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5 July 2024

The SNP has finally been punished

Scottish Labour is now the overwhelming favourite to take back Holyrood in 2026.

By Chris Deerin

The SNP has finally paid the price for too many years of chaos, incompetence and self-indulgence, and what a heavy price it is. Paid not just in Glasgow and Edinburgh, as was expected, but in Stirling and Falkirk and Fife and Ayrshire too.

Big hitters such as Joanna Cherry, Alyn Smith and Stewart McDonald are gone – each perhaps a loss to parliament, but each swept aside by a spasm of anger from the Scottish electorate. It was a chastening – indeed humiliating – night for a party that has breezily carried all before it for the past decade and more.

At the time of writing the Nats had held just nine of their 48 Westminster seats (Scotland has 57 in total). Proportionally, their loss is much greater than that inflicted on the Conservatives at a UK level.

John Swinney has failed his first big test as SNP leader. He has the excuse – and it is a fair one – of having only taken over eight weeks ago, and has had to wrestle with the considerable damage done by his predecessors Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf.

Nevertheless, such is the scale of the defeat, such is the overwhelming and unignorable shift in public opinion that Scottish Labour must now be the clear favourite to take back Holyrood at the devolved election in 2026. It doesn’t feel like a warning so much as an electorate determinedly on the move. That is the real import of last night, and it will send chills down nationalist spines.

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This result is much worse than all but the gloomiest independence supporter expected. The polls had projected that the Nats might be reduced to the teens. Labour thought it might hit 30 seats, and perhaps a little higher if it had a very good night.

Labour had a very, very good night. Swings of near 20 per cent from the SNP left Keir Starmer with 37 Scottish MPs, up from just two.

Swinney offered humility – what else could he offer? – as he gazed across what was left of his London team. It was, he said, “a very, very difficult and damaging night” and there would need to be “soul searching”. “We need to learn from this setback, listen to the public and pick ourselves back up.”

But they have almost no time to do so: less than two years, after 17 underwhelming years in government at Holyrood. Ultimately, the SNP has one card to play that the other major parties don’t: it wants independence. It campaigned heavily on the issue – page one, line one of its manifesto – and although support for separation remains in the mid to high 40s, backing for the Nats has cratered at 30 per cent, which is generally held to be the level of its core vote. 

If this election was any kind of statement on independence and another referendum – and the SNP insisted throughout the campaign that winning a majority of Scottish seats would empower the party to negotiate a fresh vote with the British government – then the message should be heard. The voters, for now at least, are simply not interested.

So where does the party go from here? It can’t stop talking about independence – that is its purpose. But this obsession is, clearly, increasingly off-putting to today’s Scottish electorate. A poor record in managing the public services and the economy will be hard if not impossible to put right in the time available. It would require a massive shift in focus and policy, and it is hard to believe this exhausted movement has that kind of energy left in it, even if it can somehow and suddenly identify any of the solutions.

The momentum is now with Anas Sarwar’s Scottish Labour. The Labour leader has instantly shifted his focus towards 2026, which he described as the “second stage”. “Let’s be really clear, it’s a rejection of the SNP,” he said on Friday morning. “I think John Swinney’s got a lot of reflecting to do on a lot of things. He spent six weeks attacking the Labour Party. You can see the verdict of the Scottish people not just on that approach to this election campaign but on the SNP’s approach to government. The incompetence, the failure has to end, and we’ve got to have governments working in the interests of Scotland.”

The Scottish Conservatives, meanwhile, must now find themselves a new leader. Douglas Ross, who announced his resignation from that post mid-campaign after deciding to stand for Westminster, failed to win Aberdeenshire North and Moray East, after Reform polled 5,500 votes, splitting Tory support. The SNP candidate, Seamus Logan, beat Ross by just 942 votes to claim the seat. The Conservatives at least held their three seats in the Borders, and were on course to repeat their 2019 haul of six.

General election 2024 is over, and has delivered a generational shift in Scottish politics. A possible new era of Scottish Labour hegemony has been signposted. For the nation’s weary voters, there will be no let-up – the race to 2026 starts today.

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