Scottish voters are beginning to look at Labour again

17 February 2023, 22:53

Gina Davidson
Gina Davidson. Picture: LBC
Gina Davidson

By Gina Davidson

The poll dropped just 90 minutes before Anas Sarwar was due to take to the stage to deliver his keynote speech at Scottish Labour conference.

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Yougov pollsters had been out in the field for the Scottish Election Study from February 10 to 15 - the day Nicola Sturgeon resigned - and Scottish voters delivered a shock result. 

Should a General Election be held tomorrow SNP support would plummet from a 45 per cent share of the vote in 2019 to 38 per cent while Labour’s would rise from 18 per cent to 36 per cent, apparently eating far further into the SNP’s dominance than even Sarwar would have considered possible.

Meanwhile the Conservatives would see their support fall from 25 per cent to 16 per cent, and the LibDems from 9.5 per cent to five. All of those statistics were after stripping out the don’t knows.

The findings also suggest the gap is closing between SNP and Labour for the next Holyrood elections, just four points between them on the regional list and eight points in the constituency vote, and when it comes to the independence question, the survey found (again with don’t knows stripped out) that support for Yes stands at 45.6 per cent and 54.4 per cent for No.

Nearly nine years on from the independence referendum - and of course the period of Nicola Sturgeon’s time as First Minister - the divide in Scotland appears to be resolutely the same.

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It was the icing on the cake for Sarwar and Labour delegates. They have seen the polls shift across the UK from Conservative to Labour, but that movement has been less remarkable in Scotland - trying to eat into SNP dominance is far easier said than done.

They arrived in high spirits though - a very direct contrast to previous years since the referendum, when the party has seen leaders come and go so quickly that the Bath St headquarters might as well have had a revolving door.

Riven with division, the SNP needed to do little to point out the party’s flaws, Scottish Labour was very capable of hanging its dirty washing out for all to see.

That has changed under Sarwar. There’s been much more unity - even though the party is as divided over gender reform as the SNP, it has been able to keep it to a low simmer, rather than the SNP’s roiling boil. The success at last year’s council elections has helped - coming second to the SNP after previously languishing behind the Conservatives. Indeed it was the first time the beat the Conservatives in a Scotland-wide election since 2016. And of course there are the opinion polls.

But it was that decision by Nicola Sturgeon to choose now to stand down - sparking an SNP leadership campaign for the first time in 20 years - that Sarwar and his delegates believe will help them to power. The personal vote Nicola Sturgeon was able to win, particularly during the Covid pandemic, cannot be underestimated. Indeed at the last Holyrood elections the SNP was able to produce a campaign leaflet of just an empty podium - the one so associated with her daily Covid briefings - and ask who people wanted to lead them back to normality. They chose her.

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She is now on her way out. And there’s no obvious successor - indeed no-one has declared officially they will stand yet, despite the clock clicking towards the close of nominations. Sarwar knows that of the potentials none are as experienced or as formidable as Nicola Sturgeon was. A major obstacle for his party’s rejuvenation in Scotland has been removed.

But the Yougov poll is just one. All eyes will look to see the next and if there’s a trend established. Similarly will the Sarwar brand cut through - just in December a Savanta Comres poll found that just 24 per cent of voters regarded him favourable, while just over half were unable to say what they thought of him at all.

In his speech today he promised change - cutting red tape in the NHS, introducing a scheme to regenerate empty homes, an “Amazon tax” to level the playing field for small to medium retailers. He wants employment law devolved to the Scottish parliament to protect workers’ rights. And he made a direct appeal to SNP voters, especially those maybe now wavering with Sturgeon gone. Back Labour he said if you really want to kick the Tories out of Downing St.

It would be foolish though for Labour to get ahead of themselves and believe the hype - even the polls. Without doubt it appears that Scottish voters are perhaps beginning to be willing to look at Labour again - certainly at Keir Starmer. But whether Scottish Labour really can mount a significant challenge to the SNP and its long domination of Scottish politics - well that really lies in the hands of the SNP members about to vote for a new leader.