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The winner of the SNP leadership contest is… Keir Starmer

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Now we know who will lead the SNP and serve as Scotland’s sixth First Minister. What does Humza Yousaf’s victory mean for Scotland and the next UK general election?

What does Yousaf’s victory mean for Scotland?

Faced with a choice, the party members have opted for the continuity candidate of Humza Yousaf. He is the candidate borne of the Sturgeon machine who was backed by a big majority of SNP politicians but with little, if no, independent political identity outside of Sturgeon’s considerable shadow. The good news is that his election will reduce the chances of the party splitting. But there’s more bad news than good for the SNP. Strategically, he will continue to build the same pro-independence coalition that Sturgeon failed to cement. The truth is that there just isn’t a stable group of 50%plus of angry Scots willing to split the union. But that won’t stop Yousaf from trying.

Tactically, Yousaf arrives already traduced where Sturgeon was teflon. The SNP has been in power in Scotland for sixteen years, and the most generous we can be about their record in office is that it is ‘mixed’. But that didn’t seem to matter while Sturgeon was in office; sufficient numbers of Scots were willing to forgive those failings for the sake of the cause of independence. By contrast, Yousaf arrives in office widely known as Humza Useless because of his ministerial failings. His election opens a hitherto closed window into the SNP’s record. The SNP will for the first time be both constitutionally responsible and electorally accountable for their own timidity in office. Trouble lies ahead, and we may see another leadership contest by 2025.

Whatever its electoral consequences eventually turn out to be, the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon was a seminal moment.  For almost 16 years she and her predecessor Alex Salmond achieved a period of one-party dominance that is unprecedented in the United Kingdom let alone in Scotland.  During their joint periods of office there were four UK general elections, seven Prime Ministers, and of course referendums on Scottish independence and on the EU. The SNP have won four Scottish parliamentary elections and become the third largest party at Westminster.

Is this a Turning Point?

Many within the SNP worry that with Sturgeon’s demise, also gone is by far the most – perhaps the only – effective advocate for Scottish independence, and that the SNP will be exposed to the normal forces of electoral mortality. There are two reasons why these SNP’s anxieties may be well placed.  The first is that Sturgeon left with no oven-ready successor.

The other reason why this may indeed be a turning point in Scottish politics is that even before Sturgeon’s resignation the polls were showing a few cracks in the SNP’s edifice.  They still lead in voting intention for both Westminster and Holyrood but they are currently polling well below their results in 2019 and 2021 while Labour’s resurgence has been reflected in much higher ratings.  One poll carried out before Sturgeon’s announcement showed the SNP lead over Labour in Westminster voting intention down to just three points.  The latest surveys also show a recent swing of opinion against independence.

What does this mean for Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer?

Both Labour and Conservative politicians are barely concealing their joy at Sturgeon’s demise. It has likely put independence off for at least a generation. The universal belief among politicians and commentators is that this is a considerable boost to Labour who now have a realistic expectation of winning several seats in Scotland at the next general election, thereby reducing the scale of the task in England and Wales.

It remains to be seen how Yousef fares in the polls and real electoral tests.  But the new First Minister will face a tough challenge, not least in holding together his own party.  The odd thing about the SNP is that it has no real core vote, it is hard to identify any voter group or geographical area where their vote would hold up even as it was declining everywhere else. Most of their Westminster success before 2007 came in parts of the country like Aberdeenshire and Perthshire which voted most heavily against independence and in constituencies which are now represented by Conservatives.

Salmond’s great breakthrough during the independence referendum, which has been consolidated by Sturgeon, was among working class voters in Glasgow and the counties of Lanarkshire, Dunbartonshire, and Renfrewshire. These had once been Labour’s greatest strongholds and where the SNP had struggled to make any gains other than in the occasional by-election.   What now constitutes their core vote is very hard to define. This suggests that any potential decline in nationalist support could be nationwide.

Is Starmer closer to Number 10?

From 1964 right through to 2010 there were never fewer than 40 Labour MPs elected in Scotland even when the party was heavily defeated across the UK as in 1983 and 1987. With only one MP in Scotland, Labour has considerable opportunities.

The latest Westminster poll in Scotland shows the SNP with 43 per cent of the vote to 29 for Labour and 18 for the Conservatives.  This would bring six Labour gains from the SNP and three SNP gains from the Tories.  The numbers of seats which would be won by each party on additional levels of swing from the SNP to Labour are shown below.

Labour doesn’t have to be ahead in the polls to win more Scottish seats than the SNP. With Labour and the SNP neck and neck Labour would make 26 gains in Scotland.  That would reduce the swing which Labour requires to be the largest party from eight per cent to roughly six per cent, and to win an overall majority from 13.5 per cent to about ten per cent.

A rule of thumb is that for every eight seats that Labour gains in Scotland it reduces the swing needed from the Conservatives in England and Wales by about one per cent. As Yousaf enjoys his win, he isn’t the only one celebrating. This election has chosen Scotland’s next leader. Significantly, it may also have gone some considerable way to deciding the UK’s next Prime Minister. And for that Keir Starmer has reason to thank Nicola Sturgeon.

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