottish, and that takes positions that chime with “Scottish values”. It will come with administrations on both sides of the border that can work in concert, even if they sometimes disagree. It will, of course, need the SNP to be ejected from power at Holyrood.

Starmer will have many matters of great weight to juggle in his first days. Whether he likes it or not, Scotland will have to be near the top of the list.

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