‘Scunnered with the Tories, frustrated by the SNP’: Labour in bid to be Scotland’s biggest party

<span>Labour candidate Gordon McKee talking to a constituent in Glasgow South.</span><span>Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer</span>
Labour candidate Gordon McKee talking to a constituent in Glasgow South.Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

Not for the first time, Blair McDougall, Labour’s candidate in East Renfrewshire on the outskirts of Glasgow, is telling a wavering voter that the election here is “so, so close”.

If predictions of a knife-edge outcome weren’t enough to motivate him, many people – including some in Barrhead, which he is visiting today – have just received their postal ballots. Their votes will be cast in the next few days.

“When you get to this stage in the campaign, you’re always second guessing yourself and wondering what’s that additional little competitive advantage that you can get,” he says. “The truth is we have been working flat out since November. We’ve been knocking on doors for 10 hours a day for months.”

Next door in Glasgow South, Labour’s Gordon McKee is also trying to unseat the SNP with a similar message, warning that every vote counts. One woman, who previously voted SNP, says she is “60/40 for Labour”, but not over the line. Canvassers recall that she said she was a “four out of 10” previously, so perhaps one more visit might do it. “I’ve been involved in the Scottish Labour party for 10-plus years and it’s been a very difficult decade, but it feels like this is the best opportunity we’ve had for a long time,” says McKee. “People are totally scunnered with the Tories, frustrated by the SNP.”

Both seats are part of what has become a key election battleground – Scotland’s central belt surrounding Edinburgh and Glasgow, where Labour is taking aim at the SNP. According to a YouGov MRP poll last week, McKee was ahead, while McDougall was just trailing. The pollster said 10 of Scotland’s seats were toss-ups between the two parties.

McDougall in particular finds himself on the frontline of what could be a remarkable Labour recovery, potentially restoring it as Scotland’s biggest party in Westminster. After a whirlwind 16 months that began with the resignation of first minister Nicola Sturgeon, Labour’s cohort of MPs could rise to the high 20s, finally recovering to the numbers seen before its abrupt collapse at the 2015 election that took place after the independence referendum. Labour won just one Scottish seat in 2019. It came a distant third in “East Ren” last time.

At the point of Sturgeon’s abrupt resignation in February last year, conventional wisdom suggested Labour was on for a strictly limited recovery. With the Tories tanking, Labour was squeezing them to win back a smattering of pro-union seats, including Lothian East, contested by former cabinet minister Douglas Alexander.

The much bigger prize, however, was to peel off stubborn SNP votes, a necessary feat to open up far more seats. Sure enough, Sturgeon’s resignation preceded SNP travails that saw it embroiled in a police investigation over party funds, a bitter leadership battle and the implosion of Humza Yousaf’s reign as first minister after just 14 months. Veteran John Swinney, who launched the SNP manifesto last week, has been trying to steady things.

“In the wake of [Yousaf’s resignation], the SNP find themselves about five points behind Labour,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at University of Strathclyde. “Although John Swinney has steadied the ship, it’s not clear he’s turned it around. At the moment, you would say Labour could be in the high 20s, possibly 30 seats and the SNP’s position as a third party in the Commons is at risk.”

The most senior figures in Keir Starmer’s Labour accept the charge that fortune has been on their side, but argue it is only part of the story. “Yes we’ve had some good luck, but we’ve worked hard too,” says one. “It always takes both.” They point to Starmer’s brutal treatment of Scottish Labour’s former leader Richard Leonard, forcing his resignation in 2021. It was an early sign of his willingness to declare war on the party’s left flank in order to position the party to recover, should the circumstances present themselves.

In fact, Labour insiders said East Renfrewshire, where McDougall is aiming to dislodge the SNP’s Kirsten Oswald, was part of a new tier of seats that only became possible targets as Yousaf’s Holyrood reign collapsed. McDougall says there are “two baskets of unhappy voters” – Tory and SNP – open to switching.

Independence has also diminished as an all-encompassing issue. So toxic was the atmosphere in the 2015 election that, not far from the streets where McDougall was campaigning on Friday, a Labour canvasser was chased with a chainsaw. McDougall himself is well-known as the director of the pro-union Better Together campaign, yet both he and McKee encounter pro-independence SNP supporters on the doorstep and engage in polite discussion.

The fall in the salience of independence has been crucial in Labour’s resurgence, according to Mark Diffley, a Scottish political polling expert. “Pretty much every poll, regardless of the pollster, has somewhere between 20-25% of people who support independence now saying that they will vote Labour in two weeks’ time, and that’s a massive change,” he says. “What Scottish Labour leader Anas Sawar has been saying is this election is just about getting rid of the Tories. That message seems to have worked with a relatively sizeable chunk of the pro-independence population.”

The sentiment that Labour now represents change, the party’s one-word election slogan, is evident among some voters. John Mitchell, 50, in Barrhead, cites it as his motivation. “I would hope that Labour’s got a better shout this time, it’s the change, that’s the slogan isn’t it,” he says. “There’s people like me that need help.” Jim MacGowan, in Langside, Glasgow South, cites the SNP’s travails. “I’m disillusioned with the SNP,” he says. “Not for me.”

But Labour doubts remain. Another voter in Glasgow South tells an activist that the SNP gives Scotland a voice, while expressing concern about Starmer’s decision to admit Natalie Elphicke, a rightwing Tory, into the party.

Related: SNP investigated over claim funds misused to support general election candidates

SNP incumbents are also fighting hard. In East Renfrewshire, Oswald cites her record as an MP. Despite the most recent polling, she says backing the SNP is needed “to keep the Tories from coming back”, pointing out they won here in 2017. She adds that the SNP has shown a “hopeful alternative to the Westminster system, which I think most people would agree has shown itself to be pretty broken”.

Elsewhere, the SNP has attacked Labour from the left over Starmer’s refusal to scrap the two-child benefit limit. Curtice notes: “Small movements between Labour and SNP could make a notable difference to seat tallies, but so far the polls suggest little has changed in the campaign.”

In both Glasgow South and East Renfrewshire, some swing voters seemed more driven by disapproval of the SNP’s performance than by enthusiasm for Labour. McDougall’s candid response to that charge reflects the calculated caution that Starmer recently branded as “realistic hope”.

“Generally speaking, people aren’t looking for grand visions and ideologies,” McDougall says. “They’re looking for someone who is just going to get up in the morning and try to fix the things in their life. I think that’s a conversation we have to have thousands and thousands of times.” Labour’s success here, as elsewhere, may come down to whether the promise of slow, steady, boring progress has become an attractive one.