The end of the beginning: Scottish Labour’s 2026 campaign starts now

Anas Sarwar’s achievement in leading Scottish Labour to a seismic defeat of the SNP in the UK election is immense, but is only the first step on the road to him becoming First Minister in 2026, writes Labour Hame editor Duncan Hothersall.

Scotland has woken up to a new political reality today. Across the country, to an extent nobody predicted, the message of change, of moving on from the constitutional deadlock of the last seventeen years, has finally delivered a huge Scottish majority of Labour MPs as part of the UK landslide which has sent Keir Starmer to Number 10.

Every new Scottish Labour seat was won from the SNP, and while Labour’s overall UK share of the vote has only increased by around 1.5 percentage points since 2019, in Scotland the increase is an astonishing 17 percentage points. This isn’t Starmer’s rising tide lifting Scottish boats – it’s a victory made in Scotland, over five years of hard slog, led by a man who has done what had felt impossible for a succession of Scottish leaders since 2011. It is a remarkable achievement.

And it didn’t happen by accident. From my point of view as a Scottish Labour member it’s been clear that this has been an extremely well managed and targeted campaign, with a confident centre offering a firm lead. Sometimes the army of activists who delivered this result on the ground felt that the selections of voters we were speaking to in target seats, and the messages we were promoting, were overly restrictive. But it turns out we spoke to exactly the right people and hit exactly the right buttons, and all credit goes to those who planned and executed this magnificent campaign.

But here’s the reality: Anas Sarwar was not even a candidate in this election, and when he and his MSP team return to Holyrood after recess he will still be the leader of the third-placed party in the Scottish Parliament, with the prospect of nearly two more years watching the hollowed-out SNP governing Scotland in the face of the ghost ship Tory opposition.

It seems unlikely that the SNP will have the stomach to replace serial election-loser John Swinney whose “safe pair of hands” has proved unable to catch anything but a cold, and while the Scottish Tories’ walking-advert-for-not-voting-Scottish-Tory, Douglas Ross, has already vacated their leader’s seat, and it’s hard to imagine they could pick anyone worse to replace him, it seems clear that they’ll try.

So the challenge facing team Sarwar now is how to exploit the springboard of this general election success to turn the next 22 months into the long campaign for Bute House in 2026, with only the opportunities afforded to the third-placed party in our parliament.

Some will argue that Sarwar’s prospects depend entirely on if and how a Starmer UK Government can demonstrate Labour delivering change in Scotland. That’s certainly going to be a media narrative. But in my view devolution demands that Labour continues to champion home-grown solutions, and ensures responsibility is taken here to address the enormous challenges facing Scottish public services and Scotland’s economy. We need to seek every opportunity to demonstrate how devolution could deliver if it was released from the constitutional wrangling in which it has been buried for nearly two decades.

The Scottish Labour leader has proved he is up to this task, and his team can only be strengthened and motivated by the general election result in which we are all luxuriating this morning. But just as Keir Starmer’s job now is to guide the whole UK to recovery and renewal, Anas Sarwar’s task is to focus unrelentingly on May 2026, and to demonstrate that the same clarity and commitment to improving Scotland that just won us 37 seats can also carry us to success in the Scottish election.

That job starts today.

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