In Scotland, support grows for Labour as SNP’s dominance looks set to fade

Although independence remains a popular idea, Labour is viewed by many as the strongest party to unseat the Conservatives in the July 4 election.

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (L) speaks with Scotland's First Minister John Swinney (R) as they attend a UK national commemorative event to mark the 80th anniversary commemorations
Many Scots are backing the Labour Party led by Keir Starmer (left) over the SNP headed by First Minister John Swinney (right) for the July 4 election [Andrew Matthews/Pool/AFP]

Glasgow, United Kingdom – When the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) defeated its Labour rivals by a single seat in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, it brought about more than just a change in government.

Previous votes had cemented Scotland’s status as a Labour Party stronghold, and that trend continued when a devolved government was established in Edinburgh in 1999; the first two Scottish Parliament elections saw the return of two successive Labour-led governments.

But when the SNP secured 47 lawmakers to Labour’s 46 in the Scottish Parliament’s third poll, the party of choice for Scotland’s working and middle classes was wounded, overpowered by fervour for Scottish independence.

The SNP has dominated in Edinburgh for 17 years. The party has the largest number of Scottish MPs to Westminster since 2015.

But Labour appears on track to make significant gains or even retake its former Scottish heartland in next month’s UK general election, as many voters are determined to oust the ruling right-wing Conservatives from power at Westminster.

“Scotland remains important for Labour even if Labour does not [necessarily] need Scottish seats to form a UK government,” said James Mitchell, a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science. “Winning back Scottish seats is important for Labour symbolically and to be able to claim to represent all parts of Britain.”

The SNP, which currently holds 63 of the 129 seats in Edinburgh and 43 of the 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons at Westminster, has long towered over its pro-UK rivals in Scotland.

Once a fringe political movement that harboured pipe dreams of Scottish sovereignty, the SNP, in its role as a devolved administration, secured the right from Westminster to hold a historic independence referendum 10 years ago, hoping to sever Scotland’s three-century-old union with England.

But despite Scots rejecting statehood by 55-45 percent in the 2014 plebiscite, the party succeeded in putting Scottish independence into the political mainstream. Polls today indicate that around half of Scotland’s electorate would vote to go it alone.

Yet, while it has successfully introduced many socially democratic policies over the years, such as free university tuition for Scottish students, the legalisation of same-sex marriage and increased access to IVF for couples struggling to conceive, the SNP has been buffeted by its nearly two decades in government.

Setbacks, such as former SNP Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s botched attempt at gender reform last year, and scandals, like the arrest of Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, for allegedly embezzling SNP funds as its former chief executive, have coincided with the turnaround of Labour’s fortunes.

As it stands, the Labour Party looks set to win a 100-plus seat majority in the House of Commons on July 4.

Despite surveys showing continued backing for Scottish sovereignty, the pro-independence SNP appears likely to lose ground in Scotland as many Britons rally behind UK Labour leader Keir Starmer.

“Support for Scottish independence includes many people who primarily want a change of government at Westminster and do not see any prospect of independence any time soon,” Mitchell told Al Jazeera. “These are [Scottish] voters who might abandon support for independence or become more assertive in supporting independence depending on what a Starmer government does.”

Recent polling by YouGov suggests Labour will win about 34 percent of the vote share in Scotland, followed by the SNP at 30 percent. The Conservatives are predicted to secure just 13 percent.

‘We need a change’

Independence-supporting or not, many voters in Scotland see Labour as the best bet to unseat Britain’s Conservative Party Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

“We need a change for change’s sake, and Labour are the party who can fill that position,” said Grahame Allison, a hotelier from Islay, a windswept island off the west coast of Scotland.

“They will attempt to improve the lives of those who are literally on the breadline and bring sense to the idea of supporting our working classes.”

But not everyone in Scotland is convinced of Labour’s left-wing credentials, with some accusing Starmer’s party of pursuing a right-wing agenda.

Lyndsey McLean, who works in the creative arts in Edinburgh, told Al Jazeera that while she wants to see the Conservatives in the shadows, she will not vote Labour.

“The Labour Party are attractive because they are in opposition to the Conservatives. But how much in opposition are they, really? How much of a new ideology would it be [if they won power]?” she asked.

For many members of the Scottish electorate who remain committed to Scottish independence, there is only one obvious choice next month.

“I will continue to vote for the SNP,” said Alan Robertson, a high school teacher from Glasgow. “This is not because I am a great fan of the SNP. I agree with their policies in some areas and disagree with others.”

Robertson, who voted for independence in 2014, grew up in a family that traditionally supported Labour.

“There’s also been a lot of issues with the SNP and the way the party has been run, but they offer the best chance for increased devolution at the very least – or independence,” he said.

Edinburgh University’s Mitchell noted that even if the SNP suffers major losses, “there will always be the potential of a recovery, and it could become a threat” yet again.

“Labour would make a potentially fatal mistake in assuming that big losses for the SNP means it can forget about Scotland,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera