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by Chris Marshall
25 February 2024
Face Off: Will Labour or the SNP win the battle to speak for Scotland?

Face Off: Will Labour or the SNP win the battle to speak for Scotland?

Walking down Aberdeen’s main thoroughfare towards the harbour, there aren’t many obvious signs of wealth. While the Granite City prides itself on being “the oil capital of Europe”, Union Street tells a different story, one of missed opportunities and economic decline. When I moved to the city in the mid-2000s to work for the Press and Journal, I asked colleagues what was happening with the Triple Kirks, the 19th century church with A-listed spire which lies a short walk away and sat in a state of dilapidation for much of the late 20th century. No one knew; it had been like that for as long as anyone could remember, left to fall into ruin despite the vast riches lying offshore. If there had been any doubt about Union Street’s future at that point, its fate was sealed with the opening of nearby Union Square mall in 2009, which drew away most of the remaining shoppers.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of when oil began to flow from BP’s Forties Field, around 110 miles east of Aberdeen. Since then, billions of barrels of crude have been extracted from the North Sea, but if some people have done very well indeed, not all that wealth has trickled down as it should have. Yet it is the future of the industry which makes Aberdeen, a city with pockets of deep poverty and social problems like any other, a key political battleground in the run-up to this year’s general election as Labour, the SNP and the Tories each attempt to position themselves as defenders of North Sea oil and gas. 

When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last year announced the awarding of new drilling licences, the move was welcomed by industry but criticised by Scotland’s ruling party. The SNP, which had for decades spoken of “Scotland’s oil” and went into the 2014 independence referendum with oil at the centre of its economic prospectus, had pivoted in favour of net zero and a “just transition”. Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had sought to position Scotland as a world leader on tackling climate change, signing up to what some believe to be an overly ambitious pledge of reaching net zero emissions by 2045 – five years ahead of the UK as a whole. When the newest phase of exploration was announced in the North Sea, Sturgeon’s successor, Humza Yousaf, called it the “wrong move”.

But in the months since the announcement was made, the SNP has undergone a radical realignment, becoming the oil industry’s defender-in-chief. Perhaps with an eye on opinion polls showing the party could lose as many as 20 MPs, Yousaf and Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, who represents Aberdeen South, have gone on the offensive, attacking Labour over its green prosperity plan. When the P&J ran a crass front page calling Labour leader Keir Starmer and his Scottish counterpart Anas Sarwar “traitors”, both Flynn and Yousaf were quick to share it on social media alongside the paper’s claims that Labour’s plan could cost 100,000 jobs.

Despite polling putting his party around 20 points ahead for much of the last year, Starmer has continued to be singularly risk averse, keen not to do anything that would spook floating voters and send them running back into the arms of the Tories. One of his few genuinely radical pledges – to spend an extra £28bn a year on tackling climate change – had made the party a hostage to fortune. After weeks of speculation, it was finally dropped at the start of this month. Announced by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves in 2021, the plan was to create thousands of jobs by spending on renewables and green technologies. Instead, Labour will now spend £23.7bn on environmental schemes over the course of its first term in office, the equivalent of just under £5bn a year.

The SNP and Scottish Labour have clashed over a windfall tax | Alamy

But it is Labour’s plans for an increased windfall tax which have so upset those working in oil and gas. Introduced by the UK Government in May 2022, the current Energy Profits Levy took the headline tax rate for energy producers to 75 per cent and raised around £2.6bn for the public finances in its first year. Industry lobby group Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) says a Labour proposal to increase that tax take to 78 per cent would lead to the loss of 42,000 jobs across the sector.

Speaking in Aberdeen last week, Yousaf vowed to oppose Labour’s tax plans, accusing the party of “raiding” the offshore sector to help finance the building of new nuclear power stations in England, once again striking up the old tune about Scotland’s oil being used to line the UK’s coffers. 

“Our oil and gas industry has been good for Scotland,” the first minister said. “It supports hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs, directly and through the supply chain.
 “We will not abandon the industry – far from it. We are willing partners who want to work with the industry to move, at pace, in the just transition to net zero.”

Despite the dire warnings, the current reality is that BP recently posted profits of £11bn and announced plans to pay dividends to shareholders. Shell, which paid tax in the UK last year for the first time since 2017, made £22.3bn in profits. Regardless of what some might have us think, the windfall tax was not the brainchild of some sort of Hugo Chavez-inspired leftie but was introduced by the government of Boris Johnson to help address surging energy prices and the cost-of-living crisis. 

The SNP’s position on the North Sea is deeply disingenuous. Like a seagull buffeted by the north-east wind, the party has tacked back and forth on the issue of a windfall tax. While critical of Labour’s plans to increase the levy, Yousaf said the SNP would nevertheless maintain it. Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross accused the first minister of “breathtaking hypocrisy”. The party which put up income taxes for middle class Scots appears ideologically opposed to doing the same for multinationals posting profits in the billions. 

