Here are six reasons why Keir Starmer has a big Scotland problem

From blocking Scottish Parliament legislation and dismissing rejoining the EU to nuclear weapons and the two-child benefit cap, the Labour government is out of step with Scottish public opinion on a range of key issues

Scotland has given Labour another chance, but they could blow it. On his victory lap, new PM Keir Starmer has been claiming to have a “clear mandate to govern all four corners of the UK”. But not so fast. Westminster isn’t the be all, end all when it comes to these parts. The real determiner of how far Starmer’s governance stretches into Scotland will be how his party fares in the Holyrood elections in two years.

Rather than a groundswell of popular enthusiasm for Labour’s new direction under smarter-shoed leadership, Starmer’s success has been attributed by many commentators to a greater desire to get rid of the Tories after 14 long years. That, as well as voters in Scotland willing to give a flagging SNP a boot up the bum. Nethertheless, Scotland sent Labour MPs to Westminster in large numbers.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

However, there are a number of key issues where our electorate has diverged from Labour in recent years, most clearly sketched out in how the SNP has clashed with the Labour party at Westminster. The large bloc of SNP MPs since 2015 set a very vocal precedent for representing Scottish interests that Labour MPs will now be measured against. Starmer campaigned on an image of steadying the ship and will be keen his party falls in line. Particularly within the comfortable position of majority government, and no longer speaking from opposition perspective, the Scottish party’s reputation as ‘branch office’ of a southern-facing Labour party will surface again.

Labour leader Keir Starmer faces a different political climate in Scotland than in other parts of the UK (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)Labour leader Keir Starmer faces a different political climate in Scotland than in other parts of the UK (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Labour leader Keir Starmer faces a different political climate in Scotland than in other parts of the UK (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Read More
How Keir Starmer can win over the hundreds of thousands of SNP supporters who le...

SNP’s ageing ‘Time is Now’ slogan

The obvious issue is constitutional. It’s why Scottish Labour lost the trust of the Scots electorate in the first place, although they are now also tiring of a decade of the SNP's the “Time is Now” promises. But the needle on the dial moves little and independence is not going away. Talking to John Swinney, Starmer’s words of collaboration sounded positive, but the “mandate to govern all four corners” chat away from Bute House reveals a more unilateral mindset.

When Starmer repeatedly says there is no case for rejoining the European Union, he’s not thinking of the Scottish electorate at all. And his embrace of Section 35 orders – as used by the Tories to block Scottish legislation – shows the same authoritarian willingness to ride roughshod over devolved democracy. Where Scotland differs in opinion on the vision for its own future, Starmer’s UK Labour must show it won’t simply subsume it.

Like Boris Johnson before him, Starmer had to skulk into Scotland’s front room of power via the back door, as a pro-Palestinian protest demanding ceasefire in Gaza interrupted his first visit as PM to Bute House. When it comes to conflict in the Middle East, Starmer has faced much criticism for his wavering stance, and was pressured by the SNP and preceded by Scottish Labour in calling for an immediate end to fighting. Left-wing dissatisfaction with Starmer’s cautious, centrist governance will be especially vocal from Scotland.

Nuclear headache

Trident is often thought of as an issue divided alongside constitutional lines, as the nuclear missile site parked in Scotland became a discussion point in the 2014 referendum with concerns for Scots living beside Faslane and moral objections to harnessing the power of mass destruction. But Scottish Labour have in many instances diverged with the UK party; notably, the year after the independence referendum, 70 per cent of Scottish Labour Party members voted for a conference motion to scrap Trident.

UK party policy has, meanwhile, been to steadfastly back renewal of the nuclear missile plant, including under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who personally favoured multilateral disarmament while Starmer, in contrast, sounds positively enthusiastic. This will be a particular headache for new Scottish Secretary Ian Murray, who has always been queasy about Trident but now already finds himself as a Cabinet member fielding questions about whether the Labour government will be building more nuclear projects in Scotland.

Tories’ cruel rape clause

While the SNP campaigned to get rid of the two-child benefit cap, containing what is commonly referred to as the rape clause, Labour have looked comparatively weak in standing up to a cruel Tory policy targeting women on low incomes and deemed by the British Medical Association to be poor legislation. The chair of BMA Scotland, Dr Peter Bennie, said at the time: “The ‘rape clause’ is fundamentally damaging for women – forcing them to disclose rape and abuse at a time and in a manner not of their choosing, at pain of financial penalty.”

NHS Scotland subsequently refused to cooperate with it. This has been a headline-grabbing issue in Scotland since it was introduced in 2017, with SNP leading criticism at Westminster. But the strong Scottish support for its abolishment extends to Scottish Labour, most notably from previous leader Kezia Dugdale, who at the time said: “Forcing rape victims to fill out a form acknowledging their child is the result of rape is one of the most vile policies ever introduced by a Tory government, and that is saying something.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Current Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has also said he will push Starmer to remove the curb. But despite the issue being an important and emotive Scottish flagship point of resistance to Tory austerity, an out-of-step Starmer has previously dismissed the idea of axing the rape clause as unaffordable and something that could only happen in an “ideal world”, and is still now only willing to go as far as coldly saying a Labour government will “review” it.

If Starmer wants to rule all "corners”, he has until 2026 to prove Scottish interests don't get lost in his party's internal memos.

A personal note: that’s all folks – after five fun years, this is my last column for The Scotsman. Thank you, readers.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.