How Labour starts winning in Scotland is one of Sir Keir Starmer’s most tortuous conundrums | Politics News


Sir Keir Starmer has a clear strategy when it comes to Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party and that came through pitch perfect this week when he gave his first conference speech as the Labour leader.

He set up himself as the competent, serious political operator against a prime minister who he says is “not up to the job”.

And as for the Labour Party, the message was simply: Look again, we’re under new management.

Light on policy, heavy on values, the Labour leader used his conference speech and annual leader interview with Sky News to put clear red water between Jeremy Corbyn and Labour under Sir Keir.



Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers his keynote speech during the party's online conference from the Danum Gallery, Library and Museum in Doncaster.



‘It is time to get serious about winning’

He didn’t even namecheck his predecessor in his conference speech, instead choosing to identify with the three Labour winners of the last century: Attlee, Wilson and Blair.

When I asked him in our interview why he airbrushed Jeremy Corbyn from his speech he said he was “focusing on the three Labour leaders that won elections and making the point that I want to be the fourth”.

“And that is the vital point which is, we’re under leadership, recognising the scale of defeat, recognising we need to change and being relentlessly focused in the seriousness of winning.”

Calling out Mr Johnson and ignoring Mr Corbyn completely, it was a speech that attacked both the enemy across the political divide and what he perhaps considers the enemy within.

Ambitious and determined, this was a Labour leader who has clearly set his store not so much on political philosophy or ideology but in winning power. He said: “We must absolutely, intensely focus on the importance of winning the election.”

But any hope of getting into power rests not just on how Sir Keir wins back the red wall and re-takes swing seats from the Conservatives but on whether he can win back Scotland from the SNP.

Not since 1955 has a Labour Party formed a government with less that 40 seats in Scotland. It currently has one.

“I’ll be perfectly open about this,” he said. “There’s no route back for Labour that doesn’t run through Scotland. We have to start winning in Scotland.”

How is one of the Labour leader’s most tortuous conundrums.

The SNP has eclipsed Labour in the past decade and now holds 48 out of 59 Scotland’s Westminster seats.

The Conservatives are challenging as the diehard unionist party; and Sir Keir Starmer is wriggling on the hook.

He is trying to fudge the issue of a second independence referendum in an attempt to win back independence-leaning SNP voters, while also holding onto unionist support and holding the Labour party together.

That’s why Sir Keir’s eventual admission in our interview that he “stands by” his remarks made in January – that the SNP would have a mandate for a second Scottish independence referendum if they win a majority in next year’s Holyrood elections – was so significant.

It gives the Conservatives a much-needed stick to beat Sir Keir with (you’ll remember the election posters of 2015 that had a tiny Ed Miliband in Nicola Sturgeon’s pocket).

Members from All Under One Banner take part in a static demonstration for Scottish independence outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
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Will Sir Keir have to do a deal with the Scottish nationalists to get into No 10?

No sooner had his remarks aired did Michael Gove issue a statement saying Sir Keir had a “problem accepting referendum results” and was “a politician who wanted to work with Nicola Sturgeon to renege on the Scottish referendum result and break up the UK”.

It allows the Conservatives to campaign as the only clear unionist party in Scotland.

It also raises again the conundrum that Labour will have in the general election of 2024: Will Sir Keir have to do a deal with the Scottish nationalists to get into No 10?

And is the prospect of that price tag of a second referendum too high a price for unionists north and south of the border?

It also creates a rift with his national Labour parties.

Ahead of the Scottish elections, it is a concession to the SNP that the Scottish Labour party will not want to give, while for the Welsh Labour party, any sense of the Labour leader committing to working with nationalists creates problems for them.

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Sir Keir made it clear he was not in favour of “another divisive referendum”, saying it was “about the last thing that we need”.

But how to beat back the SNP when the matter of independence remains the overriding dividing line in Scottish politics is a fiendishly difficult problem to solve.

Mr Starmer doesn’t just have to beat Mr Johnson, he has to take on Ms Sturgeon too.

The immediate task is to rehabilitate the Labour Party with voters.

May’s local elections, elections for mayors around the country and the Scottish and Welsh elections will be his first real test of whether his attempt to rehabilitate the Labour Party with voters is beginning to pay off.

But the hardest task – and the biggest prize – will be winning back Scotland.



Sky News