Scotland’s Labour leader has said Nicola Sturgeon’s impending departure provides the opening for his party to regain ground in the nation’s parliament and pave the way for a majority in Westminster.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Anas Sarwar said that Sturgeon’s successor as Scottish National party leader and first minister would have to contend with multiple crises that would bolster Labour’s claims as an alternative government.
“They come with an in-tray full of crisis after crisis, disaster after disaster, I’m not sure they’ve got the calibre or the ability to deliver.”
“It’s clear now that if you want change, if you want to transform our country, if you want to strengthen Scotland but also renew our UK, then the only vehicle for doing that is the Labour party and electing a Labour government,” Sarwar added.
His comments come nearly 15 years after the once-dominant Scottish Labour party was swept out of power in Edinburgh and lost most of its seats in the House of Commons. The party took 41 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in 2005, the last time it won a UK-wide majority; in the 2019 general election it won just a single seat, compared with the SNP’s 48.
Scottish Labour is making a concerted effort to win back voters and hopes to refocus voters’ attention away from the constitution and on to bread-and-butter issues, such as the cost of living and the state of the health service, that are Labour’s natural political strengths.
Its success or failure could prove critical to Labour’s efforts to win a UK-wide majority at the next general election.
The party also has substantial ground to make up at the next Holyrood elections, scheduled for 2026. It took just 24 seats at the last polls in 2021, compared to the SNP’s 63 seats and the 31 won by the Scottish Conservatives.
However, Emily Gray, Scotland managing director for polling firm Ipsos, stressed that Labour would face a challenge persuading SNP supporters, for whom the question of independence remains central, to switch their allegiance.
“Labour has found it easier to win votes from the Conservatives, another unionist party, than from the SNP,” Gray said. “The constitutional question remains tricky for Labour.”
However, opinion polls suggest the party is beginning to rebuild its support.
Jim Murphy, a former member of the UK cabinet and one-time Scottish Labour leader, pointed out that support for the party had risen. The share of voters intending to vote Labour in a Westminster election climbed 10 percentage points between the 2019 election and last month, reaching 29 per cent, according to a YouGov poll conducted in late January.
The support appears to have come from the Scottish Conservatives, whose standing dropped 10 percentage points to 15 per cent in the same period.
Murphy acknowledged that what he called the “next stage” of taking 5 per cent of the SNP’s support, which is currently 42 per cent, would be a challenge. But he said it had become far easier with Sturgeon’s departure.
“They’ve lost their cause’s strongest communicator and best performer,” said Murphy.
Sarwar described Sturgeon as “worthy of praise . . . worthy of respect and worthy of thanks” but added that Scotland needed a change. He is hoping to galvanise supporters at Scottish Labour’s spring conference in Edinburgh this weekend, and hopes Sturgeon’s impending departure has “helped solidify what we were planning to do” at the gathering.
“I want to set out the change Scotland needs and why Labour is that change, and how we would deliver it.”
James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, said there were also signs that Labour could regain seats in Holyrood, where it is currently third-largest party.
“If the perception grows that the wind is in Scottish Labour’s sails after the next UK election and the SNP continue to falter in government, then the next Holyrood election begins to look very interesting,” he said.
He added that a perception that Labour was winning at Westminster and Holyrood could leave the SNP “in trouble”.
“If Labour looks likely to win or have a real chance of winning, then many voters who drifted from Labour to the SNP in 2015 will return to Labour in Scotland.”
But one Scottish Labour candidate, who asked not to be identified, admitted that winning back lost ground was not straightforward. He pointed out that the party had supported the SNP’s contentious Gender Recognition Reform bill, which many voters in his constituency said they were opposed to.
He said this support would make it difficult for Labour to win points on the issue, adding that the bill had become a “lightning rod” that was making people give up on the SNP.
“[It’s like] they needed one more reason to stop supporting them.