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View from the Street: Why a July general election is welcome news for John Swinney and the SNP 

John Cumming

Client manager 

The prime minister’s rain-soaked general election announcement may have garnered multiple negative headlines (Calamity Reigns was my favourite) but it also overshadowed the statement from first minister John Swinney on his policy priorities. Such is the unpredictable nature of political events. 

However, the timing of the election does provide optimism for Swinney and the SNP. 

A July general election means that there will be just under two years before the 2026 Scottish Parliament election. The biggest threat for the SNP was that a Labour victory in late 2024 would spark a wave of momentum that would carry the party to victory in 2026. That sense of momentum will now be more difficult for Scottish Labour to maintain because of the earlier UK poll. 

The timing of the election will also frustrate many people across Scotland. After the announcement, Swinney opened his email to more than 100,000 SNP supporters saying, “Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has disrespectfully announced that a Westminster election will be held on the 4th of July 2024 during the Scottish school holidays.” A 4 July general election gives the SNP another axe to grind, and another opportunity to argue that Scotland is always an afterthought. 

By the time voters head to the polls, Swinney will have been first minister and leader of the SNP for just eight weeks. This is roughly the same length of time which Anas Sarwar had at the helm of Scottish Labour before its weak performance at the 2021 Holyrood election. The sense, then, was that Sarwar was only beginning a process of rebuilding trust in his party, and he hadn’t had enough time to make an impact. If, as expected, the SNP loses a significant number of its Westminster seats, the same could be said about John Swinney. My conclusion: his leadership is safe regardless of the outcome of the general election. 

And then there’s the issue of what a Labour government will prioritise.  

Starmer will enter No10 with very little money to spend, and a policy agenda which isn’t entirely relevant to Scotland. 

In a recent piece for the New Statesman, political commentator and senior adviser to Charlotte Street Partners, Chris Deerin, observed that only two of Keir Starmer’s six pledges are pertinent for voters in Scotland.  

The party’s plans for GB Energy are the strongest policy offer Labour has made to people in Scotland, but this has been significantly watered down because of Starmer’s decision to scale back his £28 billion green investment plan due to the poor state of the UK’s public finances.  

As we head into the 2026 election campaign, Labour will be campaigning not simply as an opposition party which can critique the SNP’s record, but as a governing party, making decisions in exceptionally challenging fiscal circumstances.

If Anas Sarwar is to become first minister in 2026 then he needs to persuade voters that he can shape UK government policy in a way that delivers tangible benefits for Scotland.  

However, he too is conscious of the difficult decisions Starmer faces, and the economic limitations on his ability to deliver, certainly in the short-term.   

A degree of political distance from the Labour government in Westminster will help Sarwar as he prepares for the 2026 election but, at the very least, he should seek to ensure that the messaging is consistent, and that he and Starmer speak with the same voice.  

This is a central strategic challenge which Labour faces in Scotland. Just last weekend, Labour’s shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, undermined Anas Sarwar’s argument that the SNP was solely responsible for the state of the NHS in Scotland, a criticism that the Scottish Labour leader has pursued at almost every session of first minister’s questions over the past year.  

When asked about the crisis in the health service in every part of the UK, Streeting said: “All roads do lead back to Westminster”, and that, while health is a wholly devolved issue, “decisions taken in Westminster have an impact on the NHS across the whole country”. 

Sarwar simply cannot afford any more of these episodes. While recent general election polling has Labour ahead of the SNP, polling for the 2026 Holyrood election is much tighter.  

An incoming UK Labour government will need to give more thought to its policy offering and political game plan for Scotland. A failure to do so could lead to the SNP securing a fifth term in government.