Can Labour win over Scotland?

Anas Sarwar forecast to ‘cannibalise’ SNP votes but can he shake the ‘puppet’ image?

Labour in Scotland illustration
Is Scottish Labour controlled by Keir Starmer and his Westminster party?
(Image credit: Illustrated/Getty Images)

The SNP faces defeat by Labour at the next general election, according to an attention-grabbing new poll.

In a “seismic reversal of fortunes”, said The Sunday Times, Labour would “end a decade of electoral mediocrity” and become the largest Westminster party in Scotland. Keir Starmer is on course to have 26 of the 59 Scottish MPs in an “astonishing surge” from his “current bedrock of one”.

‘Cannibalised votes’

The Panelbase researchers interviewed 1,007 people aged 16 and over in Scotland after former SNP leader and first minister Nicola Sturgeon was arrested and released without charge. They found a “significant downturn” for the SNP, which it forecasts would win just 21 seats at the next general election, down from the 48 it managed in 2019.

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The SNP would “likely be cast into turmoil” with Labour “cannibalising” most of its new votes from the nationalists, said The Sunday Times.

Many commentators feel that such cannibalisation will be necessary for Labour to succeed. “Even with the Tory vote at an all-time low it is impossible to win more than four seats without winning votes from the SNP,” wrote Katherine Sangster, national manager for Scottish Fabians, for The Guardian in March.

Those votes will be available for Labour, she added, because First Minister Humza Yousaf, who succeeded Sturgeon as SNP leader, “does not share his predecessor’s formidable reputation for competence and communication” and “inherits a long list of domestic problems”.

‘A lot of work to do’

Labour supporters “would be wise to insert a degree of caution into their analysis”, wrote Euan McColm for The Spectator. Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar “still faces the challenge of persuading Scottish voters that he is very much his own man and not merely a branch manager”.

A “strong case can be made” for Scottish Labour breaking away from the UK party, so Sarwar “might once and for all put an end to the compelling accusation that he, like all of his predecessors, is little more than a puppet of his Westminster ‘masters’”.

Sarwar said his party is “not complacent”, The Independent reported. Speaking to the BBC’s “Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg” show, he said that the poll findings are “positive” news, but “we’ve still got a hell of a lot of work to do”.

When Sarwar became leader in 2021, Labour was 32 points behind the SNP, he recalled. “If you’d told me then that two years on we’d be neck and neck with the SNP in the opinion polls I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said.

If Labour wants to “win well”, Sarwar and Keir Starmer “must show they understand and respect Yes voters”, argued Neil McKay for The Herald.

“A good way of doing that – and of ensuring that it’s not just the SNP’s lunch that’s eaten but its breakfast and dinner too – would be to say that if or when opinion polls ever put support for independence at 60% for a prolonged period of time… then Labour would call a referendum.”

However, Sangster feels the way forward for Labour is to move beyond the existing binary. “The path for Labour is clear,” she argued. “It must avoid the ‘no compromise’ unionism versus independence stances that the SNP and Tories – bereft of other ideas – are locked into.

“Promisingly, it is beginning to look like the Scottish people have other ideas as well,” she said. “These voters want a change to the status quo.”

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