How Keir Starmer can win over the hundreds of thousands of SNP supporters who lent Labour their votes

On the doorsteps ahead of the general election, it was clear to me that many Scottish nationalists planned to back Labour

Last Thursday the country sent a strong message to the Tory party and the SNP. No more constitutional squabbling, no more gimmickry policies, just simply put, no more. Some would argue that it was a foregone conclusion that Labour was going to win the election but, polls and political punditry aside, talking to Scottish voters on the doorstep gave me a more in-depth insight into what mattered to them and a steer as to how they would vote and why.

Adopting a consensus-building model and meeting with devolved leaders across the UK, Keir Starmer has done more since he took office as Prime Minister last week than his predecessor did in the 18 months he was in the job.

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The seismic shift from the dominance of the SNP to the Scottish Labour Party returning just under 40 MPs illustrates that change was a key factor in this election following years of division and broken promises. It goes without saying that I’m delighted Labour are once again back sitting on the government benches, and I’m also delighted to see a number of friends of mine being elected to serve the country for the first time.

Nationalists boosted the Labour vote, but will want to see real progress if they are to remain supporters of Keir Starmer and co (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Nationalists boosted the Labour vote, but will want to see real progress if they are to remain supporters of Keir Starmer and co (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Nationalists boosted the Labour vote, but will want to see real progress if they are to remain supporters of Keir Starmer and co (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

This historic result means there is no doubt that Scotland will play a key part in Keir’s administration, given the emphasis on key policies such as GB Energy which will be based in Scotland.

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From a Labour perspective, this election felt very different to previous ones. Not because the party was ahead in the polls but because voters were actually engaging with us on a scale that we hadn’t seen for some time by asking questions about our policies and manifesto commitments.

During the six-week campaign trail, I spoke to voters who told me about not being able to get a GP appointment, or a dental appointment or how they are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. Similarly, I spoke to elderly voters who told me that every week they were having to make the tough decision between eating or heating or young people feeling left behind as they can’t access good jobs or get on the property ladder.

This is not the Scotland I know or recognise, and it pains me to write this given that we are in the 21st century. But after 14 years of Conservative chaos and 17 years of SNP incompetence, it is these lived experiences that tell me that something is wrong with our country which was reflected in the significant change vote for Labour in Scotland.

As you would expect from politicos like me who want to see their party in government, we tend to paint a picture and frame a narrative about how bad things are with the NHS, education, and the economy in order to get voters to back our party. This is the business of politics that we have all become used to.

Beyond party politics

However, this election was different. Underlying voter’s frustrations was a feeling of being taken for granted and, understandably, an apathetic attitude after years of being promised that things will get better, time and time again being sold a vision that has never materialised.

This lack of delivery and voters’ frustrations with it became a common theme during the election campaign and it was one that transcended party politics. It’s clear that there was a recognition by voters that change was needed after the stalemate politics that we have all become too used to in Scotland with Westminster and Holyrood being at loggerheads with one another.

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Thankfully those days are over with Keir Starmer wanting to work progressively with the leaders of the devolved nations – in fact one of the first things that Keir did as Prime Minister was to meet with John Swinney this week to reemphasise that commitment.

There is no denying that a major factor in this election, especially in Scotland, was tactical voting with SNP voters backing the Labour Party to oust the Conservatives in large numbers, perhaps as many as 200,000. What this means is that the Labour Party has a window of opportunity right now to demonstrate to those SNP voters who lent their vote to Labour in this election why they should vote for Labour again in the 2026 Scottish Parliament election.

No more political games

To achieve that is quite simple and it really comes down to good, grown-up governance and cooperation between the UK Government and the Scottish Government – not cutting corners or playing political games, but a focus on delivery. This is what the people of Scotland want to see, as opposed to the relationship the previous governments had.

Devolution was never supposed to mean isolation or to be a limiting factor. It was meant to produce better decisions by making them at a level closer to the people affected. But what we in Scotland have had is a government that has been focused on one issue for a significant period of time to the detriment of all the others. No wonder the Scottish Government has been engulfed in crises in health and housing.

As a party that believes in the United Kingdom, the Union and devolution, it will be incumbent on Labour to show that it is serious about Scotland. Those tactical voters who voted for Labour in this election will want to see action, not just words. And they will be looking closely at what the Labour Party does over the next two years before they decide whether to vote Labour again in 2026.

Barrie Cunning is a former Scottish Labour party candidate and managing director of Pentland Communications

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