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by Louise Wilson
06 October 2023
The SNP is down – but not out

SNP candidate Katy Louden (second left) looks on after Labour's Michael Shanks wins Rutherglen and Hamilton West | Alamy

The SNP is down – but not out

The Rutherglen seat was only ever Labour’s to lose.

Today’s win is hardly a ’97-style Michael Portillo moment, having switched between the SNP and Labour at each time of asking in recent years. And so suggestions that this by-election is a bellwether for next year’s general election have been a little overplayed.

But the extent of the victory by Labour was one few predicted.

Indeed, leading psephologist Professor John Curtice said in the weeks running up to polling day that a 10-point lead would be a strong result for the party but a closer vote, as was the case in 2017, would suggest it has made little progress in Scotland in recent months.

The results are in, and Labour secured a whopping 31-point lead over the SNP.

Moreover, a 20 per cent swing and more than half of the overall vote is a result which the party has not enjoyed since before for the independence referendum, and subsequent SNP wave, almost a decade ago.

It’s certainly a reason for its leader to be cheerful - Anas Sarwar labelling the result “seismic” is fair.

It will give the party a significant morale boost going into the general election campaign next year.

It also helps feed into the narrative that a Labour UK Government is possible.

Party strategists know that the more people believe a Labour majority is possible, the more likely they are to vote for it.

One insider told me earlier this year that they expect the general election pitch will be to say to voters: “You’ve got a choice: do you want help give it to [Labour] or not? ... There is a change that Scotland needs and we will deliver it, but to do that you have to vote for us.”

For the SNP, it was a difficult night. Humza Yousaf insisted the “circumstances of this by-election were always very difficult for us” – that could be a reference to recent turmoil, the damage Margaret Ferrier may have done to her former party, or just the make-up of the constituency itself.

Party figures were quick to point the finger at the collapse of the Conservative vote as a key driver. While there is some merit in that argument, a bigger problem is the fact the SNP totally failed to get their vote out.

Westminster leader Stephen Flynn acknowledged this, accepting his party would need to “remotivate” people ahead of the next general election.

And perhaps that is a cause for optimism for the party, who after all are planning to make that campaign once more about Scottish independence. They will hope that in doing so, they will bring Yes voters back on side – even if that means people are holding their nose as they cast their ballot.

The Rutherglen result proves they are a party that is down – but not out. National polling still puts the SNP ahead and Labour knows it.

All this by-election proves is that Scottish politics is, and will continue to be, full of surprises.

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