Euan McColm: SNP shouldn’t assume that wandering votes will return to the fold for Holyrood 2026

The nationalist ‘wisdom’ that votescurrently being lost to Labour​ are justabout ousting Tories in Westminsteris complacency

As polls continue to show Scottish Labour winning back support from the SNP, smart nationalist politicians have already adopted the brace position.

If current predictions are even in the vicinity of accuracy, the SNP stands to lose a number of MPs when Scots next go to the polls. A realistic worst-case scenario has the nationalists returning fewer than half the number of MPs elected in 2019, when they sent 48 to the House of Commons.

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But, despite their expectations of a Labour resurgence at the next general election, SNP politicians comfort themselves with the current received wisdom which is that a substantial number of those expected to vote Labour will do so not because of any great enthusiasm for Sir Keir Starmer and the party's Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar, but because they see it as the best way of removing the Conservatives at Westminster. Having achieved this objective, these voters are expected to return to the SNP at the 2026 Holyrood election.

Pundits clog up TV studios, explaining that a “sophisticated” electorate will happily switch its vote depending on the parliament to which it’s electing representatives.

And perhaps this is right. Perhaps the SNP, even in these dark days, can look forward to a brighter future including a fifth consecutive Holyrood election victory.

But what if those switching voters don’t return to the SNP?

Back at the 2010 general election – held three years after Alex Salmond had led the SNP to its first Holyrood election victory – Scottish Labour won 41 seats in Scotland and the nationalists just six. At the time, pundits clogged up TV studios explaining that a “sophisticated” electorate… you know the rest.

Polling figures released last weekend revealed troubling news for the SNP. Research by the Diffley Partnership showed the middle-class voters who catapulted the nationalists to victory in 2007 and have kept them in power at Holyrood ever since have been deserting the party since the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon a year ago. The steady drift of “aspirational” voters away from the SNP has continued throughout a series of scandals, from the arrests of Sturgeon and her husband, former party chief executive Peter Murrell, during an ongoing police investigation into allegations of fraud involving party funds to the failure of Humza Yosuaf to sack former health secretary Michael Matheson for lying about his expenses.

Maybe, despite all of this, there are SNP supporters who genuinely take for granted that those who switch back to Labour this year will promptly return to the nationalist breast. If so, these people are recklessly complacent.

When Labour voters shifted to the SNP, most did not – initially – do so because of any great enthusiasm for independence. In fact, for the nationalists first term in power at Holyrood, support for breaking up the Union remained below 30 per cent. The thing that triggered the wave of defections to the SNP was the widespread belief that Labour could no longer be trusted.

The SNP was so successful in selling the idea its opponents had taken for granted the support of voters it held in contempt that Labour suffered a brutal backlash.

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If you want to know just how remarkable it is that Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar can wander the streets of Scotland, unmolested, meeting and greeting voters, remember how – just 10 years ago – former Labour leader Ed Miliband arrived in Edinburgh to be met by a crowd so menacing that there were genuine concerns about his safety.

By that point, not only had the SNP succeeded in persuading swathes of former Labour voters to switch their allegiances, it had painted its opponents as traitors to Scotland and completed the constriction of what former deputy first minister John Swinney told colleagues was “a fort on the centre ground of Scottish politics”.

When voters switched from Labour to the SNP, many really doubled down on their decision, proclaiming endless, unshakeable faith in the nationalists and declaring their disgust with this or that action performed by their former party of choice.

What happens if voters making the switch in the opposite direction behave similarly? What if the need to justify their Labour vote keeps them loyal?

Things don’t stand to get any better for the SNP any time soon. That police investigation drags on, with officers about to begin new interviews with party staff.

First Minister Humza Yousaf has no control over that situation. All he can do is roll with each new flurry of punches it brings down on him.

The decisions of a substantial number of Scots – polls regularly show Labour neck and neck with the SNP in Westminster voting intention – to shift their vote this year presents, at the very least, an opportunity for Starmer and Sarwar. Labour will have the best part of a year and a half to persuade switchers that they should hang around.

There are mutterings in some Scottish Labour circles about the need for the party to produce a fresh offer on the constitution. Yes, this is something worth considering in the longer term but it hardly ranks as an immediate priority.

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Rather than dancing to the SNP tune and bogging itself down in the independence battle, Labour needs to show Scots some tangible proof of the benefits of the Union.

The announcement by Prime Minister Starmer of, say, a pilot social housing project in Scotland might turn the heads of voters who know the prospects of a second independence referendum are vanishingly meagre.

Perhaps the current received wisdom is correct and Labour is merely about to borrow SNP voters, but any nationalist taking that scenario for granted is blind to the risks their party faces.



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