Scottish Labour meet in Edinburgh this weekend in better heart than for a long time. The party outpolled the Conservatives in last May’s local elections, the first time it had done so in a Scotland-wide ballot since 2016. Almost every poll conducted since the beginning of last year has suggested that the party has now reclaimed the mantle of principal challengers to the SNP. Now, the party is said to believe that Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation yesterday will create an opportunity to make further progress. Meanwhile, the party’s recent advances across Britain as a whole have opened up the prospect of a majority Labour government at Westminster for the first time since the party’s calamitous defeat in 2019. How the party north of the border might best contribute to such an outcome – and in turn begin to erode the SNP’s dominance of Scottish politics in the post-Sturgeon era – will be a central preoccupation of this weekend’s proceedings.
In truth, to date Scottish Labour has largely appeared to be riding on the coattails of the Conservatives’ misfortune at Westminster. Consider the timelines of the party’s progress. Prior to the emergence of the ‘partygate’ scandal in December 2021 (when Labour moved ahead in the UK-wide polls for the first time since 2019), the party north of the border was still stuck on average at 19% in polls of Westminster vote intention, unchanged from its tally at the 2019 election and still trailing the Conservatives by three points. Once details of the ‘gatherings’ held in 10 Downing St during the COVID lockdown had entered the public domain, the party’s support rose to 24%, at which level it still stood at the beginning of September when Liz Truss claimed the keys to 10 Downing St. Then, in parallel with the party’s further progress south of the border, that short-lived administration provided another boost to the party’s Scottish support, to its current level of 27%.
One further indication that Scottish Labour’s progress has largely not been home-grown is the absence of any increase in the popularity of the party’s Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar. For example, in October 2021, Savanta found that 23% regarded Mr Sarwar favourably, almost exactly matching the 24% who did so unfavourably. In the company’s most recent poll conducted shortly before Christmas, the equivalent figures were 24% and 25% respectively, while just over half were still unable to say whether they regarded Mr Sarwar favourably or unfavourably. Other polling from YouGov tells a similar story. Meanwhile, in November 2021, 45% told Ipsos that they were satisfied with the way Mr Sarwar was doing his job as Labour’s Scottish leader, while only 28% were dissatisfied. Now, at 40% and 37% respectively, the gap between the two figures has narrowed. In contrast, both Savanta’s and Ipsos’ polling suggests that the UK leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is a little more popular now north of the border than he was 15 months ago.
Still, Labour’s big hope is that the apparent prospect of the party replacing the Conservatives at Westminster after the next election will tempt voters away from backing both independence and the SNP – and thereby enable the party to make significant gains at the nationalists’ expense at the next Westminster election. So far, the polls have given little succour to the first part of that aspiration – at 49% the average level of support for independence in the last half dozen polls is exactly the same as it was in the last half dozen polls before the ‘partygate’ scandal erupted – and, indeed, in the last half dozen polls before Liz Truss became Prime Minister.
In contrast, there is some evidence that support for the SNP has fallen in the wake of Labour’s progress. The nationalist party was running at 48% in polls of Westminster vote intention before the ‘partygate’ scandal but is at 44% now. However, most of this fall occurred before Liz Truss became the tenant of 10 Downing St (at which point it stood at 45%) – that is before Labour were enjoying UK-wide polling leads of a size that pointed to a possible Labour majority after Ms Truss’ government hit choppy waters. So here too there is little evidence so far of Labour’s hopes being realised.
That said, Labour is the one unionist party that does have some success in winning over nationalist supporters. In the latest polls, 18% of those who voted Yes in 2014 say that they would currently vote Labour (though the figure is somewhat lower among current supporters of Yes). In contrast, just 4% of 2014 Yes voters currently support the Conservatives, and 2% the Liberal Democrats. Moreover, that 18% figure is twice the one of 9% that pertained in the autumn of 2021.
Even so, the party’s popularity among those who backed Yes is still dwarfed by the 42% of 2014 No voters who currently support the party. Moreover, at 14 points, the increase in Labour support among No voters over the last 15 months has been greater than that among Yes voters (nine points). Labour’s relative success at winning over unionists in recent months is also reflected in the past voting behaviour of those who have switched to the party since the last Westminster election. No less than one in six (17%) of those who voted Conservative in 2019 now say they would vote Labour, up from 6% in autumn 2021. In contrast, just one in ten (10%) of those who voted SNP in 2019 are now backing Labour (up from 4% before the ‘partygate’ scandal).
If Labour is to have more than marginal success at eroding the SNP’s electoral base, it will either need to persuade more Yes voters of the case for the Union or at least to put aside their constitutional preference in how they vote – that is to reverse the electoral trends that Scotland has experienced since Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister. That task is not made any easier by the fact that, in the face of the SNP’s avowedly anti-Brexit stance, Labour finds it much more difficult to secure the support of Remain supporters in Scotland (29%) than it does south of the border (57%) – indeed the Scottish party’s popularity among 2014 Remain voters is almost matched by that among their Leave counterparts (27%). Meanwhile, the current level of antagonism and disputation between the UK and the Scottish governments might prove a difficult backdrop against which to try and persuade Yes supporting Scots that they should invest their hopes in the prospect of a better working relationship between Holyrood and Westminster. Much, of course, will depend on the political acumen and skills of the SNP’s new leader, but either way, there is clearly still plenty of work for Anas Sarwar to do if Scottish Labour really are going to mount a significant challenge to the nationalists’ current domination of Scottish politics.
About the author
John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.