Labour has a chance to win back Scotland if they can offer voters the change they long for
The independence referendum in 2014 transformed Scottish politics. It led directly to Labour’s electoral collapse in 2015 when the SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats.
Mobilising the 45 per cent who had voted “Yes” under first-past-the-post in multi-party Scotland translated half Scotland’s votes into 95 per cent of seats. The SNP appeared invincible so long as independence remained top of the agenda.
But politics has been more turbulent than often assumed. The SNP has been unable to repeat its 2011 Holyrood elections performance of winning an overall majority. It lost 21 seats in 2017 and although recovered with a net gain of 13 seats in 2019, the party never achieved its post-referendum high. The will of the Scottish people is far from settled.
Nearly a decade on from the referendum and the SNP’s invincibility looks distinctly dubious
Nearly a decade on from the referendum and the SNP’s invincibility looks distinctly dubious. The SNP’s problems have been accumulating. Its record in Holyrood is far from impressive across the range of devolved competences. Nicola Sturgeon’s “launch” of the Glen Sannox ferry is coming to symbolise the SNP’s period in office under her leadership. The ferry’s bridge windows had been painted on and the ferry still remains unfinished five years on at escalating costs. Support for independence remains stubbornly around the 2014 level. Frustrations boiled over during the SNP leadership contest.
While public opinion on independence appears entrenched with little movement either way, the SNP cannot take the 45 per cent for granted for two reasons. First, that support consists of two distinct groups. The first is classic nationalist support, i.e. those who believe in principle the Scottish nation should be a state. Such people will likely continue to vote SNP regardless. This is the SNP’s core vote. But the other group is instrumentalist whose support for independence is conditional. This latter group are key to the outcome of the next United Kingdom election in Scotland. It includes many who came to support independence for the first time over the course of the long referendum campaign.
Many of these people may decide to stick with the SNP in the hope of putting pressure on the new Parliament to agree to another referendum, though must worry that this is a forlorn hope and indeed that another referendum would be a massive gamble. Others may want independence but recognise this is unlikely to happen over the next five years and vote Labour to get rid of the Tories, a key motivation for many supporters of independence.
Labour will seek to frame the choice in Scotland between voting Labour to get rid of the Tories immediately versus voting SNP in the hope that at some point a referendum is granted and that there will be a majority for independence. Such voters might at some future point return to voting the SNP.
The second reason why the SNP cannot take the 45 per cent for granted is more worrisome for the party but also a major challenge for Labour. Instrumentalist supporters of independence might be tempted to support a reformed union. Not only might they lend Labour their vote at the next UK election, but they might abandon support for independence depending on what Labour does in power.
As the next UK election approaches, the SNP will be on the defensive. Its prospect of winning the 50+ per cent of the vote that Nicola Sturgeon set as a target in June last year with her de-facto referendum was an odd form of expectation management. Her departure at least reduces expectations and will make any lack of progress, leave aside losses, less damaging.
Humza Yousaf’s challenge is to manage expectations in such a way that accommodates the likelihood of losses without encouraging supporters of independence to think an SNP vote is wasted.
James Mitchell, professor of politics and international relations at Edinburgh University
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