Yesterday was the first election in my life that I went into the polling station entirely unsure of who I was going to vote for. Since 2010, I’ve voted in 12 elections and referendums and in each case, I knew well ahead of the vote which box (or boxes) my cross (or preferences) were going into. I’ve voted SNP and Labour and given preferences to all the main parties apart from the Conservatives, and in each case, I’ve voted positively for something.

Not this time. I’d describe my politics as broadly centre-left, like most Scots who have voted for Labour and the SNP over the past decade-and-a-half. I voted No in 2014 and Remain in 2016, and my views on the rights and wrongs of independence have swung over the past ten years as the political landscape has shifted, but the constitution isn’t a political priority for me. I’m precisely the kind of voter Labour wanted to win over yesterday, the SNP needed to retain, and both need to win in 2026. Yet I found myself utterly uninspired by either of them throughout the campaign.

In the end, I voted tactically like around a quarter of us who voted yesterday. I live in a seat contested primarily by the SNP and the Conservatives, which would have been decided by just a couple of thousand votes in 2019 had the new boundaries been in place. The notion of a narrow Conservative win here was enough to make my mind up for me in the voting booth.

Sir Keir StarmerSir Keir Starmer (Image: free)

Hundreds of thousands of Scots who voted primarily to oust the Conservative UK Government will have done so by voting Labour, and that will have benefitted Scottish Labour. If I lived in a seat the Conservatives had no hope of winning, I might have voted likewise.

A vast swathe of floating voters in Scotland lent their vote yesterday to Labour or the SNP, motivated by what they were voting against, not what they were voting for. This means their votes remain up for grabs as attention turns to the 2026 Scottish Parliament elections, which presents both parties with opportunities and threats.

2026 will be fought primarily on two broad fronts. The first front will concern which party, the SNP or Labour, those floating voters who voted to oust the Conservatives think is best placed to stand up for Scottish interests in the UK. This is one of the few areas where the SNP continue to lead Labour – 43% of Scots trust the SNP most to ‘stand up for Scotland’s interests’, according to Ipsos polling, compared to 21% for Labour.

But this figure is not immovable – no such perception ever is. Herein lies opportunity for Labour and a threat to the SNP. Demonstrating that Scottish Labour can be trusted to stand up for Scottish interests is key to eroding the last remaining advantage of the SNP beyond their pro-independence positioning.

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How to do so? The first step is resetting the relationship with the Scottish Government. The SNP have fed for years off grievances associated with the ‘muscular unionism’ of Scottish Conservatives occupying the Scotland Office. A Scotland Secretary that treats the Scottish Government as a partner, not an adversary, would be a good start.

The second step is to be open to further devolution where it makes sense. Limited devolution of immigration to allow a so-called ‘Scottish Visa’ and devolving aspects of employment law that would allow the Scottish Government to go further than Labour’s proposed New Deal for Working People would signal that Labour can be trusted to protect Scottish interests.

The third step is to use the Scotland Office to lobby and secure investment from the Treasury, within the UK Government’s spending envelope, and collaborate with the Scottish Government to deliver that investment where it concerns devolved matters. An element of conflict, even performatively, with the Treasury would not hurt perceptions that Labour’s Scottish MPs are using their position to advance Scottish interests. After all, we were asked to send a government rather than a message.

This third step overlaps with the second front on which the 2026 election will be fought: competence. Again, this is a source of opportunity for Labour and a threat to the SNP. The Scottish Government’s record is poor, and while you can’t accuse them of crashing the economy, they have presided over crises in Scottish healthcare and education and have demonstrated of late an inability to deliver anything from ferries to road improvements.

The mood among floating SNP-Labour voters is one of frustration with the SNP, one the SNP will need to address by starting to turn these issues around – a difficult task to complete in a 22-month window. But make no mistake, they are not in the same situation as the Conservatives.

John SwinneyJohn Swinney (Image: free)

To swing floating voters on this point, Labour cannot merely rely on attacking the SNP’s record and cannot assume that voters frustrated with the SNP will default to Labour in 2026. In addition to delivering for Scotland through the Scotland Office, it will also help their case to point to progress in addressing issues with public services elsewhere in the UK. If they can deliver for other parts of the UK, the reasoning would go, they can deliver for Scotland, too.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of votes are up for grabs in Scotland – both voters who returned to Labour or voted for them for the first time yesterday and those who voted tactically differently. They were sick of the Conservatives and frustrated with the SNP. They want to believe that change is possible but know that the SNP’s promises of independence are hollow, and many of them were unconvinced by Labour’s campaign.

Now is the golden opportunity for Labour. The first 100 days, the honeymoon period, the moment a new direction can be set and the country’s politics reshaped. In government, they can do what they did not do in the campaign: prove that change is possible and that there is a path out of the mess we are in. I hope, for all our sakes, that they succeed. And if they do, they’ll probably have my vote and those of hundreds of thousands of others in 2026.