Shock and wild celebration: exit of Sturgeon upends Scottish politics

With no obvious successor to the first minister and a waning appetite for independence, Labour senses an opportunity

Division may have been the main characteristic in Scottish politics in recent years but, at the end of a momentous week, voters in East Lothian were temporarily united. From the dog walkers in picturesque Dunbar to the few shoppers braving high winds in nearby Prestonpans, shock was the initial reaction at the news that Nicola Sturgeon, for so long the most dominant figure in Scottish politics, had resigned.

In most cases, once the initial surprise and surmising over Sturgeon’s motivations had subsided, the old divides returned over whether her departure could have an impact on how Scottish people vote come the next election. “I’m devastated,” said Daniel Tulloch, a 29-year-old barber busy with a haircut in Prestonpans, who described himself as “staunch pro-independent”. “I genuinely think that everything she did was for the people in Scotland,” he added.

Yet it was the response of Marianne Wheelagher, 64, on the nearby high street, that hinted at the political possibilities – in theory at least – that Sturgeon’s departure could open up. She liked Sturgeon and voted for the SNP previously. However, the first minister’s departure “might change how I feel about politics”, she said. “It depends on who the new leader will be, what they’ll do … and what Labour do.”

In the short term, it was a row over gender recognition legislation and self-identification for those who wish to change legal sex – as well as her unusually unsure handling of the case of a transgender prisoner initially remanded at a women’s prison – that seemed to have been the last straw for Sturgeon, after a sustained political backlash she had never before endured.

She had taken on the UK government after it blocked her bill, yet even prominent SNP figures were concerned by the tactic. “I think this is something she feels quite passionately about – even assuming it’s the right thing to do, is this really something we want to keep going?” asked one.

When weighing up the reasons for her departure, however, those closest to the machinations of Holyrood have concluded that it was a lack of a popular plan to further the cause of independence that really drove her decision to quit. Even some on the pro-independence wing of Scottish politics believe her attempt to pick a battle with Westminster over her gender recognition bill was a sign that she was running out of ideas for furthering the independence cause – and making mistakes in the process.

The idea of fighting the next election as a “de facto referendum” had become a huge problem for Sturgeon, with the idea very unpopular with SNP MPs in Westminster and with the public. A conference to confirm that plan has already been cancelled, in effect rendering it dead. Meanwhile, the SNP is now plunging headlong into weeks of internal debate over finding a new leader and their plans for achieving independence – a debate, hope their opponents, that will finally expose the weak points in the SNP’s hitherto formidable election-winning machine. “I think if there was one single issue that led to the first minister making her call, that’s probably it – the lack of an ability to be able to secure a second referendum with no prospect of that in sight,” said a close SNP watcher, strategist Mark Diffley.

It is no wonder, then, that there was also wild celebration from some senior Labour figures last week. While they currently have only one Westminster seat, some are talking excitedly about targeting well over 20 at the next election in Scotland, which would play a big part in returning a Labour majority. Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, said there was now a “generational opportunity” for his party.

In East Lothian, evidence that Labour senses a return to government is personified in the figure of Douglas Alexander, the former cabinet minister recently selected to contest the seat for Labour. He lost Paisley and Renfrewshire South in the 2015 wipeout. He clearly saw this past week as a significant moment for Labour’s fortunes.

Douglas Alexander in Prestonpans
Douglas Alexander in Prestonpans. The former cabinet minister has been selected as the Labour candidate for the East Lothian seat. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

“This week has been a good week, personally and politically,” he said. “I think it’s right to see it as an opportunity, rather than a guarantee. Whoever they choose will not have either her visibility, particularly post pandemic, or her authority after eight years as first minister. Whoever they choose still faces the same strategic dilemma – there’s a discernible sense that their old approach of manufacturing grievance, picking fights with Westminster and pretending that Conservatives and Labour are one and the same just isn’t working as well as it has worked for them over the last dozen years.”

In truth, his East Lothian seat does not require winning over a chunk of “soft” SNP voters to be won by Labour. Like other constituencies in the small group briefly won back in the 2017 election, Alexander can secure victory on the back of winning over pro-union Conservative voters. The nationalist vote could also be split in his seat if Alba, the party set up by Alex Salmond, runs there again. (The seat is currently held for Alba by Kenny MacAskill, who quit the SNP in 2021). Squeezing the Tory vote will only take the party so far, however. “That might give them a handful or somewhere between five and 10 seats overall,” said Diffley. “Actually, the real prize here is whether they can stick the ball in the net by eating into the SNP vote.”

Labour has been working on how to target these voters. Internal work by the party has identified a slice of “middle Scotland” – those with weaker affiliation to independence than other SNP voters – that could be won over. They are generally younger, more female, more remain. A package of devolution reforms devised by Gordon Brown’s commission, including the abolition of the House of Lords, more power for Scotland within the UK government and the possibility of more financial powers in Scotland, was drawn up with them in mind.

