So farewell to Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP and Scottish First Minister, a progressive thorn in the side of the Labour Party’s standing north of the border, who unexpectedly stepped down today.
We do not know what prompted her to quit the job she has held since November 2014. In a dignified speech, she talked about “serving well”, framed as knowing when to make way, that this was the time to move on, for her, for her party and for her country.
Speculation abounds about the real reasons – possibly a combination of factors. The recent row surrounding the Gender Recognition Bill, persistent questions around the financial probity of her husband and the prospect that some of her policy platforms, particularly around the pace of the independence movement, lacked sufficient support at the SNP special conference scheduled for March.
Whatever was behind this political bombshell, the repercussions will be felt for some time. The SNP was left reeling by the news. With no obvious heir apparent, there is likely to be a bloody succession. This announcement could easily open up the SNP’s many factional divisions and a period of internal battles tends to damage parties in the short to medium term whatever the circumstances.
The news will have been warmly received by the Labour Party. A good day for Keir Starmer had begun with a moment of reflection. The announcement that the EHRC had ended the monitoring imposed after its 2022 report into antisemitism within the Labour Party was welcomed without celebration -but had undoubted political significance. That this was relegated to third place in the headline news for the Labour Party within hours demonstrates the progress made since the party came under ‘new management’ in 2020.
The next blow from Starmer came in his announcement that Jeremy Corbyn would not be a candidate for the Labour Party in the next election. While this had long been expected, and Corbyn’s potential reactions are uncertain, it is worth underlining how seismic the shift from Starmer is. The idea of ousting your predecessor as Leader, whom you had worked under, from your political party is more common in despotic regimes. Still, it underlines Starmer’s determination to win, and exclusively on his terms.
You could already hear ‘Things can only get better’ reverberating through corridors at Labour’s new headquarters in Southwark, when the political earthquake was felt from Scotland.
While damaged by recent events, Nicola Sturgeon was the major roadblock to progress for Labour in Scotland. Anas Sarwar is a talented and popular politician as leader of Scottish Labour, but his window of opportunity was small. No more. The resignation of Nicola Sturgeon, with many potential successors but none with her gravitas or experience, has reopened Scotland as a platform for the Labour Party. Expect more of Anas Sarwar on the airwaves, and more video footage from Keir Starmer in Aberdeen, East Lothian and even the Highlands.
This has created a unique political moment. The closing of the terrible EHRC chapter in Labour’s history demonstrates how the party has changed. Purging Jeremy Corbyn will either lead to the loss of some unwelcome members or proof they have already gone from the Labour Party. Plus this blunts the Conservative attack and shows Starmer is the kind of individual you certainly would not want as an enemy. It also underlines how closely he has kept to the commitment ‘to rip antisemitism out by its roots’.
In Scotland, the departure of Sturgeon leaves Sarwar as the most popular political leader with Starmer not far behind. Labour now can consider Scottish parliamentary seats in good double figures rather than aspirations for two or three more. Whether Douglas Alexander, announcing this past weekend as returning as the Labour candidate in East Lothian, had a sixth sense over what was to come is worthy of investigation.
It is worth considering parallels. Starmer was chosen to restore the party to electability. But given he was against a popular, successful and embedded leader on the Government benches, progress rather than power was the five-year plan. Sarwar has the same mandate. Starmer saw his opposite number resign after ethics questions, poorly handled political moments, and the press turned against him. Sarwar has seen the same. Starmer now has absurd poll leads. Will Sarwar also be able to jump on this opportunity?
Thinking back to their Southwark HQ, Labour Party staff may now ask – ‘Can things actually get any better?’ Policy platforms and manifestoes designed in the months ahead have the opportunity for rapid implementation. Conversations with the party apparatus have become more critical, and active political engagement with the Labour Party is ever more vital for businesses and organisations.
What is clear is this – with a commanding advantage in the polls, comparative personal popularity and control over his party Starmer was already in a stronger position than he ever could have anticipated. Now through his own actions, and an unexpected loss for his opponents, he has a moment to change the course of the nation and deliver a resounding Labour election victory. Now the question may be – what will Keir Starmer do with that authority?