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Twin Peaks

Picture of Eddie Barnes

Eddie Barnes

Eddie is Director of Our Scottish Future

Scottish Labour conference this week will naturally focus on the upcoming general election. But the party’s chances of success in Scotland in the coming months depends on whether it can juggle not just one, but two forthcoming votes. Westminster 2024 and Holyrood 2026 are both priorities for the party in Scotland. This week, the party needs to show it can grapple with the challenges that come with running two election campaigns at the same time.
Rightly, over the coming few months, this year’s vote will take precedence. Scottish gains are needed to ensure a UK Labour majority. That UK victory is necessary to show Scotland that change within the UK is possible. Failing to beat a bedraggled Conservative party across the UK would be a disaster for its credibility north of the border. So all hands must be put to the Westminster pump.
The core challenge Scottish Labour faces, however, is ensuring that this necessary focus doesn’t turn Holyrood 2026 into an afterthought. It’s too important for that. 2026 will show whether Labour is back in Scotland. It’s the biggest chance it’ll ever have to remove the SNP from government. Given all that, the party therefore needs to show this week that it can run what might be termed a Twin Peaks strategy. As it begins the assault on the first summit, it needs to keep one eye on the mountain that will need climbing immediately after.
It’s easy to imagine how this focus on 2026 could be lost. Before the election that will be because of the Westminster campaign. After it, if Labour does get into government, it’s because attention will quickly turn elsewhere. Starmer will need to focus on governing. Numerous events and crises will emerge. The danger is that the politics of Scotland gets forgotten. Nationalist strategists (who have a much better insight into Whitehall’s workings that do most of us) have already begun war-gaming this out. By 2026, they don’t think Starmer will have made much difference in Scotland. They think they can capitalise on a sense of disappointment. You can already script it out: “You gave Labour your vote in 2024. But they’ve done nothing. We told you they weren’t any different to the Tories, didn’t we? Vote SNP in 2026.”
In an interview with Chris Deerin at the New Statesman this week, Anas Sarwar showed just how aware he is of this risk. “I want and need to be going into a 2026 election in the midterm of a popular Labour government, not an unpopular one,” he told Deerin. “No one’s expecting us to fix everything in the first two years, UK-wide – they know there’s a lot of damage to repair. But in that two-year period we have to start demonstrating the direction of what that change means and hopefully people start to feel the benefits, whether that be in their bills, their pay packet, working conditions or indeed the confidence of people to invest in Scotland and the UK so we start getting our growth up.”
What he didn’t say (perhaps Anas is too polite) is just how much Starmer will need him to win too. A Labour victory in Scotland in 2026 would cement Starmer’s leadership. It would give him the chance to develop Labour policies across the UK. By contrast, if the SNP were to get back, a weakened Starmer administration would have to spend its remaining time in office answering questions about “indyref2”. It’s a scenario he would be wise to avoid. 
In short, it’s in both Sarwar and Starmer’s interests to make sure a Twin Peaks strategy is agreed. For both, it’s essential ground. Doing so, however, requires some hard commitments to be made. 
Firstly, Team Starmer needs to set out the quick wins that a Labour UK Government will deliver in Scotland in advance of May 2026. They need to be Scottish-specific and meaningful. No “I love Scotland, me” gimmicks please. Team Starmer needs to provide tangible evidence that Labour is delivering.
Longer-term, the Scottish and UK shadow teams need to draft the joint policy platform they’d like to deliver in government together. How the Scottish-based GB Energy will work; how health digitisation can operate on a UK wide footing; how the Scottish and UK benefits systems can operate more effectively together; how a life science strategy can be delivered on a proper “four nations” basis – to name but four. Labour needs to show that real and lasting change in the 2030s comes through cooperation across government. It needs to show how the SNP is a block to that. Its concept of “mission-led” government should help here. If the idea is to crowd in efforts from across government and industry, surely the mission should also include the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast too? We shall see. 
Politics moves at a frightening pace. If Labour wins in 2024 – and wants to win in 2026 too – it will need to demonstrate in hour one, day one, week one, and month one that it is offering Scotland the real and lasting change it desires. This weekend, Labour will be focussing on the first of its electoral peaks. If Sir Keir hopes to go down in history as the Prime Minister who beat the SNP and strengthened the UK, he needs to show he’s prepared to devote the political capital and the attention to scale the second peak too.

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