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12 May 2022

Can Scottish Labour ever hope to challenge the SNP?

Persuading SNP supporters to “come home” is a far harder task for Labour than winning over Tory voters.

By Chris Deerin

According to a beaming Anas Sarwar, last week’s local elections were “the first cheerful day for the Scottish Labour Party in almost a decade”.

There was indeed much to be happy about for a party starved of hope for so long. Most importantly, Labour knocked the Tories into third place, both for council seats held and share of the vote. The trauma and humiliation of being disliked more than the party of Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson is over, in the town halls at least. Labour also gained ground on the SNP in the totemic city of Glasgow, and took overall control of West Dunbartonshire Council – the latter being no mean feat under a PR voting system, and matched only by the SNP in trenchantly pro-independence Dundee.

A critic might note, however, that there remains plenty to be cautious about. Labour received 21.8 per cent of first preference votes, not very much more than the Conservatives’ 19.6 per cent. Party sources say that had they stood candidates in more wards they’d have got closer to 24 per cent, but they didn’t, and so they didn’t. It’s also the case that Labour only gained 19 extra seats, for a total of 281. The SNP, for all its recent troubles and after 15 years in power, managed to increase its haul by 22 to 453 seats, and its first preference vote rose by 1.8 per cent compared to Labour’s 1.6 per cent. The Greens and the Lib Dems also had a good day.

There is, then, an element of boosterism to Sarwar’s claim – Nicola Sturgeon is hardly shaking in her heels. Labour is still third at Holyrood and so will have to repeat the trick at the next Scottish Parliament election in 2026. But let’s not be churlish: the party went into the election seeking a narrative that it is on the up, and got one. All of the important metrics are pointing in the right direction. Having for so long arrived at gunfights wielding a spork, it is finally back in the game.

What next? Sarwar has helpfully mapped out his long campaign in four stages, summed up pithily by a party source this week as “survive, get to second, challenge the SNP, win”. Labour is now somewhere between the second and third stages, even if the fourth seems as out of reach as ever.

Stage three is also vertiginously challenging. Some unionist voters may have returned to Labour from the Tories, but for every vote the party has lost to the Conservatives, roughly three have gone to the SNP. Sarwar’s only route to power is to persuade former Labour supporters who have spent the last decade backing the nationalists to “come home”.

“The good news is that all polling shows that most SNP voters have a soft spot for Labour – they don’t hate the party in the way they hate the Tories,” says a Labour source. “The average SNP voter is not your ‘Scottish Labour and the Tories are just two cheeks of the same arse’ Twitter fanatic.”

Sarwar polls reasonably well with SNP voters, says the source, “but crucially so does Keir”. Labour strategists believe recovery at Westminster is the best route to renewal at Holyrood, and so will campaign on “booting the Tories out” until the next general election, in the hope soft nationalists will help them do just that. “There will be a real concerted push to win over SNP voters,” says the source. Scottish Labour is desperate for Starmer to hold firm on his “no deals” message. “We can’t give Sturgeon the opportunity to say ‘vote for me and you can still get a Lab government’.” It wouldn’t be the first time that London has shafted them.

From there the strategy quickly moves into an elaborate domino set-up. In short, a Labour government at Westminster would benefit Scottish Labour, and remove the sting of continued union for former voters who deserted Labour for the SNP but who are growing tired of endless nationalist hegemony. This then brings stage four – “win” – into play for Holyrood 2026. There’s a lot going on there.

Labour is desperate for the Scottish political debate to refocus away from the constitution and on to public services and the economy. Sarwar has struck a notably pro-business tone in contrast to the Nats’ diffidence, and believes the Scottish government’s failings on education and health are a major weak point, if only the voters would notice. It is probably helpful to be out of office on both sides of the border in the next few years, which lets Labour critique both the Conservatives and the SNP as the cost-of-living crisis carves a vicious swathe through the population. The departure of Sturgeon, which is thought likely ahead of 2026, might also provide an opportunity to change the political map.

But as the academics who produced the Scottish Election study this week pointed out, the electorate casts its vote largely on constitutional grounds – if you want independence you back a pro-Yes party, regardless of its broader performance, with the opposite being true for unionists. This is the definitive fact of Scottish politics, and unless it changes, the prospect of Labour beating the SNP seems as far off as it ever was. 

Scottish democracy would undoubtedly benefit from a better and stronger challenge to the dominant, overweening nationalist machine, and closer political competition. But if Labour is to beat the SNP it must first change the electorate.

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