Victory feels palpable in Scotland – but the real challenge for Labour comes later
Last month the great, the good and the naughty of Scottish politics gathered in the beautiful, verdant surroundings of the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.
Holyrood magazine’s (a sister of this publication) annual bash is a cracking night out. Fine wine is imbibed, hair is let down, and some highly dodgy activity occurs on the dancefloor – all of which allows us political watchers to take the temperature of Scottish politics, which was stuck for so long in a holding pattern of SNP dominance. But things are changing.
Starmer will need to show the people of Scotland that a Labour government can deliver for them and fast
I was struck by how jubilant and glowing Scottish Labour MSPs were. For so long they have been weary, sorry looking souls, but that all changed last March after the shock resignation of Nicola Sturgeon. Since then, there has been much internal division within the SNP about the direction of travel on independence, the deal with the Scottish Green Party and the dramatic arrests of senior figures including Sturgeon’s husband and former party CEO Peter Murrell. The SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn even quipped he felt slightly “triggered” by Holyrood’s party being held in a white tent. Good gag.
All this SNP misfortune has put a spring in Labour’s step and brought some life back to the party, best evidenced by the Labour campaign in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election (the result unknown at time of writing).
Labour sources are confident of a win but what can we learn as we look towards a general election?
This would be the first Westminster by-election win for Labour against the SNP, signalling political momentum and creating a narrative that it could be genuinely competitive in other SNP-held Westminster seats. Strategists feel like there are around 20 seats that look winnable – particularly in Glasgow, East Lothian and in the Western Isles. When you think about how Labour tanked to just one MP in 2015 and again in 2019, you can see why Labour activists are excited.
It’s notable how party members flocked to the by-election and how well organised and resourced it was compared to previous election activity. One member who had been out on the doorstep told me: “Labour people have been coming from across Scotland to campaign just to experience what it’s like to get a positive reaction on the doorstep and be part of a winning campaign. It’s been like an oasis in a desert, bearing in mind we were so unpopular in 2015 we were practically chased down the street.”
It is also interesting to note the number of English Labour MPs who have visited. Pre-2015, Scotland felt like a no-go area for anyone south of the border. The now regular visits from senior shadow cabinet figures suggest a confidence and a comfortable relationship between Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar. He is the strongest leader Scottish Labour has had for a while, and the party feels united behind him.
However, even though the blood is up amongst Labour, they would be wise to avoid any complacency or hubris. One by-election doesn’t mean anything is in the bag. That seat has been held by Labour before and the party won seven Westminster seats in 2017 only to lose six of them two years later. There are also concerns that many voters do not see a huge difference between Labour and the Tories on policies like the two-child benefit cap. One activist told me “we’re benefitting from a strong anti-SNP and Tory feeling, but we need to offer a big, exciting UK-wide vision.”
And of course, there are still many voters who want independence and a second referendum. The really big challenge for Labour may well come if they do win the next general election. Starmer will need to show the people of Scotland that a Labour government can deliver for them and fast before the Holyrood elections in 2026. Those Scottish elections could well place the future of the union centre stage again.
Ayesha Hazarika, former senior Labour adviser and political commentator
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