Why Keir Starmer’s battle for Scotland is so crucial this election

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Keir Starmer is in Glasgow today, where he and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar are launching their party’s election campaign north of the border.

The timing is immensely auspicious for the wannabe PM and FM respectively. A poll released earlier this week — as Westminster considered whether renewed election rumours were worth taking seriously, (spoiler: they were) — showed just how much the political context has shifted in Scotland, not just since 2019 but in the past few months.

The poll — John Swinney’s first since succeeding Humza “The Brief” Yousafas first minister — placed Scottish Labour on 39 per cent, 10 points ahead of its Scottish National Party rivals. It was Scottish Labour’s highest water mark, and simultaneously the SNP’s lowest, since the 2014 independence referendum. (The Conservatives, for what it’s worth, were on 12 per cent, Lib Dems on eight, Greens on seven and Reform UK on four).

On these figures, the SNP would lose a net 40 seats in the election — reducing the party to a paltry 8 MPs at Westminster.

In what has proved some comfort to Swinney, the poll also indicated that he is the most popular politician in Scotland. (The FM’s net favourability rating of -3 vastly outperforms Sarwar on -13 and Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross on -34). But this aside, the state of the SNP as a political whole points to an arduous campaign ahead. Take yesterday’s election launch for example.

On Thursday, Swinney’s inaugural campaign event was overshadowed by his curious insistence that the Holyrood investigation into Michael Matheson MSP had been “prejudiced”. (Details on that investigation here). Then, in the afternoon, news emerged that detectives had sent a report to prosecutors relating to former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell’s embezzlement charge. Suffice it to say, Swinney’s launch hadn’t gone entirely according to plan.

Swinney’s SNP mission

Upon succeeding Yousaf as FM on 8th May (just over a fortnight ago!), Swinney likely looked forward to many months of trying to correct his party’s out-of-kilter fundamentals. As a relatively well-regarded politician, Swinney’s mission was plain: he would use his personal profile to drag the SNP’s ratings back up to an electorally competitive level, just in time for a general election in the autumn or winter.

In calling the election for 4th July, therefore, Rishi Sunak has robbed Swinney of that most precious resource in politics: time — thereby forcing the SNP to engage in a contest at a nadir in its fortunes. As such, depending on your view of things, Swinney’s party is either mid-meltdown, having just ousted a failed premier — or it is in the process of being rescued from meltdown. Either way, this election comes at a terrible time indeed for the SNP politically.

Logistically too, think of the grave challenges for a party running an election campaign having so recently elected a new leader: has the SNP, for instance, settled on its messaging post-Yousaf — whose progressive agenda as FM came notably at the expense of party unity?

And what of the relationship between Swinney and his deputy first minister, Kate Forbes? The socially conservative former SNP leadership contender was widely reported to have been offered her new post following a deal with Swinney; but the public parameters of their FM-DFM double-act have not yet been set. How does this now figure in an election campaign?

It’s no secret therefore that a summer election is a gift for Keir Starmer and Scottish Labour. In fact, on the aforementioned polling, Starmer’s party would win 41 seats at Westminster in Scotland. It would prove an ideal springboard for the Holyrood elections in 2026 when Sarwar will battle with Swinney (or a potential successor?) for the status of first minister.

Quite rightly then, Starmer is placing the battle for Scotland at the forefront of Labour’s election campaign. This is what he had to say to party activists in Glasgow today:

“I know there are voters here in Scotland who wanted in the past to get the Tories out but felt that they couldn’t vote for Labour because they didn’t think that we would win”, he declared, adding: “There is no change without Scotland, there is no Labour without Scotland. Scotland is central to the mission of the next Labour government.”

There is a *long* way to go in the campaign, but the SNP — on the party’s current trajectory — faces a potentially crippling post-election settlement. It has, of course, just elevated a new leader who insists that he is no “caretaker”; but the optics of Swinney continuing past the next election, if the results are anywhere near as bad as predicted, would be strange indeed.

The febrile political mood of the SNP, which Swinney was sent in to settle, would be aggravated severely by the loss of tens of MPs.

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