In 2024, attention will be fixed firmly in SW1, with an election expected sometime in the spring, autumn, or perhaps even later still. If recent polling is anything to go by, it will be Keir Starmer’s Labour Party that will secure the keys to Downing Street and force the Conservatives out of government for the first time in 13 years.
It’s what is taking place north of the English border, however, that should prick up the ears of eagle-eyed election onlookers. With Labour inching ever closer to the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) – until recently, seismic – poll lead, success in Scotland could seal the deal for Starmer down south. In other words, victory across Scottish constituencies will be critical for Labour to avoid a hung parliament, particularly as competition for so-called ‘Blue Wall’ and ‘Red Wall’ seats in England remains close.
The party has come a long way since losing all but one of its Westminster constituencies at the 2015 General Election, a devastating and humiliating blow to a party that once reigned supreme. It is now competitive in seats across Scotland, illustrated by the return to the fold of once prominent cabinet minister Douglas Alexander, and is increasingly offering voters an alternative to a tired and divided SNP government mired in scandal and a Conservative Party whose leaders in Westminster have managed a somewhat fractious relationship with leaders in Scotland of late. Buoyed by its crushing victory in Rutherglen and Hamilton West earlier this year, Labour is a party with a spring in its step and its sights firmly set on new heights as we enter election year.
Key to Labour’s rising momentum has been Anas Sarwar, the party’s ninth leader since the millennium and first Muslim and person of colour to lead a major UK political party. On the one hand, he has been remarkably candid about the challenges he faces, but on the other, presents an exciting vision of a Scotland led by Scottish people to find Scottish solutions to fix Scottish problems that is nonetheless rooted in a United Kingdom. Sarwar’s strategy is threefold. First, he has committed to owning change, insisting that there is a yearning among voters for something genuinely different to either the beating drum of independence or Conservative status quo. Second, he has said that Labour are the grown-ups in the room, detached from a divisive politics rooted in constitutional deadlock that has split Scotland firmly into two camps. Third, he presents as distinctly Scottish, in terms of Labour’s policy outlook and his personal branding.
This is a strategy that has worked well in Wales, where Labour dominate in the face of decline elsewhere. Under Mark Drakeford, the party has keenly embraced Welshness and Welsh identity – proving popular among voters – that has successfully seized the nationalist narrative from Plaid Cymru whilst retaining its unionist ties.
Sarwar also has a clear policy platform that simultaneously aligns with Starmer’s ambition for government and promises to maximise Scotland’s strengths. His three priority sectors include positioning Scotland at the forefront of Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution and leveraging the private investment needed to drive the Net Zero transition; unleashing the potential of financial services and technology; and boosting ‘Brand Scotland’ to encourage tourism and export opportunities.
But the scale of the challenges facing Scotland should not be underestimated and will force solutions from Labour from the outset, even if it is successful next year and thereafter. Slow growth, an ageing population and regional inequality have blighted the Scottish economy for over a decade, while NHS waiting lists continue to rise and the country’s drug epidemic persists. These are serious challenges that will require long-term solutions from policymakers on whom high expectation will be placed, no matter who succeeds next year.
As we enter election year, then, Labour’s fortunes in Scotland could be critical to the outcome of next year’s General Election and perhaps even the next Holyrood election in 2026. While Sarwar and his party appear increasingly confident and capable of competing with an increasingly divided SNP, a week is a long time in politics…