Why the Scottish vote matters to Starmer and Sunak

<span>Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar launching Scottish Labour’s general election campaign in Glasgow.</span><span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar launching Scottish Labour’s general election campaign in Glasgow.Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

When Keir Starmer helped to launch Labour’s Scottish election campaign, he told effusive supporters in Glasgow: “There’s no change without Scotland, no Labour without Scotland ... Scotland is central to the mission of the next Labour government.”

Speaking to reporters afterwards, the party leader emphasised that the raw mathematics were just one reason why Scotland would play such an important role in this election. “Yes, it’s about the numbers,” he said. “We lost very badly in 2019, and we’ve got to get every single seat that we can possibly win … But this is also personal … I want to be the prime minister for the whole of the United Kingdom, and that includes Scotland.”

The fact that both main party leaders travelled north of the border within 48 hours of the election being called tells a tale in itself. The Scottish National party, which has dominated in elections at Holyrood and then Westminster for more than a decade, is anticipating a heavy electoral cost as it resets under its third leader in 18 months. It follows a period of unprecedented turbulence, marked by bruising infighting, the arrest of senior figures and a growing perception among voters that the party no longer cares about core concerns, such as the cost of living crisis.

A day earlier, Rishi Sunak ended his whistlestop UK tour in the port of Nigg on the Cromarty Firth, where he claimed the SNP was “completely out of touch with the needs of ordinary Scottish people” and blamed their “obsession” with independence for failing public services.

With 57 constituencies in play after two were subsumed in boundary changes, the electoral choices of Scots alone are unlikely to determine which party wins at Westminster, but they can significantly alter the scale of the win for Labour, or the loss for the Tories, with recent polling suggesting Labour could win more than 30 seats, and the SNP could fall back to the low teens from its current 43 MPs.

Scotland is also likely to provide a key strand of both Labour and Tory campaign narratives.

For Starmer, this is partly about credibility: to win Scotland back for the party after a series of brutal electoral defeats at the hands of the SNP is clearly important to his own trajectory as Labour leader. It has been evident in the energy put into the Rutherglen byelection campaign – which resulted in an emphatic 20% swing from the SNP last October – and the store he sets by his relationship with the popular Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar.

Scottish Labour is also clear that the current message of change applies as much to the Holyrood elections in 2026, when Sarwar hopes to end nearly two decades of SNP residency at Bute House.

Related: How the general election will be fought in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

For Sunak, campaigning on constitutional grounds has proved successful in the past – remember the impact of those 2015 Conservative attack ads showing Ed Miliband stuffed in Alex Salmond’s pocket. Expect locally tailored campaigning from the Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, as he defends seats in the north-east – where Tories hope to capitalise on concerns about oil and gas transition – as well as the Scottish borders.

Unlike in England and Wales, Labour and the Conservatives were more likely to have the SNP as their constituency rivals rather than each other, said Ailsa Henderson, a professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh. “Also, unlike south of the border, we anticipate vote-switching between Labour and the Conservatives among unionists keen to limit SNP seats,” she said.

“What is interesting about this election in Scotland is that constitutional preferences will play a smaller role than in any election since 2015.

“Asked about their priority for the next Westminster election, a clear plurality, even among soft yes [to independence] supporters, prioritise removing the Conservatives from office over sending a message about constitutional preference.”

In this context, the challenge for Starmer would be to show that while Labour was a pro-union party, it was also progressive, suggested Talat Yaqoob, a consultant and co-founder of the equal representation campaign Women 50:50.

“This is important because it’s very likely people will be returning to vote Labour for the first time for a long time in this election. Right now, that support is tactical, because people just want rid of the Tories, but Starmer has to consolidate those votes by delivering progressive, equality -driven policies that matter to the people of Scotland.”

Liz Lloyd, previously chief of staff to the former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, acknowledged this was an “eyes open” election for the SNP: “It’s going to be hard. When Labour is doing well in Scotland the SNP has a tendency not to.”

The Scottish electorate had become increasingly sophisticated, argued Lloyd, so this election need not be an existential moment for the independence movement. “The Holyrood elections are more about what kind of country and government Scots want, while Westminster is often about registering protest.”