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Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar waving
Labour leader Keir Starmer with his Scottish Labour counterpart, Anas Sarwar. Alamy/Stefan Rousseau

Election 2024: Scotland headed for huge change with SNP set to lose dozens of seats to Labour

Scotland, it was claimed by first minister and SNP leader John Swinney, is again being “disrespected” by the Conservatives. This was his response to the news that the UK election would be held on July 4 – after many Scottish schools have already broken up for the summer, and just as a lot of families will be taking off on holiday. To Swinney (and others), this was just another example of Scotland being an afterthought for Westminster.

It may indeed be the case that Scotland was not a major factor in Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a July election. After all, Scotland only returned six Conservative MPs in 2019 (down from 13 in 2017) out of a total of 59. Voters overwhelmingly chose the SNP, which took 45% of the vote and 48 seats, thereby making it the third-largest party in Westminster (again).

This has been a pattern since the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, which triggered a political realignment. Ever since, the Scottish electorate appears to have voted according to constitutional preference, rather than making a wider, issues-based consideration. Those who voted for independence supported the SNP in Westminster elections, while those who opposed it mostly backed Labour or the Conservatives.

But recent polls suggest this pattern is about to be broken. Scotland, it appears, is headed for huge change.

All indications are that the next parliament will include many more Scottish Labour MPs and many fewer SNP MPs. Indeed, the latest polls indicate the SNP could lose up to 30 seats, with the vast majority going to Scottish Labour, while the Scottish Liberal Democrats and Scottish Conservatives could pick up one or two additional seats, respectively. Boundary changes mean Scotland will now have 57 rather than 59 MPs, but that will be little consolation for the SNP.

Since its 2019 victory, support for the SNP has declined steadily. The political woes of former first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell, followed by her resignation in February 2023, was a rough patch for the party.

Her successor, Humza Yousaf, after a period of initial calm beset by only minor gaffes, had to resign suddenly after pulling out of the SNP’s governing agreement with the Greens. His replacement as first minister and leader, Swinney, has hardly had time to bed in. He may well have preferred that the election was held later in 2024, enabling him to deal with some of the SNP’s woes in the meantime.

However, we should not automatically assume that the drop in support for the SNP means voters in Scotland no longer care about independence. Support for independence remains at about the same level it was in 2014. What appears to have changed is that people appear to now want to vote with other issues in mind.

While a core of support remains for the SNP on the independence issue, the two most important issues for respondents to a recent poll were the cost of living and the NHS. When asked to highlight the most important three influences on their potential vote, two-thirds focused on the cost of living as an issue, and half on the NHS.

In this regard, Scotland seems to be much like the wider UK. Both of these issues rated far ahead of other matters such as independence, climate change, immigration, education or jobs and unemployment – all of which scored in the teens in terms of how likely they were to influence people’s voting choice.

John Swinney talking to the media.
First minister and SNP leader John Swinney had only been in post a few weeks when the election was called. Alamy/SST

As it stands, more people trust Scottish Labour on these core issues than they do the SNP or the Scottish Conservatives. Only on the issue of independence, unsurprisingly, is the SNP stronger than its main competitor. But up to 20% of those who voted SNP in 2019 have indicated they may well support Scottish Labour in July.

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A significant percentage of voters are seemingly happy to shift support when it comes to who they feel will best stand up for Scotland in Westminster. Over the past decade, the SNP has been the recipient of such support, but party in-fighting, legal woes and the rapid turnover of three leaders have clearly had an impact.

Faced with a Conservative UK government, voters in Scotland strongly supported the SNP, seeing the nationalist party as the best choice for a voice for Scotland in the UK parliament. That, it seems, is now a changing perception, and support is clearly moving.

With Labour the strong favourites to form the next UK government, a number of voters in Scotland, more concerned with the issues of day-to-day living rather than constitutional matters, are backing Scottish Labour. This time, these voters may consider that having more Scottish voices within the UK government, rather than in opposition in Westminster, could be a potential positive for Scotland.

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