I attended the Scottish Labour Party conference in Edinburgh at the weekend. It took place two days after the shock news of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation. As a consequence, the mood amongst delegates was jubilant. The overwhelming feeling was that change is coming and a belief that the SNP’s grip on Scotland is finally loosening. A YouGov study in the days before the First Minister’s resignation showed 29% support for the SNP, 27% for Labour and only 12% for the Conservatives. Labour now strongly believes that with the hugely popular Sturgeon gone they will receive a further electoral boost.
However, despite the buoyant atmosphere, key figures were keen to urge caution. Pat McFadden, Shadow Chief Secretary, speaking at a Labour Friends of Scotland fringe meeting, stressed that the enormity of the task ahead in delivering a Labour victory could not be underestimated. And both leaders, Anas Sarwar and Sir Keir Starmer, warned against complacency in their keynote speeches. The focus was very much on the need for economic growth and the failure of both governments, SNP in Holyrood and Tories in Westminster, to deliver what the electorate needs and deserves.
Meanwhile, the infighting amongst the SNP leadership challengers spilled over into the Scottish media. Nicola’s announcement clearly took them all by surprise. Her deputy, John Swinney, ruled himself out almost immediately. Humza Yousaf, the Health Secretary, and Ash Regan, a former minister, threw their respective hats in the ring. Angus Robertson, rumoured to be Sturgeon’s preference, has said he will not run and Cabinet Secretary, Kate Forbes, the current favourite according to polls, announced her intention to stand earlier today.
Back in the conference venue, the First Minster’s “legacy” was much-derided. Scotland’s denuded public services, the parlous state of the economy, unprecedented levels of poverty and the worst drugs record in Europe were all laid squarely at her door. She, and by extension her Government, had failed the people of Scotland and it is down to Labour to provide solutions. And for once, it did not feel as if this was Labour Party delusion. New candidates for the next election, including former International Trade Secretary, Douglas Alexander, were credible and inspiring. The optimism and need for change amongst the delegates was palpable.
Scotland was Labour’s original Red Wall, losing 40 out of its 41 seats in 2015. Based on recent Scottish polls, and bolstered by UK Labour’s poll lead, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the party could win 25 seats next year. The outcome of the next election now lies as much in Midlothian as it does in the Midlands. Anas Sarwar deserves enormous credit for this spectacular turnaround and I predict a host of senior Labour figures visiting the length and breadth of Scotland in the next 18 months now that this realisation has dawned.