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Labour MPs have warned that Sir Keir Starmer’s socially conservative policies and stance on Brexit could leave the party outflanked from the left by the Scottish National party in an imminent by-election.
The upcoming contest in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, expected in October, is viewed by Labour as an opportunity to seize political momentum north of the border ahead of a UK-wide general election, which is likely to be held next year.
The SNP is currently just two points ahead of Labour in polling for Scottish seats in the general election, according to Survation, down from a 14-point lead in January, after the party was rocked by a financing scandal and widening internal divisions.
One Labour official said the by-election would still be “tough” but added: “We do have the momentum going into the race, a good candidate and we are confident in our strategy . . . It’s the best chance we’ve had to deliver a bloody nose to the SNP in more than a decade.”
The by-election will also test Starmer’s strategy of taking a socially conservative line on issues such as immigration, welfare and crime — aimed at winning back voters in England — which some Labour MPs fear will put off more liberal-minded Scottish voters.
Likewise, MPs fear the party’s commitment not to reverse Brexit could alienate sections of the Scottish electorate, which in the 2016 referendum voted overwhelmingly against the UK leaving the EU with a majority of 62 per cent.
Losing against the SNP would cast serious doubt on Labour’s revival in Scotland and its chances of securing a UK majority in next year’s general election.
“I understand it’s a dilemma for the leadership,” said Clive Lewis, a prominent leftwing Labour MP. “But I have colleagues in the Scottish Labour party, MSPs, who are disappointed with the lack of ambition . . . our current policies will be difficult for Labour to sell in Scotland.
“We shouldn’t be allowing the SNP to pose as a leftwing party, they are not a leftwing political party,” he added, noting that Labour had made gains in Scotland in 2017 when it stood on a more radical leftwing platform under former leader Jeremy Corbyn.
A shadow minister said: “This cautious strategy is going to be severely tested . . . The SNP will barrack us from the left.”
Meanwhile, another noted that policies designed to win back the “red wall”, former Labour heartlands in England, would not necessarily be popular among Scots. “The more we tack to the right to win back places like Grimsby and Rother Valley, the more there’s a chance that we turn off socially liberal voters in Scotland,” she said.
Until 2015, Labour had more than 40 MPs in Scotland but lost all but one in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, which galvanised supporters of leaving the 316-year union with England under the SNP’s banner.
Once the country’s dominant political force, Scottish Labour was left fighting for survival in 2019 when it lost six of its seven seats. But winning over Scottish voters could prove a turning point in unlocking victory at the national level, as it has been in the past for Labour.
In the lead up to the by-election, which was triggered after former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier was suspended from parliament for breaking Covid-19 lockdown regulations, the party has made it clear that it intends to outmanoeuvre Labour from the left.
The SNP claim that Starmer’s position on social issues and Brexit is indistinguishable from the Conservatives.
Last month, Starmer was criticised by the SNP and unions for saying he would not scrap a government cap on welfare payments for children should Labour take power. He has also ruled out rejoining the EU single market or customs union.
This point was echoed by SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn during a campaign event this month with Katy Loudon, the party’s candidate for Rutherglen and Hamilton West. Flynn accused Labour of taking Scots for granted while Loudon vowed to oppose “cruel Tory welfare cuts”.
Flynn also attacked what he called Starmer’s “pro-Brexit” stance. “[The] Labour party has sold Scotland out by backing a hard Tory Brexit — and ruling out any return to the EU and single market,” Flynn said. He added that a vote for the SNP was a vote “to reject Brexit”.
The SNP argues that an independent Scotland would return to the EU, and favours the reinstatement of free movement of people with the bloc as a way to address labour shortages and an ageing population.
Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said the SNP message on Brexit would have salience in Scotland where two-thirds of people now want to rejoin the EU.
Still, Labour believes it can make big gains in Scotland, with the party hoping to gain more than 20 seats at the general election.
A Labour member in Rutherglen said party activists were more energised than their SNP counterparts, and that Labour could benefit from tactical voting by unionists seeking to kick out the SNP.
Some also believe the question of Scottish independence could play to Labour’s favour. The party opposes a second vote. However, it hopes to lure independence supporters who are keen to overturn the Westminster government, which has repeatedly blocked the path of a second referendum. Nearly half of Scots currently favour independence.
Michael Shanks, Scottish Labour’s candidate for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, said: “I am going to stand up for the people in this constituency and I’m going to stand up against the Tory policies.”
While some Labour MPs fear the consequences of Starmer’s strategy others are more optimistic. Senior Labour figures told the Financial Times they were reasonably confident of winning the Rutherglen seat, a previous stronghold, given its recent improvement in the polls.
Humza Yousaf, is struggling to revive the fortunes of the SNP since his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon stood down in March, with the party facing internal divisions and a policy inquiry into its use of party funding.
Curtice said the primary driver of Labour’s strong showing in the polls was the unpopularity of its opponents, which had made Starmer “arguably the luckiest general going”.
“He just needed to stand there and look half competent and half decent and things have fallen into his lap.”