State of the Parties: Labour optimistic as pressure grows on SNP and Tories
As pessimism and anxiety engulfs much of the UK amid the cost-of-living crisis and disruptive strike action, there is one group of people with something to cheer: Labour Party members.
After 13 long years out of government, the party looks ready to take office when the next opportunity arises – most likely in 2024. If polls are to be believed, the next prime minister of the UK (barring any fresh Tory rebellion) will be Keir Starmer, and the Tories may suffer their worst defeat since 1997.
But the Conservatives aren’t ready to throw in the towel, and political advisers are insisting there remains a narrow path to victory – assuming ministers can end the infighting and avoid any new scandals.
Election strategist Isaac Levido (who masterminded the party’s success in 2019) believes Labour’s lead in the polls is “softer than it looks”, largely because “Starmer still is not loved”.
Keir Starmer isn’t Tony Blair
North of the border, optimists in the Scottish Conservatives agree. North East MSP Maurice Golden says his party want to “consign 2022 to the past” and he believes that “with Rishi Sunak at the helm, from a leadership point of view, there is a strong feeling of stability and that he’s the right person to lead, that he can build confidence in the Conservative brand”.
But 2023 has got off to a rocky start, with Nadhim Zahawi sacked as party chair and mounting bullying allegations against Dominic Raab. Asked whether the Conservatives can really start afresh, Golden insists “it’s definitely possible”.
“Keir Starmer isn’t Tony Blair. In that UK context of Conservative versus Labour, I think there is definitely a pathway to continuing in government.”
But like Levido, Golden recognises his party must not make any more missteps. “We can’t really afford to take too many more hits like that, whether there’s personal indiscretions or major issues or even things that appear to be sleazy or wrong. We can’t take that. So in some ways, it’s borrowed time – but there’s still every opportunity to win in the UK context.”
I don’t think that Labour are winning this election – the Tories are losing this election
Scottish Labour, on the other hand, is in good spirits. While the party faces more of a challenge here than in England and Wales, it is feeling confident about regaining some Scottish seats – indeed, strategists believe it is currently competitive in 12 and that number goes up by two or three for each extra percentage point in the polls.
One party strategist says: “I’m not telling you that we’re going to have 12 seats after the election – that would be optimistic – but we’re competitive in them in a major way, in a way that we weren’t a year ago.”
And while the SNP remains leagues ahead on voting intention, what Scottish Labour is more interested in at the moment is who voters believe will form the next UK Government.
“From our perspective, the higher that number goes, the better placed we are to shape a general election argument, which is to say to people, you’ve got a choice: do you want help give it to [Labour] or not? That’s going to be the pitch. There is a change that Scotland needs and we will deliver it, but to do that you have to vote for us,” the source explains.
One of the seats that will be heavily targeted by Labour at the next election is Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. But sitting SNP MP Steven Bonnar isn’t worried.
While insisting his party won’t be “taking any vote for granted”, he adds: “We’ll be confident that we can convince enough voters that independence is the path for Scotland and the constituency, and I believe that to be true.”
His party are, of course, planning to approach the next election as a de facto referendum on Scottish independence. The details of what that means in practice are to be ironed out at a special conference in Edinburgh in March, but Bonnar says he’s “quite happy to fight a campaign on a one-line election manifesto.”
Asked whether he is at all concerned, with Labour snapping at his heels, that making it a single-issue election will harm his personal chances, he says: “That’s a good question; I never considered that. But no, I don’t.
“I don’t, because I think that my constituents will be able to look at the work that I’ve put in, they’ll be able to look at the wide range of stuff that I have represented them on, they’ll be able to look at my attendance record and my voting record and they’ll be able to look at my work with local groups and organisations that I conduct on a weekly basis, and they’ll be able to recognise and realise that in this guy we get an MP who votes how we want him to, who says the things we want them to say, who holds a Westminster government to account.”
On the question of Labour, he adds: “I don’t think that Labour are winning this election – the Tories are losing this election. They are completely unelectable, and I’ll always be glad about that. However, the people I represent will still need protection from the Westminster government, no matter what prime minister is at the despatch box.”
Ultimately, the party’s raison d’être continues to keep it broadly united, but there are significant tensions – particularly within the Westminster group. One SNP MP blames hurt egos after the frontbench reshuffle for some of that, but others, including party veteran and former MSP Stewart Stevenson, are quick to paint those disagreements in a more positive light.
Stevenson says: “The debates are good, and they’re healthy, and there are no rules in the SNP forbidding you from having a viewpoint on a particular policy issue that’s different from that which the party is adopting, and how could that be the case? Because if you always had to follow what had gone before, you would never innovate with new policies and change.
“The party has a good set of mechanisms to allow debate, discussion, and so on and so forth. And I think some of the reports of tensions in one group or another group are actually a proper and reasonable reflection not of a problem, but rather of our testing ourselves and bringing forward solutions to issues that confront us.”
