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By aiming for a ‘Tory-free Scotland’, the SNP risk missing their real target of a resurgent Scottish Labour party, argues Stephanie Luke. That could cost them at the upcoming general election.

The First Minister of Scotland and Scottish National Party leader, Humza Yousaf launched the SNP’s election campaign with a promise to create a ‘Tory-free Scotland’. Yet he stood in Glasgow, where the main opposition to the SNP is the Labour Party, and delivered his speech against a backdrop of a large national Labour poll lead  of around 20% over the Conservatives.

In Scotland, the polls indicate that Scottish Labour and the SNP are neck and neck in Westminster voting intention. Both currently stand at 35%, down 10% for the SNP on its 2019 general election result, while Labour is up 16%.

It is true that the SNP are the best placed challengers in Conservative-held seats in Scotland: the party came second in every Scottish seat Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won in 2019. The SNP also gained more seats from the Tories there than Labour managed in all of England in 2019. But those are only six seats of fifty-nine (six of fifty-seven under new constituency boundaries).

While the goal of a ‘Tory-free Scotland’ may resonate in constituencies where the Conservative Party is the SNP’s biggest rival, it may prove counter-productive in those like Glasgow, where the main challenge comes from Labour: polling suggests the SNP is set to lose most, if not all, of its 7 Glasgow seats to Labour. The party faces a similar challenge from Labour in 19 other seats across Scotland.

And while Yousaf clearly believes that the SNP’s biggest challenger in Scotland remains the Conservatives – there are 20 seats which, based on 2019 data, look like a contest between the two – Labour has SNP voters set in its sights. Announcing his own mission to ‘keep the Conservatives out’, Scottish Labour Leader Anas Sarwar – who does not support independence – asked SNP voters to lend their vote to Labour to do so.

And there’s a real chance they may convince a sizeable portion of those who previously supported the SNP to do exactly that. While support for independence has remained on average at 50%, SNP support – and party membershiphas dropped. Many of those leaving would appear to be voters who may not have minded the idea of independence, but prioritise booting the Conservatives out of office.

Dissatisfied with the SNP’s record in government and ongoing scandal, they are open to voting for another party if it means getting the Conservatives out of government. Indeed, one in three voters in Scotland are likely to vote tactically at the next election to keep Rishi Sunak out of Number 10.

The difficulty Labour had in the last few elections was persuading voters they were the party with the best chance of doing this. But Sarwar’s party is not the same Scottish Labour  that failed to become Scotland’s second party in 2016, when the SNP raked in the votes of dissatisfied Labour voters who wanted the Tories out. Instead, it is breathing down the SNP’s neck in the polls.

Given the scale of the threat that Labour pose to the SNP, it would surely be more logical for Humza Yousaf to focus the SNP campaign on why exactly voting for the Labour Party will not rid Scotland and Westminster of Conservative MPs, and is the wrong choice to tackle the cost of living, fight the climate emergency, achieve independence, and ultimately rejoin the EU.

Particularly as, in many ways, the Conservative Party is doing the SNP’s job for it. As has occurred across the UK, the Scottish Conservatives have seen a drop in its voting intention to 17% without any intervention from the SNP. Overall, the Conservative Party is predicted to come third in Scotland. Channelling energy into diminishing the Conservative vote when this seems to be happening anyway seems a waste of resources.

Since the SNP’s launch in Glasgow, social media has been awash with a paid-for SNP graphic showing the door of 10 Downing Street with a message ‘Lock out the Tories’ and a subheading which emphasises that ‘Only the SNP can deliver a Tory-Free Scotland’.

With the predicted voting intentions at the next Westminster general election, it looks as if the SNP will not only fail to achieve their aim of a ‘Tory-free Scotland’ (polls suggest that the Conservatives would hold onto five of their six seats), but may face a severe electoral challenge from Labour – unless they change tack.

By Dr Stephanie Luke, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.

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