Sir Keir Starmer, the UK Labour leader, is eyeing “a great opportunity” to rebuild his party’s battered position in Scotland’s former industrial belt following Humza Yousaf’s victory at the end of a bitter Scottish National Party leadership contest.
Starmer, who has been to Scotland three times in the past month, believes that voters north of the border could hold the keys to 10 Downing Street, and that Yousaf’s victory could help.
The Labour leader’s allies claim that Yousaf is “Scotland’s equivalent of Chris Grayling” — a reference to the former Tory minister who during an accident-prone stint in cabinet was responsible for a number of botched policies, including the awarding of a £14m contract to a new ferry company that had no vessels.
Labour won a single seat in Scotland at the 2019 UK general election, compared with 56 won during former prime minister Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, and the party is targeting significant gains there in next year’s vote.
Starmer’s team believe that Labour’s current poll rating of about 30 per cent would deliver about a dozen Westminster seats in Scotland.
Party strategists believe each percentage point rise in Labour’s share of the vote could put perhaps another three seats “into play”, and in an optimistic scenario the party could win more than 20 seats.
Ian Murray, shadow Scottish secretary, said: “Yousaf has a track record of everything he has touched turning to dust. This is a great opportunity for the Labour party to show that Scotland needs change and Labour can deliver it.”
However, Labour officials also admit that Yousaf, a left-leaning Glasgow MSP, is more likely to appeal to swing voters in Scotland’s central belt than Kate Forbes, the socially conservative MSP who came second in the leadership contest.
Sir John Curtice, politics professor at Strathclyde university, said Yousaf has less electoral appeal than Forbes to people “outside the confines of the SNP” but that did not necessarily make him an easier opponent for Labour.
He said Yousaf was better placed to reunite the SNP after its recent upheaval than Forbes, whose conservative views divide the party. “Under Forbes there could have been an almighty row,” he said.
Curtice added that nationalism in Scotland was “utterly structural — think Northern Ireland” — with 90 per cent of voters who favoured independence supporting the SNP at the last Holyrood elections.
His comments confirm warnings from Douglas Alexander, the former Labour minister and East Lothian candidate in the next election, who told the Financial Times last month the independence issue would help to sustain SNP support, whoever replaced Sturgeon as party leader.
“There needs to be a recognition that the appeal of nationalism is structural rather than personal,” he said
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s allies believe Forbes would have offered more constructive relations with the UK government than Yousaf, an ally of Sturgeon.
Forbes, finance secretary of the Scottish government, was credited by Downing Street for helping to negotiate the creation of two new “green freeports” north of the border.