If the SNP’s policy on oil and gas is confused, then it’s surely only emblematic of where the party is currently under Yousaf. Launching the SNP’s general election campaign six weeks ago in Glasgow, he pledged to unseat all of Scotland’s current Conservative MPs while working constructively with a new Labour government. But amid opinion polls showing Labour could actually overtake the SNP to have the most Scottish MPs at Westminster, there appears to have been a re-think at party HQ. As well as attempting to hold their opponents’ feet to the fire over North Sea oil and gas, the SNP sought to make life difficult for Scottish Labour ahead of the party’s annual conference by lodging another motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. 

Despite ultimately being defeated, the SNP’s previous ceasefire motion led to a sizeable Labour rebellion, with 56 of the party’s MPs defying their leader’s call to abstain back in November. Flynn’s position has been consistent throughout, accusing Israel of war crimes and calling for an immediate end to the hostilities. Starmer, with one eye already on Downing Street, has been typically cautious and lawyerly from the start. The MP for Holborn and St Pancras has worked hard to rid his party of the antisemitism that reared its ugly head under his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. And he has been keen to stress Israel’s right to defend itself after the 7 October terror attacks by Hamas – the single deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to understand why it took his party so long to come to a position that much of the international community has been supportive of for months. 

Humza Yousaf and Stephen Flynn in Aberdeen | Alamy

At Scottish Labour’s conference in Glasgow earlier this month, Sarwar used his keynote speech to call for an immediate ceasefire. No doubt aware of the momentum he would hand the SNP by failing to back his Scottish leader, Starmer used his closing conference speech two days later to back Sarwar’s position. At an event organised by Holyrood, the Glasgow MSP spoke about a visit to Israel and Gaza as a 12-year-old. 

“It’s probably the first time that I had an awakening of any kind of political conscience,” he told an audience of party members and delegates. “The one thing that has always stayed with me from that visit was the strength and resilience of the people – both in Israel and in Gaza.”

It’s clear there is overwhelming public support among the UK public for a ceasefire; a recent YouGov poll found two-thirds of respondents (66 per cent) supported one, up from 59 per cent in November. In Scotland, MSPs voted in favour of a ceasefire as far back as 21 November. Yet when MPs actually came to debate the issue in the Commons last week it turned into an unedifying spectacle amid suggestions Labour had threatened Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, reportedly telling him he would be brought down after the general election unless he selected the party’s ceasefire amendment. In the resulting chaos, Hoyle made an apology of sorts, admitting “regret” for what had happened as a no confidence motion began to circulate. Yet despite all the bluster, the Labour ceasefire amendment was passed and the SNP’s attempt at embarrassing its main opponent in Scotland failed. 

The problem for Scottish Labour is how much operational independence it has from London. When former leader Johann Lamont quit in 2014 she memorably accused the UK party hierarchy of treating Scotland like a “branch office”. Unfortunately for Labour, that characterisation has stuck and become a popular mantra for nationalists. While Sarwar has worked hard to show he’s his own man, he has been undermined by Starmer on policies such as the two-child cap and gender self-ID. The Scottish Labour leader’s pitch to voters is that his party will seek to end division after years of antagonism between the SNP government in Edinburgh and the Tories at Westminster.

Anas Sarwar has faced accusations that he is unable to stand up to Keir Starmer | Alamy

“We may, many of us, have political disagreements, we may support other political parties,” Sarwar told the audience at Holyrood’s fringe event at the Scottish Labour conference. “But we all have an equal stake in the future of this country. The promise I make to you…even if you don’t vote for us, this Scottish Labour Party is going to work to build for all of us, not an ‘us versus them’. We need to change this country to make it work for everybody.”

For his part, Yousaf says Scotland’s voice can only be heard with a vote for the SNP. It’s been a while since anyone mentioned the party’s de facto referendum strategy – Yousaf himself appeared confused by it when he said in an interview with STV that it was about winning the most seats in Scotland at the general election, not a majority as was agreed at the party’s conference in the autumn. But there remains significant support for independence – one recent survey put Yes on 53 per cent, although the poll was thought to be an outlier. 

After a decade stuck in a constitutional morass following the referendum, Scottish politics is finally moving into a new era, one where the country’s two governments may actually see eye to eye on a great deal. It would be naïve to think that relationships between Holyrood and Westminster will improve overnight following the election, but it’s hard to see how they can get much worse. Most Scots, even those ideologically wedded to independence, have tired of the constitutional squabbles amid falling education standards, an NHS which is teetering on the brink and a world which feels less safe with every passing week. If the era of constitutional claim and counterclaim is over, we are about to enter a new period. The battle is underway to determine who speaks for Scotland: Labour or the SNP.  

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