The National: Yes election 2021 banner image

Winner in 2016: Nicola Sturgeon (SNP)

WHY on earth has the new Scottish Labour leader taken the unprecedented step of challenging the First Minister in her own ultra-safe constituency?

It can’t be that Anas Sarwar thinks that Glasgow Southside just happens to be the seat where he has the best chance of being elected as a constituency MSP – at 61.4% the SNP vote there was several percentage points higher last time around than in any other Glasgow constituency, and the 38.5% SNP lead over Labour was also far bigger than anywhere else in the city.

It’s unlikely to be that he thinks Nicola Sturgeon is genuinely vulnerable and that it’s worth taking a punt on a tough seat to remove her from office – even in the wake of the Alex Salmond controversy, her personal ratings remain exceptionally strong due to her handling of the pandemic. There’s also ample evidence from the 2016 election that her popularity translates into plentiful votes in the constituency – the 45.3% SNP list vote in Glasgow Southside was some sixteen points lower than the constituency vote, which suggests that many people whose first choice party is not the SNP nevertheless wanted her as their local MSP.

No, the most probable explanation is that Sarwar has simply concluded that there is no constituency seat in Glasgow where he has the remotest chance of being elected as a Labour candidate, and that he therefore might as well make a virtue out of necessity with a publicity stunt that paints himself as the fearless Unionist leader who is daring to take the fight to the SNP in the lion’s den.

That’s not a risk-free thing to do, though, because after the publicity will come an actual election result which will affect his reputation as both a campaigner and a leader. Sarwar’s gamble is reminiscent of Dick Douglas, the former Labour MP for Dunfermline West, who after defecting to the SNP in 1990 decided not to defend his own constituency at the subsequent General Election, and instead tried to make a statement by taking on Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Donald Dewar in Glasgow Garscadden. But because Dewar ended up holding on by a thumping margin of 45%, the statement made was rather different from the one intended.

The worst-case scenario for Sarwar is that a poor result for him against the SNP leader, combined with Labour losses across Scotland, could seal the impression that he’s been comprehensively rejected by the electorate, perhaps even precipitating a premature end to his leadership.

But even if, in a better scenario, he performs comparatively well in Glasgow Southside, he’s set expectations of outright victory so absurdly high that he may not get any credit for a decent result. There’s been wild talk of Tory supporters tactically voting en masse for Labour, or even of the Tory candidate being withdrawn altogether, but the reality is that fully combining the Labour and Conservative support wouldn’t actually get Sarwar to a majority. Even in 2011, several years before Sturgeon became First Minister, she had well over 50% of the votes in the constituency, and the combined vote share for Labour and the Tories only amounted to 43%.

There have also been some dark mutterings that erstwhile SNP supporters may spoil their ballots as a protest against Sturgeon’s enthusiasm for changes to the Gender Recognition Act, or her decision to push through the Hate Crime Bill. However, the number of people prepared to put independence at risk for those reasons was probably always exaggerated, and there’ll be even fewer now that the Alba Party has expressly urged its own supporters to vote SNP on the constituency ballot and thus to effectively re-elect Sturgeon as First Minister. There’s no more powerful example that could be set than even Alex Salmond saying that Nicola Sturgeon is well worthy of a constituency vote.

Serving party leaders tend to enjoy an inbuilt bonus in any constituency they contest. It’s hard to predict the exact effect of two leaders standing against each other, but the likelihood is that Sturgeon will get the greater benefit due to being far better known than her opponent. Even if her margin of victory is reduced somewhat from last time, it’s likely to remain absolutely overwhelming.