Sturgeon, a centre-left politician from a modest background, was a canny communicator able to capture and sustain the pro-independence zeitgeist that followed the referendum in 2014. But it is also fair to say that the SNP was able to thrive in a political eco-system where pro-Brexit Tories dominated Westminster and Labour was dragged to the far-left fringes under Jeremy Corbyn. The political landscape of 2023 is a different prospect and Sturgeon’s successor faces an almighty battle to cling on the coalition that she assembled.
How can Scottish Labour capitalise on this moment? The mood around Anas Sarwar, the party leader, is buoyant. Most people in the party would recognise Sturgeon’s talent and admit that she represented “middle Scotland” to most people north of the border, but without her the SNP may weaken. “Her leaving the scene is really the passing of an era in Scottish politics,” a Scottish Labour source said. “If you look at all the SNP candidates in Holyrood there is no one who can really hold a candle to her, not just in terms of political ability but in terms of relatability.”
The options include John Swinney, a figure of the old guard who was leader of the party from 2000 to 2004 and was beaten by Jack McConnell’s Labour in 2003; Angus Robertson, the Edinburgh Central MSP, who opponents say lacks the common touch; Humza Yousaf, whose record as health secretary has been called into question; and Kate Forbes, the finance secretary since 2020 and current favourite to take the top job.
All will have to contend with hopes of achieving independence in the medium term being vanishingly small – and all the internecine battles that will lead to. The Supreme Court ruled against the Scottish government’s bid to unilaterally hold a second referendum and old tensions have re-emerged between fundamentalists and gradualists: those who seek immediate, full independence and those who advocate a step-by-step approach. Whether to press on with Sturgeon’s plan to make the next general election a de facto referendum – which many of the SNP’s MPs oppose – will be decided at a special conference in the next few weeks. The divisions will not be pretty.
[See also: Scotland needs its own Rishi Sunak]
Meanwhile, the Scottish Tories are in disarray. Their leader, Douglas Ross, who among other slip-ups was forced into a U-turn over calling for Boris Johnson’s resignation, is struggling to gain any momentum despite his party vociferously opposing Sturgeon’s unpopular gender recognition reforms.
Labour, whose MSPs backed the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, insist voters are not raising the issue of gender reform during campaigning and say that many independence voters may resent being caught between the SNP, focused on a single policy, and a centre-left government in Westminster led by Keir Starmer. As such, they believe Sarwar is well placed to build a coalition of soft independence voters and unionists beyond the hardliners targeted by Ross.
They expect Starmer to maintain a “conciliatory and co-operative attitude to devolution”; Gordon Brown’s commission on the constitution, for example, recommends allowing Scotland to strike international agreements. Angela Rayner’s proposals on workers’ rights, it is hoped, outflank the SNP domestically.
A recent YouGov poll put the SNP on 42 per cent in Westminster voting intentions, Scottish Labour on 29 per cent and the Scottish Conservatives on 15 per cent. That could give Scottish Lavour as many as a dozen MPs, probably dotted across marginal seats in the central belt. That would allow it to shake off claims it is the UK party’s “branch office” before Holyrood elections in 2026.
One source said: “I don’t want to put any numbers on how many potential seats we could be looking at, but we’d be looking at that future Labour government not having the sole voice in Scotland, but hopefully a handful of MPs. And then suddenly the demographic complexion of that changes and it’s much much harder to portray it as ‘Scotland versus England’ when a party that they continue to tell us is an English party has sizable support in Scotland.”
They may never convince “the fully paid up members of the Yes club” but a Labour Party advocating NHS investment, resetting the UK’s relationship with Europe and rejecting divisive culture wars rhetoric will reap rewards.
Most within the party view Sturgeon’s resignation as a seismic event from which the independence movement is not likely to recover for a long time. “The fact is, it’s slowly dawning on members of Scottish National Party that they’re in a political cul de sac,” the source added. “They’ve had decades to keep a sustained majority for independence in Scotland and they’ve failed to do that. To be honest, they’ve blown it.”