One of the candidates who will need support from SNP switchers is Gordon McKee, a young, charismatic party official selected last week to contest Glasgow South. For him, it is not constitutional or devolution issues that will be at the forefront of the campaign, but the things Labour has always prospered talking about: good public services and a progressive Labour government. “There is huge overlap in what many SNP and Labour voters want,” he said. “What unites most SNP/Labour voters is a desire for change. And what we’ve got to capture is that mood for change.”

Keir Starmer will target those voters directly in his speech to Scottish Labour’s conference on Sunday, addressing “those who had given up on Labour” and staying within Britain. “I know the people of Scotland want change and hope,” he will say.

“Not a showy, grandiose hope. What I mean is the basic, ordinary hope we used to take for granted. The sort of hope you can build your future around. That aspirations are made of.”

The idea that at some point a virtuous circle will be created in which SNP voters back Labour as the quickest way to remove the Tory government is the device that many in Labour are championing. Sarwar suggested the conditions were already present. “People in Scotland believe UK Labour can form the next government – that has not been the case for the last 12 years,” he said. “It is partly saying to people, ‘look, you might disagree on independence, you might disagree on whether there should be a referendum or not. But what the vast majority of us can agree on is we need to get rid of this rotten Tory government’.”

There is a problem, though. Some of Scotland’s most prominent political brains think there are still some heroic assumptions going on to prop up the idea of a significant Labour recovery. While it is true that Labour’s support has increased in the polls in Scotland, it has coincided with Tory immolations rather than Labour success.

As elections guru Sir John Curtice points out, Labour was stuck in third place on 19% of the vote in Scotland before the “Partygate” scandal that led to the departure of Boris Johnson as prime minister. It rose to 24% as a result of those revelations, then increased to 27% after Liz Truss’s disastrous premiership. The latest polls have Labour on 29% or slightly higher. And that success has come from a relentless squeeze on the pro-union Tory vote, which cannot be squeezed much further.

“Basically, I think the Scottish Labour party has been riding on the coat-tails of the UK party which, of course, has been heavily riding on the coat-tails of the Tories’ misfortune,” said Curtice. “There still isn’t a broad, synoptic message … The idea that the prospect of a UK majority Labour government has made people who are supporting the SNP into saying ‘we don’t have to vote for the SNP any more’ – there is no evidence of that.”

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, 2011
Nicola Sturgeon, deputy to the then leader of the SNP Alex Salmond, pictured on the way to the party conference in 2011. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

Diffley added: “The kind of cast-iron law here of public attitudes in the last 10 years in Scotland is that you can pretty much map on people’s constitutional preference to their party support preference. So, in a sense, it does feel quite a heroic assumption [that many will switch], but perhaps Sturgeon’s departure gives them the opportunity to try to actually make that happen.” SNP figures, meanwhile, point out that many were also suggesting the party’s electoral fortunes would dip after another dominant leader, Alex Salmond, stepped down in 2014. Like Sturgeon, the new SNP leader will be first minister and, with the structural support of nationalists, may be able to build up public recognition just as quickly.

Labour’s position on Brexit is also a difficulty, said Diffley. Its success in neutralising the issue in the English red wall by saying it will stick with the project but improve its workings may hinder its standing among progressive SNP voters. “I’m afraid to say, I suspect every time Keir Starmer or one of the Labour frontbenchers in London opens their mouth on Brexit, basically saying, ‘look, we’re not going to change anything on this, we’ve just got to live with it’, Anas Sarwar will be pulling his hair out,” Diffley said. “The people that he needs to persuade are pro-EU and pro-independence. And if your corporate position is unmovable on Brexit and unmovable on the constitution, the Brown commission aside, then it sort of stands to reason that that’s going to be a really, really tricky sell.”

Ultimately, to make those further inroads, Labour faces the same challenge it has in the rest of the UK – switching public disdain at the Conservative government’s various crises into a positive embrace for its programme. It is a criticism implicitly accepted by Sarwar. “I’m not just going to spend my time telling people why I think the Tories and the SNP deserve to lose,” he said. “The easy part of the job is to list all the failures of the two governments and say this mob deserves to lose. The harder part is to be worthy of people’s support – to positively have people’s support, and to see why we positively deserve to win. That, for me, is the project between now and the next general election.”

If nothing else, there is a window where a crucial slice of the electorate are at least listening. “I was a member of the Labour party until they took us into a war that we shouldn’t have ever been near and then went to the Scottish nationalists,” said John, sorting through secondhand records in Dunbar’s “old and new” store. “I probably won’t vote unless I can see something in that Sarwar guy. If I could see some kind of leadership, I’d be for him.”

• This article was amended on 21 February 2023 to add that East Lothian is currently held for Alba by Kenny MacAskill, who quit the SNP in 2021.

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