February 18, 2024 - 8:00am


The politics of Gaza continue to cause difficulties for Labour. In Glasgow, where a large pro-Palestine protest march marched through the drizzle on Saturday, delegates at the party’s Scottish conference supported a motion demanding an “immediate ceasefire”. 

Yet Sir Keir Starmer, who speaks at the conference today, is so far declining to follow suit. The ever-opportunistic SNP is exploiting the difference, calling on the party’s two Scottish MPs to back Anas Sarwar over Starmer. The Nationalists see it as a win-win: either Starmer backs down and supports their own position or he declines, and thereby highlights Labour’s divisions.

It may be a sign of things to come. If Starmer is indeed elected as prime minister in the coming months, the relationship between the UK party and the Scottish one will face many other flashpoints. Leaving aside foreign policy and Gaza, we can safely predict that on everything from fiscal policy to oil and gas, tax breaks to Brexit, and to the powers of the devolved administrations, the SNP will be ready and waiting to tease out any differences that exist between Labour in London and Edinburgh. 

With the 2026 Scottish Parliament elections fast approaching, Nationalist strategists have already begun war-gaming the new political battlefield. They reckon Starmer won’t deliver much for Scotland. They think they can portray Scottish Labour as ineffectual at “standing up for Scotland”. If they can get this narrative running, they believe there’s every chance that — despite its dire record in government — the SNP could still come out on top in 2026.

On one level, then, the division within Labour over Gaza is both paper-thin and meaningless — what Scottish Labour thinks about Gaza is hardly going to alter the unfolding tragedy in the Middle East. But it matters a great deal to the future of the UK. Managing the London-Edinburgh relationship will be vital to Starmer and Sarwar’s political prospects in the run up to 2026. It will be central to Labour’s chances of beating the SNP. This is, therefore, a matter of concern for all Unionists: for if the SNP were to get back in, expect the “IndyRef2” drums to once again start beating.

Sarwar understands all this. In a pre-conference interview with the New Statesman, he noted: “I want and need to be going into a 2026 election in the midterm of a popular Labour government, not an unpopular one.” He is well aware that his fate in 2026 will be tied inextricably with how a Starmer administration delivers for Scotland in its first few months. This weekend he was keen to play down the differences between him and Starmer over Gaza: he knows not to add meat to the SNP’s case.

What Sarwar now needs is for Starmer to set out the quick wins that a Labour government would deliver in Scotland before May 2026. A Starmer administration needs to provide tangible evidence that Labour is delivering on its promises to Scotland, and quickly. It must also show that the Labour leader wants to work with the Scottish Government — of whatever colour — on key policy areas, and not just sidestep around it. 

In short, if Labour wins the coming general election — and wants to see off the SNP in 2026 — it will need to demonstrate in hour one, day one, week one and month one that it is delivering on the change it is promising. If Starmer wants to go down as a prime minister who both beat the SNP and strengthened the UK, he needs to begin by showing he’s prepared to devote the political capital required.

Eddie Barnes is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail and director of the Our Scottish Future think tank.