General Election 2024

Election panel: The SNP is heading for a tough result—how can it recover?

Our panel of politics experts on what’s next for the Scottish National Party 

June 19, 2024
John Swinney, the Scottish first minister and SNP leader, launches the party's election manifesto. Image: PA Images / Alamy.
John Swinney, the Scottish first minister and SNP leader, launches the party's election manifesto. Image: PA Images / Alamy.

There are only two weeks to go until Britain goes to the polls. Is Labour headed for a landslide? Are the Tories headed for disaster? Prospect has invited 11 politics experts to an election group chat. Imagine a WhatsApp group of your most politically informed friends from across the ideological spectrum on-hand to discuss the biggest and smallest issues as the parties campaign for our votes. Yesterday, we asked our panellists about the Reform manifesto, also known as the party’s “contract with the people”. Today, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) launching its manifesto, we turned to the party's future.  

Alona: How will the SNP regroup from a UK general election result that is expected to be their worst in a decade?

Peter Kellner: Assuming that Labour overtakes the SNP in both votes and seats, further demands for an early referendum on independence will be ridiculous. The party will have no choice but to prepare for the elections to Holyrood in 2026 by concentrating on their record governing Scotland. Their problem is that, after 17 years in charge, their record is poor, on health, education, housing, etc. They risk the fate of other nationalist parties that have led the fight to free their people from London rule, such as Congress in India and the ANC in South Africa: early popularity that fades over time. To arrest their decline, the SNP needs to put its demands for independence to one side, face up to their failures in office and demonstrate their ability to govern Scotland more competently than in the past. Will they attempt this? I'm not sure. If they do, will they succeed? I'm even less sure. Maybe the days of peak SNP are over, and their fate will be to slide further towards irrelevance.

Philip Collins: For a long while the SNP managed to be both the incumbent and the challenger at the same time. Both in office and out of office at once. In office with all the capacity for action. But also with the grievance usually afforded to the opposition which was expressed in constant laments about Westminster. For a long time this allowed the SNP to defy political gravity. Nicola Sturgeon was an impressive character who had perfected the art of the protest party, which is to get close enough to your objective that you look successful but don’t make the error of actually achieving it, which leaves you with nothing to campaign on. Now, as Peter says, people are starting to wake up to the fact that the SNP have been the government all along and they haven’t been very good.

Tim Bale: Even if the SNP do lose a lot of seats, they’ll still have “London” to criticise. Obviously, a Labour government is a slightly smaller target than a Tory one, but it’s still going to be presiding over “Westminster” and “Whitehall”, both of which, like “London”, remain powerful boo-words for plenty of people north of the border.

 Peter Hitchens: I think the SNP will survive with enough strength to come back later. Assuming, as I do not, that we know the UK result already, left-wing parties such as the SNP will benefit from a Labour government’s predictable failures in economic governance and competence, within three years or so. Younger Scots tend to favour independence more than the cold, and this can have only one long-term outcome. This is a bad patch for them but I don’t think Gordon Brown’s planned strengthening of the Sewel convention, etc, will head off the desire to depart.

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt: The SNP’s situation is a tricky one. They’ve not really been the same party since the departure of Nicola Sturgeon in terms of success and popularity. If Labour win, I imagine the SNP will use that period as an opportunity to show to their voters how and why they’re different to Labour, and will be much more on the offensive. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another SNP leader before the election after this one

Zoë Grünewald: There was very little uniting the SNP aside from independence. With that on the back burner, it’s fairly clear that what you have is a divided party. They haven’t had a particularly successful run in government, topped off with scandal that threatens to rip what’s left of the party apart. Their best bet is trying to pilfer some of the disillusioned progressive voters away from Labour to survive. But just as is the case in the rest of the UK, progressive voters know their best route to getting rid of a Tory government is voting Labour. I’d expect a very difficult set of results for the SNP

Matthew Lesh: The SNP are clearly in a weakened position after scandals and as a result of Labour’s relative strength in Scotland. Their ability to blame Westminster for all Scotland’s ills after so many years in government is also becoming tiresome. I’ve been reading the SNP’s manifesto and have found it intriguingly short and unoriginal. Many of the specific policies are already in Labour’s election pledges (e.g. a higher minimum wage applied to all age groups, banning new coal, scrapping exploitive zero hour contracts), other than just general demands for more spending. It’s hard to see how they will differentiate and justify themselves, except perhaps going further to the left with the risk of alienating some of their supporters and sounding irresponsible.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Tomorrow, our panel will be back to answer yet more burning questions about the general election. Got something to ask our experts? Submit your questions!