Labour after Rutherglen and Hamilton West
Labour activists at the count chanted “easy, easy” as Labour’s victory over the SNP was announced. The Scottish Labour general secretary proclaimed that Scotland would be behind the Labour leader come a general election and the by-election victory was the “greatest psychological victory in modern political history for the Labour party”. The SNP’s “bubble had been burst”.
That was in 1978 at an earlier Hamilton by-election.
Hamilton 1978 was was the second Scottish by-election of that year, following Garscadden and Berwick, and East Lothian came later – each disappointments for the SNP. The combination of these and poor regional council elections marked a turning point and a difficult year for the SNP, though nothing like the annus horribilis that awaited them the following year.
Labour is now more circumspect in its reaction to Rutherglen and Hamilton West than it was back in 1978. There are short and long-term lessons from 45 years ago. Immediate euphoria after the declaration is understandable but there remains much work to be done to ensure that Scotland, and not just this constituency, returns to Labour.
This result certainly gives Labour a major morale boost. Labour is back. The SNP has lost momentum – something that has been evident for some years now. Whether momentum has passed to Labour looks likely but cannot be taken for granted. This is Labour’s immediate challenge.
Momentum is not self-generating. There may not be any more opportunities like this by-election before the general election. As both the SNP and Tories struggle with poor records in office, Labour can rely to some extent on the old adage that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. But that will not maximise Labour support in Scotland.
Labour should contrast the mood today with that in the lead-up to 1997. The sense of Tory decline is clear but where is the excitement, the enthusiasm, the expectation of real change that pervaded the political atmosphere quarter of a century ago? New Labour offered a mixture of reassuring caution with the promise of radical change. There was little debate, far less disagreement, on whether to prioritise constitutional reform or socio-economic reforms. It intended to do it all, and indeed largely did so. Critics may focus on the failure to reform the Lords as had been intended but Labour’s constitutional reform record in office was impressive. Much work still needs to be done.
As Labour goes into next year, it needs to generate excitement, provide reasons not only to pull voters away from the Tories and SNP but to encourage them to vote Labour. It needs to own policy areas. The public need a keener sense of what Labour will do in office. This does not necessarily mean big pronouncements driven by the latest focus group but serious measures that will tackle decline. The mood has changed – people want serious grown-up government not selfies and spin.
And when it comes to the Holyrood elections, Labour should avoid manifesto commitments that simply make for a good headline in next day’s media, avoid committing resources that might be better spent on headline grabbing but with limited impact on public policy challenges in so many neglected areas. We are already in challenging economic and fiscal territory that will become even more challenging. Balancing campaigning and governing is never easy.
The longer term lesson from the 1978 by-elections is to remember that while SNP went into a spiral of acrimonious decline, it did eventually recover. It emerged with an impressive leadership and an exciting new idea – independence in Europe – which generated considerable attention and enthusiasm. It is not inconceivable that after a period of internal feuding and blood-letting the SNP will emerge with much more competent leadership than it has had in recent years and with a new prospectus on independence. You do not have to be very old to recall many occasions when the SNP’s obituary has been written to know that it has a habit of recovering.
The big challenge for Scottish Labour is to make sure that Keir Starmer et al understand this. Labour looks set to get an opportunity to reform the UK. Failure to do so will make it easier – almost inevitable – for the SNP to return stronger than before. The key driver of SNP support is the perception that central government in London ignores, belittles or undermines Holyrood.
While a Starmer government would mark a very different approach, it needs to put reforms in place that ensure that authoritative Scottish (and indeed Welsh and English regional) voices cannot be dismissed and ignored in Downing Street, whoever is in power in Westminster in the future. Reforms at the centre broadly along the lines articulated in a couple of important reports produced by Labour in recent years need to be taken seriously. Remaking the British State in 2020 and the more recent report of the Brown Commission, A New Britain: Renewing Our Democracy and Rebuilding Our Economy, offer incisive critiques of the economic, political and institutional imbalances in the UK. It would be folly to think that these can be discarded because it is assumed the SNP “bubble has been burst”.