Starmer sets his sights on Scotland

Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer
[PA Media]

Is your life better after 14 years of Conservative government?

That, in a nutshell, was the question Labour asked voters in this general election campaign.

You don't need me to tell you that it worked, rather well.

Now the party is already talking about repeating the feat at the 2026 Scottish parliamentary elections by asking "is your life better after 19 years under the SNP?"

"This is part one," said Sir Keir Starmer in Edinburgh on Sunday, adding: "part two comes in 2026."

However, firing up his party for the Holyrood election campaign was not the main reason for the prime minister's visit to Scotland so soon after taking office.

He insists that he wants to reset relations with governments around the UK, hence his decision to make an early dash through Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, as well as meeting English mayors, in his first few days in the job.

Sir Keir is attempting to style himself as the sensible leader of a grown-up government, a man whose watchwords are moderation and co-operation.

The intended contrast is not just with politicians on his right but also with those on his left, not least his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, who is back in parliament as an independent.

It is striking that Mr Corbyn secured 40% of the vote in 2017 when he lost to Theresa May while Sir Keir's victory was built on a 33.7% share and the second lowest turnout since World War Two.

Tony Blair arrives at No 10
Keir Starmer's victory is just shy of Tony Blair's 1997 landslide [PA Media]

In other words the new prime minister's well of support may be shallower than a majority of 174, just shy of Tony Blair's 1997 landslide, suggests.

In fact, Scotland was the only part of the UK where Labour’s vote share rose sharply in this election, jumping by 17 percentage points as the party took 36 seats from the SNP.

Sir Keir retooled a familiar phrase in his address to new Scottish MPs and other supporters in a hotel looking out over Edinburgh Castle.

"We won because we campaigned as changed Labour," he said, adding: "And we will govern as changed Labour."

It was an obvious reference to Sir Tony, who entered Downing Street 27 years ago with the words: "We ran for office as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour. "

But this is not 1997.

Starmer has inherited a stagnating economy, with low growth, low productivity and high inequality.

He is dealing with the fallout from Covid, the war in Ukraine and Conservative cuts to public spending in response to the financial crisis of 2007/8, known as austerity.

Winning control of the Scottish government from the SNP at Holyrood in 2026 could yet depend on Labour delivering the change it has promised voters as quickly as possible.

That will be a huge challenge when the party has pledged to stick to Conservative spending plans, a point the SNP leader and First Minister John Swinney made repeatedly during the election campaign.

Yesterday, though, both men were stressing co-operation.

Mr Swinney told broadcasters that, on eradicating child poverty, improving public services and tackling climate change, “there is common ground to be achieved by working collaboratively with the United Kingdom government.”

Sir Keir also sounded positive, focusing on Scotland's only oil refinery at Grangemouth, where hundreds of jobs are under threat.

“We discussed the economy. We discussed energy and as you would expect, we discussed Grangemouth,” he said, promising that “our governments will work together on that issue straight away.”

More generally, says new Chancellor Rachel Reeves, the way to reinvigorate the economy is growth aligned with an industrial strategy which will include a new publicly-owned green energy company based in Scotland.

However, there is still confusion about whether the proposed "Great British Energy" would operate as an actual energy generation company, as Labour originally promised or, as Sir Keir later told BBC Radio Scotland, "an investment vehicle."

Regardless, trade unions, which have traditionally supported Labour, are worried about the impact on North Sea jobs of an accelerated transition to renewable power.

That is not their only concern.

"We haven't got time to wait for growth," said Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite on the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme.

"People are literally hurting out there, and we're going to have to borrow to invest, and our crumbling public services need money."

The other big economic issue hanging over Sir Keir as he takes office is the UK's decision – against Scotland’s wishes – to end free trading arrangements with its biggest market, the European Union.

As he spoke to journalists on a terrace overlooking Edinburgh Castle on Sunday, I asked the prime minister if he had anything practical to say about how he would address the impact of Brexit, which the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimates will reduce UK productivity (output per worker) by 4% in the long term.

"Yes," he replied. "We intend to improve our relationship with the EU and that means closer trading ties with the EU.

"It means closer ties in relation to research and development and closer ties in relation to defence and security.

"I do think that we can get a much better deal than the botched deal that Boris Johnson saddled the UK with," Sir Keir added.

Could that mean a return to some form of free-trading arrangement with the EU?

"I think we're going to have a much better deal than the one we've got now. That depends on respectful relationships, talking to leaders across the EU and, of course, that work has already begun," he replied.

Pro-Palestinian protesters outside Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland, in Edinburgh, ahead of the meeting of Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer and John Swinney
[PA Media]

There are plenty of other challenges for Sir Keir.

He arrived for and left his meeting with Mr Swinney at the first minister’s official residence in Edinburgh by the back door amid noisy pro-Gaza protests outside the building.

The pair could clearly hear the chanting as they chatted inside the building.

Outside, one of the protestors, who didn't want to give her name in case it caused trouble with her employer, told me she was unimpressed by the prime minister's decision not to go in the front door of the building.

"I think it's ridiculous but laughable at the same time," she said, adding: "Back door Starmer. He can't face the people. He's meant to be Labour, one of the people, and he can't face us."

Downing Street said they would not comment on the prime minister’s logistics.

Sir Keir will hope the rest of his trip around the UK, indeed the rest of his premiership, goes a little more smoothly.