But while Bonnar is content with a de facto referendum, other colleagues are not. Former frontbencher Stewart McDonald, whose constituency partially overlaps with Nicola Sturgeon’s Holyrood constituency, recently published a paper urging his party not to pursue such a strategy. He warned it “will not deliver independence and could set our movement back significantly”.
Specifically, McDonald says that even if the SNP met its own criteria for winning that de facto referendum (not guaranteed), there were “no grounds to believe” a future UK government would recognise it – while at the same time it would place “unreasonable expectations and demands” on the Scottish Government. Former SNP minister Alex Neil agrees it is “likely to be an own goal”.
Our party is never best served when it appears that Westminster – and especially those evil Tories – are telling Scotland what to do
One other major split in the party has been on the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill. The final vote in Holyrood saw the biggest rebellion the SNP has ever had, with nine MSPs defying the whip. MP Joanna Cherry has also vocally opposed the bill, while her colleague Lisa Cameron wrote to Scottish Secretary Alister Jack, urging him to step in and help find a “resolution” to concerns.
Now the Scottish Government is gearing up to fight the UK Government’s section 35 order in court. Under the Scotland Act, the Scottish Secretary is empowered to prevent any legislation from the Scottish Parliament from reaching the statute book if he has “reasonable grounds to believe [a bill] would have an adverse effect on the operation of the law as it applies to reserved matters”.
From a political viewpoint, Stevenson believes Jack has “probably got it wrong”. “People just see that interference from somebody whom they would regard as outside,” he says. “That’s hardening up the political opinion in favour of independence, the way I see it.”
The Scottish Conservatives, for their part, aren’t unaware of the potential dangers of invoking section 35. Golden says that while its use is “perfectly legitimate” under the devolution settlement, “from a political point of view, our party is never best served when it appears that Westminster – and especially those evil Tories – are telling Scotland what to do. That isn’t a good political position to be in. I think that the SNP are very good at setting traps.”
However, recent polling suggests that this issue may not be playing into the SNP’s hands. Questions over section 35 and gender recognition reform were almost immediately drowned out by the case of Isla Bryson, a rapist who came out as trans after committing the crimes and was initially housed in a women’s prison to await sentencing. A YouGov poll, which was undertaken as the story was dominating headlines, found SNP support had dropped as a result.
Further polling by Lord Ashcroft, provided exclusively to Holyrood, found half of people supported the UK Government’s decision to block the bill, while a third said it was wrong to do so. Incidentally, that same poll also found two-thirds of voters do not support using the next election as a de facto referendum.
The SNP will realise they can’t just say everything’s about independence, and that this wave of their particular project falls
The Scottish Conservatives have seized on the case of Isla Bryson, with leader Douglas Ross raising it at the last several First Minister’s Questions. But Labour questions the party’s real motivation behind this.
A source says that while gender recognition is an “important issue”, it’s not the most pressing issue for the majority of the country. “If you are looking down the barrel of keeping motivated parties that are fracturing at the seams, you need core issues and I think that’s part of their problem at the moment, for both [governing] parties, but certainly the Tories.”
Ross appeared to be on a shoogly peg last autumn, with reports he may face a coup. “It really felt like Douglas was close to being challenged,” one insider says. It followed months of U-turns and about-faces, in large part caused by problems down south – on whether Boris Johnson should resign, for example, or Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-budget. But since Sunak took over, manoeuvres against Ross have “completely stopped”, the source says. Whether that is temporary or not, though, there is a sense that there can be “no more flip-flops”.
But Labour believes that while Ross may be enjoying a reprieve from his own party, he is a “spent force” in Scotland. They are confident that they can overtake the party to take second place at the next Holyrood election.
That is not the end game, though, and Labour acknowledges that beating the SNP continues to be a huge challenge – though there is some evidence the party is beginning to attract “soft nationalists” back to the fold.
There is also the hope that a UK Labour government would fundamentally change the conversation in Scotland, away from the constitution. It would prove, a source says, that people in England are not “totally opposite, different people” as the SNP argument often goes.
There may also be changes outwith the party’s control which may be of benefit. One is the future of Nicola Sturgeon and whether she is still SNP leader in 2026 (though for her part, she has said she has no plans to quit any time soon). The other is a decline in public services, whether that is evident through sustained long NHS waiting lists, removal of services or a stagnating economy.
The Labour source says those issues will “take on a whole new salience” if they are still dominating headlines by 2026. “I also think there is a real solid chance that, beaten in a 2024 [general] election, the SNP will realise they can’t just say everything’s about independence, and that this wave of their particular project falls, and they need to go back and look at what they do next.
“In which case they may try and make that election about independence but I’m not sure it’ll be hugely convincing. You’re right, if that election is Yes/No, it’s a real struggle for us, always has been, always will be. But I think there’s enough in play that that election will look very different.”