Humza Yousaf is gone — and Labour can’t believe its luck - GulfToday

Humza Yousaf is gone — and Labour can’t believe its luck

Andrew Grice

Political columnist for The Independent.

Humza Yousaf

Humza Yousaf

For Keir Starmer, the road to Downing Street has always run through Scotland. Until a year ago, Labour had a proverbial mountain to climb north of the border: in the country it once dominated, it had just one MP (now up to two after the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election). Then Nicola Sturgeon resigned as first minister and was succeeded by Humza Yousaf. Then amid remarkable scenes, Sturgeon was arrested by police investigating the Scottish National Party’s funding and finances. She has not been charged, but her husband Peter Murrell, the SNP’s former chief executive, has been charged with embezzlement.

The cloud of the police inquiry was not the SNP’s only problem; many voters appeared to tire of it after its long spell and questionable record in power in Edinburgh since 2007. So it was little wonder that Labour, the opposition in the Scottish parliament, drew level with the SNP in the opinion polls.

Now, after a miserable year as first minister, the man dubbed “Humza Useless” has resigned after his ill-fated decision to abruptly end the SNP’s power-sharing agreement with the Greens left him facing two tricky confidence votes.

His resignation is another boost for Labour, which can hardly believe its luck. The SNP turmoil is a gift that keeps on giving. While Labour is not getting carried away, it is privately raising its sights about how many seats it might gain in Scotland at the general election. Talk of 10-15 gains has risen to 20-25. The collapse of the SNP-Green deal might provide another bonus, as the two parties are less likely to reach an informal pact not to campaign strongly in seats the other has a chance of winning at the general election.

Labour hopes to get as close to 40 per cent of the Scottish vote as possible. Under the first-past-the-post system, Labour officials calculate, every one percentage point on top of a 30 per cent share of the vote nets three extra seats, but hitting 40 per cent allows a party to sweep the board — as the SNP did following the 2014 independence referendum. At the 2015 general election, the SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, while Labour lost 40 of its 41 MPs.

Keir Starmer’s party can also look forward with confidence to the next Scottish parliament elections — not due for two years, but which might be speeded up due to the SNP’s troubles. Although Labour is unlikely to win an overall majority under the proportional voting system, it will hope to form a minority administration with the backing of other pro-union parties.

Labour’s recovery in Scotland is not all down to the SNP’s misfortunes. Starmer is reaping the dividend from his decision to oust Richard Leonard, a Jeremy Corbyn ally, as Scottish Labour leader in 2021.

His successor Anas Sarwar is an effective communicator and more popular with voters than Leonard was. Although a Starmer ally, Sarwar sometimes distances himself from the Labour leader — as he did by calling for a ceasefire in Gaza — diluting the SNP’s favourite attack line against Labour: it is no different to the Tories.

Sarwar has benefited from Labour’s consistent 20-point lead in nationwide opinion polls. For the first time since Labour lost power at Westminster in 2010, the party can argue credibly in Scotland that voting for it is the best way to “get the Tories out”. That appeals to wavering SNP supporters. At the same time, Scottish Labour insiders tell me they are winning over soft Tory voters because of the party’s pro-union credentials.

However, it won’t be a shoo-in for Labour in Scotland. The fractious SNP might re-unite behind its next leader and regain the discipline that was its trademark until a year ago. Support for Scottish independence has remained remarkably solid despite the SNP’s disastrous 12 months. The country is still split down the middle on the issue.

Yet the troubled SNP will probably struggle to make the “constitutional question” the top issue at the general election. With Labour looking on course for victory, the economy and public services will loom large in what Labour hopes will be a referendum on 14 years of Tory rule.

Does Labour really need a revival in Scotland when it enjoys such a big poll lead? Yes, it does. Starmer would want his government to enjoy public support in all parts of Britain. And he might well need a solid block of seats north of the border to retain power for more than one five-year term. Scotland matters.

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