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Highland Stakes

Image via BBC UK

In the run-up to the 2024 UK general election, Scotland is shaping up to be a kingmaker. The once-dominant Scottish National Party (SNP) and the resurging Scottish Labour are battling for Scottish seats in a race with major implications for the United Kingdom as a whole. As the Conservative Party’s 14-year rule seems to be coming to an end, Scotland leaning toward Labour could give it the kind of strong mandate it would need to implement its big plans for 2024, but it could also move the long-overdue conversation of Scottish independence off the agenda, once again leaving Scotland behind. 

For much of the 20th century, the Labour Party was synonymous with Scottish politics. Its stronghold in Scotland was unassailable, deeply rooted in the region’s working-class identity and industrial heritage. Labour advanced political projects of social justice, welfare, and workers’ rights that resonated profoundly with the Scottish electorate, and in return, Scotland consistently returned Labour members of parliament (MPs) to Westminster, playing a crucial role in the Party’s national success.

But the end of the 20th century heralded a paradigm shift. The 1980s saw Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policy of deindustrialization and free-market liberalism hit the region hard. The use of Scotland as a testing ground for the controversial poll tax alongside harsh austerity policies brought rising unemployment and financial hardship, which in turn drove working-class Scots to Labour for support and reform. Instead, they were met with the reality of the Party’s post-Thatcher, 21st-century iteration. Under Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Party rebranded into ‘New Labour’, embracing a “third-way” agenda: a shift away from historical pro-labor socialism and toward neoliberalism. Despite New Labour’s numerous and impressive electoral successes and sweeping reforms in Westminster, its policies of privatization and close ties with both the British and international right further alienated the largely working-class electorate of Scotland, which has historically supported left-wing economic policies, especially the strong welfare state and the nationalization of industry. 

Ironically, Blair’s support for Scottish devolution (granting the Scottish Parliament powers formerly reserved for the Westminster government), a widely popular move in Scotland, laid the groundwork for the progressive decline of Labour influence in Scotland. The establishment of an independent Scottish Parliament with limited powers revived dreams of Scottish independence, driving the rise of a new progressive party chipping away at Labour voters—the SNP. And, in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the SNP made major moves on Scotland’s Labour supporters. Labour’s alliance with the Conservative Party in the anti-independence “Better Together” campaign significantly tarnished its image among some Scottish voters, who saw it as a betrayal of Labour’s long-time voter base. This perceived affront to Scotland provided fertile ground for the SNP, which harnessed the growing pro-independence sentiment. 

Today, Labour’s position in Scotland is a shadow of its former self. In just 22 years, Labour’s vote share fell from 45.6 percent in 1997 to 18.6 percent in 2019. The SNP’s ascendancy, particularly post-referendum, has been meteoric, positioning itself as the political embodiment of Scottish national identity and aspiration for greater autonomy. The shift is a reflection of Labour’s internal struggles and perceived ambiguity on key Scottish issues. 

But ahead of the 2024 elections, SNP’s winning streak may be coming to an end. A former advisor has dubbed 2023 an ‘annus horribilis’ for the SNP. A fiercely polarizing gender bill blocked by UK courts accentuated the downfall of the once highly popular SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon—a downfall that only grew steeper as police investigated Party finances, ultimately culminating in the arrests of Sturgeon and her husband. Sturgeon’s replacement, Humza Yousaf, has struggled to stop the fall of approval ratings, and a split between himself and rival Kate Forbes, who represents a more moderate wing of the Party, has not helped. 

Scottish Labour, on the other hand, seems to be experiencing a resurgence under new local leader Anas Sarwar. While national Party leader Keir Starmer’s approval has steadily declined, Sarwar’s appeal has led to optimism in Scotland; in October 2023, a by-election (a special election called after an MP was suspended) produced rousing success for Labour, a development which has bolstered the Party’s confidence looking to 2024. An anonymous Party figure told Politico that Labour could plausibly win up to 25 of the 57 constituencies in Scotland. 

The upcoming general election, which will take place on July 4, is shaping up to be a fiercely competitive battleground, with the SNP and Labour neck and neck in some regions. While the SNP continues to lead in the polls, Labour has been steadily climbing. In a recent Ipsos poll, the SNP is still projected to take the most votes at 39 percent of the vote share—though this represents a 12 percent decline since May 2023. In the same poll, Labour comes in second at 32 percent, a stark increase from the 2019 election where the SNP took 45 percent of the vote share in Scotland, with Labour coming in behind the Conservative Party at 18.6 percent.

A lot is at stake for Scottish voters in 2024. After 14 years of Conservative rule in Westminster, a Labour victory is likely and could signal a transformative shift in UK politics. For one, it would represent a repudiation of the current Conservative policies and a desire for change, especially in areas like healthcare and economic policy. Labour has promised to address issues critical to Scottish voters, such as National Health Service (NHS) reform, housing, education, and the post-pandemic economy. In its 2024 manifesto, the Party emphasizes economic stability and pledges to “get the NHS back on its feet,” “[deliver] a genuine living wage,” and, ambitiously, launch a publicly owned clean energy company. Granting Labour a strong mandate in the House of Commons could facilitate the implementation of economic, health, and education policy, which would directly benefit the predominantly working-class areas of Scotland. Although the SNP would presumably not vote against Labour’s proposed policies, Labour could nonetheless act more swiftly and definitively with a strong parliamentary majority to boost the Party’s image and maintain control over policy without ceding any control to a minor Party. 

But a change in the balance of power in Scotland could be dire for some of the issues closest to voters, especially the question of Scottish independence—the third most important issue for voters—and one which both Starmer and Sarwar reject. The SNP’s flagship goal of another independence referendum appears increasingly unlikely as the Party loses ground, and a stronger Labour influence is likely to further impede efforts to pressure Westminster into allowing it. A January 2024 poll found that 53 percent of those expressing a voting intention in a subsequent referendum would vote “Yes” to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The world has changed since the 2014 referendum—after Brexit along with developments like the Covid-19 pandemic and the shifting security landscape of Europe, Scottish citizens arguably deserve another opportunity to vote on their independence. As important as a strong Labour mandate is, for Scotland, is it worth the risk of the independence question being taken off the agenda? 

Scotland is rapidly shaping up to become the 2024 election’s most important battleground and could forecast the political future not only of the region but also of the United Kingdom as a whole in the years to come. Looking toward 2024, a strong showing by the SNP might intensify the push for a second independence referendum, which would thrust the issue of Scottish sovereignty back onto the UK political agenda with renewed vigor, but it could also mean a weaker Labour government with a lesser mandate to pursue key reforms. 

While the SNP has stumbled repeatedly in 2024, Scotland should not give up on another independence referendum. SNP dominance in Scotland might throw a wrench in Labour’s optimistic plans for 2024, but a Labour victory is near-guaranteed with or without support in Scotland. Without a strong SNP presence, another independence referendum will drop off Westminster’s agenda. The 2024 election may decide whether Scotland is granted a seat at the table or if the independence question is once again dismissed.