‘Labour cannot be complacent about a return in Scotland – or the union’s future’

Keiran Pedley
© Paolo Gallo/Shutterstock.com

The resignation of Humza Yousaf as First Minister of Scotland last week provides yet more political opportunity for Labour as a general election approaches. Whilst leadership changes can give parties an opportunity to reset, the SNP looks divided and in disarray at a time when public confidence in them has already been fading in Scotland. 

Ipsos polling in March showed Scots hold a net unfavourable view of the SNP and think they have done a bad job in government in Scotland on key issues such as improving the NHS (56%) or improving living standards in Scotland (47%) . Seven in ten now say Scotland needs a fresh team of leaders.

The net beneficiaries of such sentiment look likely to be Labour. Whilst six in ten Scots have an unfavourable view of the Scottish Conservatives, 45% think Labour is ready for government in Westminster.

The Scottish public also told us this week they think a Labour-led Scottish government would do a better, rather than worse, job than an SNP-led government by a margin of 39% to 27%.

Meanwhile, the independence question, the most important issue for Scots as recently as April 2021, now sits fifth on a list of priorities behind the NHS, cost of living, economy and education

The SNP could yet be more resilient than expected

This all suggests Labour is likely to gain seats at the next general election in Scotland and may even compete to form a government in Holyrood in 2026.

However, the party would be wise not to get ahead of itself. It is too early to know where public opinion will land on the SNP once a new leader is in place. It is possible they do well and get the party’s house in order. Public opinion in Scotland has been volatile in recent years. You cannot be certain which way it goes next.

There is also no real polling consensus on Labour and the SNP’s true level of support in a Westminster election either. Opinion polls since the start of the year have shown anything from a three-point Labour lead to a seven-point SNP one.

All of which puts the SNP in a much worse position than they were in 2019, but the breakdown of seats won by each party in Scotland is highly sensitive to small movements in the polls. The SNP could yet be more resilient than expected in terms of seats retained at the next general election.

Regardless, any sense that the SNP is somehow going to fade away as a political force feels far-fetched. Polling for the Scottish parliament, for example, still consistently has them in first place on the constituency vote. Again, significantly down on the 2021 Scottish parliament election but still resilient and still a major force in Scottish politics. Especially when the next Scottish parliament election might not be until 2026.

And the independence question is not going away

If the SNP are not going anywhere, neither is the question of Scottish independence – it cannot be assumed that falling salience today is permanent. 

In the short term, the independence question offers a tactical challenge for Labour. A party seeking to gain votes from both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ side in a way the SNP and Conservatives are not. Perhaps this won’t matter so much at the general election, if salience of the issue has fallen, but it is a challenge and one that could grow in future.

More importantly, Scots remain divided on the question of independence itself almost down the middle. Pollsters differ on the level of Yes support but polling this year has it anywhere between 47% and 53% once don’t knows are removed.

With a majority of those aged under 50 in favour, even in the polls where Yes is weakest, the union cannot be considered secure, even if independence isn’t the most important issue to Scots right now.

A re-energised SNP could emerge if Labour doesn’t deliver

Despite these challenges, Labour’s leaders in Scotland and Westminster have a big opportunity to capitalise on instability at the top of the SNP and SNP fatigue in Scotland more generally. Should Labour make it into Downing Street, Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves will also have an opportunity to show Labour can deliver for Scotland and to show a divided country that the union is worth sticking with. Perhaps Anas Sarwar can even hope to become First Minister in Holyrood too.

And yet it could all go so wrong. We know that the political inheritance Starmer and Reeves will likely take on in Westminster will be a very difficult one.

If a Labour government in Westminster is not seen as delivering for Scotland, a re-energised SNP could emerge under new leadership that threatens Labour once again in Westminster and puts independence back on the agenda at the 2026 Holyrood elections and beyond.

Whilst not the most pressing question today, a decade from now we could find the union under threat if the question rises up the agenda again at a time when the 2014 referendum is 20 years old.

Recently, Gordon Brown warned that “in the long run, the forces pulling Britain apart are greater than the forces holding it together, unless something is done about it”. Unionists in Labour should consider their response carefully whilst they have the breathing space to do so.

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