Scottish Politics: the Next Two Years

This article was first published on Kirsty Hughes’s substack on 7 June 2024:

The election has four more weeks to go. Maybe the SNP will retrieve some ground against Labour though Labour’s lead in the polls looks fairly secure. And then what?

Scotland’s politics is set to change in many ways if Labour wins the election in Scotland and has the majority of MPs, even if the SNP manages to avoid crashing to a single figure number of MPs. Recent polls have varied between a four to a ten point lead for Labour over the SNP. But you have to go back to early April to find the two parties level-pegging. On current polls, Labour could end up with close to 30 MPs to the SNP in the high teens.

Even if the SNP manages to pull level to Labour before 4th July, Labour is clearly back in Scotland. It’s a new political configuration – but not the same as 2010, say, unless the SNP does collapse to only 6MPs.

National Renewal Labour-Style: What about democracy?

Keir Starmer has put forward a very limited set of ambitions in his six headline goals for the election. But his bigger pitch is for a decade of “national renewal” (national here meaning UK) that he wants people to buy into even if they normally vote for other parties. This is not a “tribal Labour” Starmer promises, it’s a we’re all in this together project.

Most people in the UK, Starmer claimed last week, are in the centre ground, they don’t like the “extremes” of left or right – all reasonable people broadly want what Labour wants.

This may sound like motherhood and apple pie politics. But even before considering Scotland’s politics, this is also deeply dubious from a democratic point of view. Labour, if polls are right, will win with a landslide. The Tories – much deserved – may shrink to 100 MPs or even fewer. They are not going to present much of an opposition.

But democracy is about representing different views, the diversity of views across different people and different parts of the UK. It’s about debate and disagreement and challenge.  And if Starmer is Prime Minister with an overwhelming majority at Westminster and Labour majorities (in number of MPs) in England, Scotland and Wales, albeit not in Northern Ireland, then will the UK’s pluralist democracy function effectively?

Starmer is clearly a politician who doesn’t like division. I met him briefly, a year or two after the 2016 Brexit vote, and he was genuinely concerned at the deep divisions he had encountered across the UK due to that vote. Yet he’s dealt with that by accepting the Tories’ hard Brexit (which can’t be said to have brought the remainers on board – a large majority now think Brexit was wrong).

But democracy functions with and through different views, not by everyone being together in the centre on a national mission let alone all accepting Brexit.

Still, given Labour’s determination to stick to an overly tight fiscal stance, and given the decrepit state of public services and infrastructure across the UK, it’s not obvious that a united public backing Labour’s national renewal is what Starmer will find he’s getting. And for anyone who cares about genuine democracy, that is a good thing.

It remains though a key question as to where opposition and debate will come from. From the Tories, trying to regroup as Reform hovers? From within Labour? From other parties, and parliaments, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? From the LibDems, who may well become third party again at Westminster but are campaigning on a pretty conservative programme. Or from wider civil society, from NGOs, campaign groups, unions?

Scottish Politics to 2026

Scotland does not look like following Starmer’s “national renewal”, no division theme as politicians post-July 4th look to the 2026 Holyrood elections. Labour politicians have said, as they must at this point in the election campaign, that they will aim to work constructively with the Scottish government.

But Starmer is also clear, not surprisingly, that he wants to see a Labour government at Holyrood. Days before Welsh First Minister, Vaughan Gething, lost a vote of confidence in the Senedd, but then didn’t resign, Starmer said it would be a ‘double win’ to have Labour governments in Westminster and Cardiff. And, of course, that’s the goal for Scotland too.

Over the next two years, Labour and SNP governments may both want to show they’ve been the good ones in trying, but doubtless mostly failing, to cooperate. As they campaign for votes all the way to 2026, conflict and stand-offs are much more likely.

This is, then, a new phase for Scottish politics. Labour is back but the SNP is still there – in what shape we will see on 4th July. We may get a Lib-Lab coalition in Holyrood in 2026 or the SNP could yet come out ahead. This depends how both Scottish and UK politics unfold with a Starmer-led UK government between now and then.

Younger Voters Still Back Independence

Labour will be bullish if they have more Labour MPs in Scotland in four weeks’ time. But they also have to look at where their support is coming from. The SNP’s polling support remains stronger amongst younger than older voters. And this is where, too, independence support remains strong.

A recent Survation poll found 54% against independence to 46% in favour. Another two recent polls, at the end of May, put it at 52% against to 48% for – the issue is not going away.

And for those under 45 years old, Survation found a majority for independence, particularly high amongst those 16-34 years old (66% ‘yes’ for 16-24 year olds and 72% for 25-34 year olds). Meanwhile, a recent YouGov poll found 63% support for independence amongst 25-49 year olds.

This is not just a question, as many have commented on in recent months, that support for independence has diverged from support for the SNP, crucial though that is for current Scottish politics. It also underlines the different political outcomes that come out of having a proportional voting system for Holyrood.

A four point difference between Labour and SNP gives a very different result in Westminster versus Holyrood elections. And Labour will have to see if they can hang on to votes they get on 4th July from younger votes when 2026 arrives. Those voters might want to revert to a party that supports independence.

When Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, his approach to Scotland was characterised by centralisation and ‘muscular unionism’, dismissive of devolution. Starmer may aim for softer words and perhaps demonstrate more respect for devolution as he campaigns for a Labour victory in 2026.

But SNP-Labour rivalry is now entering a new phase. And it will be a phase where, much as they may want to, Labour will not be able to ignore the continuing politics of independence and the constitutional debate in the face of sustained majority support for independence amongst younger voters.

How and whether a weakened SNP will be able to regain votes on the back of a renewed pitch on independence and/or provide effective, serious opposition to a Labour government’s first two years, we will soon see. But to do so, the SNP will need to make a much stronger, strategic political offer than we’ve seen so far in this general election campaign (the SNP veering to the right on oil and gas particularly unedifying) – or indeed than we’ve seen in the last year of SNP upheaval.

What is clear is that the political dynamics of Scotland in the next two years are going to look rather different from those in England and the rest of the UK. And the independence debate is not likely to disappear in a haze of UK national renewal.