Starmer’s Labour Seen as Biggest Winner From Scotland Turmoil

(Bloomberg) -- Surveying the fallout triggered by the resignation of Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf, one man appears set to be the biggest beneficiary: the leader of the UK’s main opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer.

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Yousaf’s decision to quit — following days of chaos since he terminated his Scottish National Party’s power-sharing agreement with the Scottish Greens — prolongs a period of turmoil in Scotland that has coincided with a turnaround in Labour’s fortunes at the perfect time, months away from a UK general election.

Historically, Labour’s path to Downing Street has run through Scotland, which is part of the reason the SNP’s struggles are so closely watched in Westminster. As recently as 2010, Labour won 41 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster. But it’s vote share collapsed amid burgeoning support for the SNP’s pro-independence message, leaving it with a single constituency in both 2015 and 2019.

The SNP’s dominance of Scottish politics also contributed to the Conservative Party holding onto UK power since 2010. So the upheaval at the top of the SNP, which also includes long-time leader Nicola Sturgeon stepping down and her husband being charged for embezzlement as part of a probe into the party’s finances, boosts Starmer’s chances of ousting Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

“It definitely helps Labour,” said Coree Brown Swan, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Stirling. “The average person doesn’t want to vote for the party that seems to be in turmoil and divided, while Labour is offering a positive and unified message.”

The dynamics of Scottish politics are changing rapidly. Labour narrowly overtook the SNP in polling in Scotland for the first time since the region’s independence referendum a decade ago, according to YouGov.

Yousaf’s departure symbolizes a remarkable turnaround for the SNP, which had depicted itself as a beacon of stable leadership within the UK during the chaos of Brexit and the pandemic. Now, the party is likely months away from a UK election campaign without a leader and mired in a scandal over its finances.

“Labour are the main beneficiaries of political instability in the SNP,” said Joe Armitag

e, lead UK politics analyst at Global Counsel.

The next electoral test could come sooner than the UK vote. Labour is pushing for a confidence vote in the SNP-led government that could trigger snap elections for the first time since the parliament was re-established in 1999.

That would also happen if the SNP fails to win majority support for a new first minister within 28 days. Much will depend on how other opposition parties, especially the Greens who are the mostly likely to back the SNP, see their electoral prospects. For now, the focus is on who the SNP puts forward, with ex-deputy first minister John Swinney the current bookmakers’ favorite.

But Anas Sarwar, leader of Labour’s Scottish arm, is pressing for an election. The SNP “cannot impose another unelected first minister on Scotland in a back-room deal,” he said.

Labour’s calculation appears to be that it’s time to capitalize on its poll standing and show voters it has the momentum in Scotland. The risk is if the election for Scotland’s parliament does not follow the trend set out in national surveys and the SNP does better than predicted.

Labour, though, looks determined to try to press home its advantage.

“The longer the SNP languish in this position, in difficulty, the more likely that Labour position is to be successful at the next election,” James Matthewson, a former Labour spokesman, told Sky News. “But it’s not a done deal for Labour in Scotland, they’ll need to fight hard.”

--With assistance from Isabella Ward and Alex Wickham.

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