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10 October 2022

Nicola Sturgeon targets Keir Starmer’s Brexit vulnerabilities

Will the First Minister’s attempt to paint Labour as being in bed with the Tories still work in a new political context?

By Rachel Wearmouth

Nicola Sturgeon made headlines yesterday when she declared “I detest the Tories”. And the First Minister’s speech to the SNP conference today (10 October) saw her duly denounce Liz Truss’s “misery-go-round” and the new Conservative government’s “disastrous policy agenda”.

But much more intriguing was how she chose to attack Keir Starmer’s resurgent Labour Party. Sturgeon tried to replay old battles, citing how Labour campaigned with the Tories for a No vote during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. That decision led to claims of betrayal and a near-wipeout of Labour MPs north of the border at the 2015 general election.

In this speech, the SNP leader claimed that Labour was “doing it all over again” when it came to Brexit, and that Starmer was “just as committed to Brexit – a hard Brexit – as the Tories”.

“Bluntly, they are willing to chuck Scotland under Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus to get the keys to Downing Street,” she told delegates.

It’s a rather dated argument given that the EU referendum was more than six years ago, and that polls show little appetite among voters for reigniting the Brexit divisions. Presenting Labour as being in bed with the Tories is a tried and tested method for driving up SNP support when the question is “who is best to oppose the Conservatives in Westminster”. But the difference now is that Labour, a party that shares many of the SNP’s progressive values, is a credible alternative government. How Scottish voters respond to that at a UK general election remains to be seen.

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The pollster John Curtice wrote last week for the New Statesman about how Labour “is still largely fishing in unionist waters” and will struggle to better the seven Westminster seats secured by Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 unless it wins over SNP voters.

[See also: Most Labour voters want Keir Starmer to reverse Brexit]

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But by returning to old forms of combat, rather than engaging with new ones, Sturgeon showed the SNP does not have much of a game plan either. A better strategy, and one that has also proved effective before, may have been to love-bomb Labour. Tory attack ads in 2015, which painted Ed Miliband as being in the pocket of the previous SNP leader Alex Salmond, were devastating for Labour at that election. Hugging your opponent close can be just as fatal as taking potshots if there is a common enemy.

Brexit continues to damage the economy, however, and Starmer could pay a price in Scotland, which relies more heavily on migrant labour than other parts of the UK. How Labour would rebuild bridges with Europe will likely be important at the next election, especially when both Starmer and Truss have said their top priority is addressing the UK’s stubbornly sluggish growth. And yet the Labour leader has flatly ruled out rejoining the EU or the single market.

Sturgeon also used the speech to end speculation over her future as First Minister, underlining that her job “is not done” and receiving a standing ovation as she declared she would be in post “for quite some time”.

The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision by Christmas on whether Holyrood should have the power to hold a fresh Scottish independence referendum. Sturgeon said she would “reflect” on the ruling once it was made but that, if approved, a new vote could be held by next October.

But if the Scottish government’s case is rejected, the SNP could soon be redrawing familiar battle lines of its own – those between the fundamentalists who demand independence now and the gradualists who favour a more patient approach. Sturgeon’s genius as leader has been to bridge the gap between those two forces. But her threat to make the next election a “de facto referendum” if the court rules against her government, is unpopular with the Scottish general public and could leave the SNP exposed.

The SNP remains by far the most popular party in Scotland. But how Sturgeon holds together a pro-independence movement when all routes to it appear blocked is not yet a question she can answer.

[See also: Scotland’s rent freeze]

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