The Labour Party’s dual-front battle for power in Scotland

By Jennifer Watson

Keir Starmer’s road to Number 10 travels through Scotland. If Labour can’t reclaim a significant number of seats from the SNP, his journey will be cut short. How he does this, however, is more complicated.

The political landscape in Scotland is changing, with the SNP’s grip seeming to loosen in the wake of recent events. The upcoming by-election, triggered by Margaret Ferrier’s removal from her seat due to a violation of Covid rules, provides the first opportunity for Keir Starmer to take ground. But success for Labour is not a given. It hinges not merely on the SNP’s struggles, but on its own ability to connect with voters on a deeper level. The party’s recent by-election victory in England, where it overturned a 20,000 vote majority, has sparked optimism. Yet, the Scottish terrain is a different battlefield, one that requires a strategy tailored to its unique challenges and opportunities. To win in Scotland, Labour needs to present a compelling counteroffer to the SNP’s independence and EU stance, while also defending against the perception of being a mere ‘branch office’ of the party in Westminster.

The shifting sands of Scottish politics

In 2010, Labour held a strong 41 seats in Scotland, a number that has since dwindled to a solitary one. Meanwhile the SNP’s seat count soared from a mere six to a formidable 48 in the 2019 election. But the political landscape is as volatile as it is treacherous. Amidst the uncertainty surrounding the SNP’s leadership and financial affairs, Scotland’s once-loyal voters find themselves in a state of political flux.

To date, The SNP has capitalised on pro-EU sentiment and has skilfully woven the quest for independence with a potential re-entry into the EU. However, the current turbulence within the SNP could spark a potential shift in voter sentiment. The memory of Nicola Sturgeon applauding SNP victory over Jo Swinson’s East Dunbartonshire seat feels like a distant echo from the past. Appetite for independence has significantly reduced. The SNP’s once unyielding hold on the Scottish electorate appears to be loosening, but, if there’s one lesson we’ve gleaned from the political rollercoaster of the past half-decade, it’s that the political landscape can transform with astonishing speed.

Labour’s challenge is to help former supporters, disenchanted by the Brexit debacle or the Corbyn era, to find their way back.

The battle for the undecided: winning hearts and minds

Labour’s task is twofold: to win over undecided voters and to master the art of winning the emotional vote – an art form that goes beyond the traditional confines of politics. It’s not just about presenting compelling policies or making rational arguments – it’s about connecting with voters on a deeper, more personal level, tapping into their hopes, fears, and values. Those who answer ‘don’t know’ in Westminster voting intention polls and are on the cusp of a decision traditionally fall towards the incumbent party on polling day. This presents a challenge for Labour, both in England and Scotland.

The SNP has been remarkably successful in winning the emotional vote, tapping into a deep-seated sense of Scottish identity and the desire for self-determination.

Under the charismatic leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP has dominated the emotional narrative for years. Her eloquence and stateswoman-like persona resonated with the electorate, particularly during the pandemic. The party has also been adept at exploiting the perceived detachment of the Westminster government, painting themselves as the local, accessible alternative that truly understands and represents Scottish interests.

For Labour to compete effectively in this emotional battleground, they will need to construct their own compelling narrative for Scottish voters. Showing they too can champion Scottish interests and offer a robust, viable alternative to the SNP’s vision of an independent Scotland is crucial to success. This requires not just a clear and appealing policy platform, but also an authentic commitment to Scottish voters and their concerns.

Redefining opposition: Labour’s strategic challenge

They face a further challenge. In Scotland, the SNP has strategically positioned itself as the main opposition to the Conservatives, marginalising Labour in the process. This has been a masterstroke in political manoeuvring, allowing the SNP to capture the narrative and present itself as the defender of Scottish interests against the Tories.

Labour has struggled to define its position in this political landscape. Recent polls suggest a staggering 70% of Scottish voters are unclear about what Labour stands for. This is a significant challenge for the party, highlighting the impact of a lack of clear messaging and a failure to connect with the electorate on a meaningful level.

Addressing devolution’s dilemma: a listening Labour

Labour must also acknowledge the issues associated with devolution and lend a sympathetic ear to voters. Many people in Scotland complain that the government in Westminster is distant and detached. Labour must actively demonstrate that they are different, that they are listening, and that they are responsive to Scottish concerns. Gesture policies, like locating GB Energy’s headquarters in Scotland, are arguably not enough. Labour must demonstrate empathy and authenticity – and this requires a level of emotional intelligence that goes beyond the ability to craft compelling policy proposals.

With rising costs and lower standards of living, a fractured Scottish electorate need to see a Labour party that is willing to go beyond patching up the problems left by their predecessors on either side of the border – they need meaningful change.

This past June witnessed a strategic intervention from Gordon Brown. He successfully rallied Labour’s leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, Mayors Andy Burnham and Tracy Brabin, and the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, to issue a “joint mission statement.” The alliance called for a “radical democratic change,” advocating for the decentralisation of power from the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster. But will this appeal to voters who are convinced that the only meaningful partnership can be forged from an independent Scotland?

And does this message resonate now, in a climate where the cost-of-living crisis has taken centre stage? Labour’s call for change must clearly articulate how this transformation will in turn tangibly improve living standards. Amid a whirlwind of policy U-turns from all political quarters, Scottish voters are seeking a clear path forward, away from the carousel of empty promises. Up and down the country, voters are yearning for a party that can deliver on its pledges. Labour, therefore, must rise to this challenge, translating their vision of change into practical policies that enhance everyday lives.

Labour’s path to power is fraught with challenges, but the current political climate presents a unique opportunity. The SNP’s financial scandal and leadership turmoil have created a vacuum that Labour can fill, but only if they can successfully redefine themselves and their opposition in Scotland.