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Is Scotland ready for change?

Scottish Parliament
By Mark Glover
05 June 2024
Public Affairs
general election 2024

As I write this it is the day after the leaders of the four Scottish political parties with representation in Westminster debated for 90 minutes on the STV channel.  

In the studio 

In what was a lively debate, new SNP leader, John Swinney, had to fend of attacks from all three pro-union parties about the SNP’s record in government, and their firm commitment to promoting Independence as the panacea for all the Scottish people’s concerns.  

In what was a feisty affair, Sweeney alongside, Douglas Ross of the Conservatives, Anas Sarwar of Labour, and Alex Cole-Hamilton of the Lib Dems, all had to balance remaining in control of their temper whilst trying to land blows on their opponents. Indeed, only the interaction between Sarwar and Cole-Hamilton was friendly, with agreement between the two over a greater need to invest in NHS (National Health Service) services particularly dentistry, whilst all the other interactions had the potential to become something of a ‘Stramash.’  

Swinney went on the attack against Labour on their plans for GB Energy and a just transition to green power threatening 10,000s of jobs in North-East Scotland, which Sarwar dealt with well by sticking to his line that GB Energy, which will be based in Scotland, would bring net jobs to Scotland. Swinney was on the back foot when asked by Ross and others if he would grant more licences for North Sea Oil, which he refused to answer.  

Ross focused very much on issues relevant to where Conservative candidates have a chance of winning, Northeast Scotland, and more rural and coastal seats. The battle in those areas is between the SNP, Conservative and Lib Dems, whilst Sarwar focused on economic, NHS and cost of living messaging which are critical for the West Coast and central belt of seats Labour is seeking to win.  

In ninety minutes, Swinney did seem to get a bit heated under the collar in some of his interactions with Ross and Sarwar, whilst all the others came away not having landed any critical blows but also not making any spectacular gaffes. Media consensus suggests Sarwar was the winner, but this may just reflect the current polling intentions - which shows Labour ahead.  

On the doorstep 

This set piece reflects something of the election campaign on the ground. The SNP are in retreat, raising the issues of Independence repeatedly is something of a core strategy to maintain their vote, which has been slipping in particularly to a resurgent Labour Party. Yet they are in difficulty with a core message that says Labour are going to win the election so send SNP MPs to Parliament to keep them honest. Most of the electorate in Scotland are keen to see an end to the Conservative government, and Labour’s message of a vote for them being the only definite way of achieving this seems to be cutting though with the hundreds of people I have spoken to on the campaign trail across Scotland.  

Labour in Scotland are desperately trying to maintain the momentum of Labour across the UK, whilst not slipping up and giving any opportunities for their opponents, which in most cases is the SNP, to attack them. I spent some of the weekend out with Anas Sarwar as he visited several events in the Central Belt, and he is relaxed and popular with members of the Scottish public, many of whom wanted selfies with him.  

In 30 seats or more, Labour is competitive and, in most cases, ahead in the polls for the first time in almost 17 years and the party expects to make significant gains. But it still has to make the case to voters for their support.  

In England, the Tory vote is collapsing, yet in Scotland the bigger issue in these Labour/SNP marginals is how will the SNP vote hold up. My experience, speaking to voters directly, is that there will be a lot of tactical voting with Conservative and Lib Dem voters switching to Labour, whilst the amount of SNP voters who stay at home – embarrassed to vote for a party which has be mired by scandal, which could well be a deciding factor in many seats and important in ensuring whether Labour or the SNP have the biggest Westminster representation from Scotland on June 5.