Starmer doesn’t have a hope of replacing Johnson if he can’t win back once-loyal Scots - Euan McColm

As the Labour Party gathers for its annual conference in Brighton, the thoughts of many delegates will be about how they start winning back the so-called Red Wall seats lost to the Conservatives.

In the 2019 General Election, Prime Minister Boris Johnson won over voters in the midlands and the north of England who had previously been unwavering in their support for Labour. Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t have a hope of replacing Johnson if he can’t win back these once-loyal voters.

But those Labour party members who see winning back in those parts of England lost to the Tories as the solution to their problems are missing something.

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The first Red Wall to fall wasn’t in England but in Scotland. In 2015, Labour lost 40 Westminster seats north of the border, leaving the party holding just one Scottish constituency. A brief rally saw a handful more Labour members returned in 2017 but they lost their seats two years later. Ian Murray’s Edinburgh South constituency is the sole red speckle on Scotland’s electoral map.

Labour party leader Sir Kier Starmer. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PALabour party leader Sir Kier Starmer. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA
Labour party leader Sir Kier Starmer. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Yes, Starmer has to start winning in those parts of England which have abandoned Labour but if he and the party’s Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar, can’t win back a substantial chunk of Scotland, Labour faces a long time in opposition.

Without Scottish MPs, Tony Blair would have been denied his third consecutive majority. And Scots ensured Labour victories for Harold Wilson in both 1964 and 74.

Senior Scottish Labour figures concede their responsibility for the party’s predicament but there is growing frustration among some about the performance of the UK leader.

Unless Starmer starts to look like a viable Prime Minister, says one party source, then Labour will struggle to win back those who have abandoned it. “If it looks like there’s a chance of bringing down Boris Johnson, then we might just get enough Scots on-board.”

Sarwar and his team are not satisfied to sit back and let the UK Party stumble on alone.

A source close to the Scottish Labour leader says: “We have to work together with a unified message calling on people to unite against the twin nationalisms of the SNP and the Conservatives.

“We need a message that stretches across the border and we need to stop letting our opponents define the electorate. We can’t sit back and let Boris Johnson define Britishness. We can’t let Nicola Sturgeon or Nigel Farage define Englishness. We need to tell a different story.”

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But an understanding of the scale of the problem facing Labour doesn’t make finding a solution much easier.

Of the 150 House of Commons seats Labour must gain to form a stable majority, 25 are in Scotland. Eleven of those target Scottish seats are in areas that voted Yes in the 2014 independence referendum.

Anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to the world of Scottish politics will understand just how difficult it will be for Labour to win over supporters of independence.

In 2014, a large swathe of Labour supporters backed the break-up of the union. And after the referendum did not lead to their preferred outcome, those voters threw their weight behind the SNP.

This, however, was no painless transition of support.

“A lot of voters who left us,” says one Labour MP, “now view us with utter contempt.

“We were right to campaign for a No vote in 2014 but being right has had huge implications for us. Some people who once supported us now see us as the enemy and that’s a really shi**y place for a political party to find itself.”

The latest report from the Scottish Election Study, headed by Professor Ailsa Henderson of Edinburgh University’s politics department, shows just how firmly entrenched Scots’ positions on the constitutional question have become. The votes of 92 per cent of Scots now go to a party which aligns with their position on the question of Scottish independence.

The consequence of this firming-up of loyalties is that the SNP can confidently bank of the votes of almost half of Scots in Westminster and Holyrood elections while the Unionist parties - Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats - scrap it out to win the backing of those voters who believe in the maintenance of the UK.

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The study reveals that a substantial number of voters who oppose the SNP’s independence plans are willing to hold their noses and vote tactically to prevent the election of nationalist MPs.

In May’s Holyrood election, one in five Scots used their vote tactically. Ninety per cent of those voters acted in order to limit the SNP’s success.

The sharp decline of the Scottish Labour Party - from losing the 2007 Holyrood election by a single seat to becoming the third largest party in the country behind the Tories - is a problem to which there is no simple solution. Senior Labour figures wrongly thought defeat in 2014 would stop the SNP in its tracks. We now know that the opposite happened.

If Labour activists in England now fighting back against the Tories want to truly understand the scale of the problem they now face, they should look at the experience of their colleagues in Scotland.

“We have learned,” says one Labour MSP, “that lots of the people who turned away from us because they felt we didn’t understand their priorities aren’t just disillusioned, they actively despise us. If anyone knows how you win over people who hate you, perhaps they could let us know.”

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