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by Louise Wilson
13 October 2023
Rutherglen and Hamilton West: What does the by-election tell us about where Scottish politics is headed?

Rutherglen and Hamilton West: What does the by-election tell us about where Scottish politics is headed?

The outcome of the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election was clear from the start of the night. As soon as polls closed, and before a single vote was counted, Scottish Labour sent out a jubilant press release including a line from deputy leader Jackie Baillie claiming the party was “once more a serious force in Scottish politics”.

It was, perhaps, a brave move. In politics it is often advisable not to count chickens, but on this occasion the party was on the money. Labour won the seat with 17,845 votes – 9,446 more than the SNP – and a swing of over 20 per cent.

Even the most optimistic of party activists did not expect a victory of this magnitude. On the morning of the vote, insiders were talking about modelling showing up to a 15 per cent swing in their favour.

It’s a perfect seat for Labour at the perfect time

And while by-elections in general, this one in particular, take place in different political climates to general elections, it gives Labour the momentum and a morale boost ahead of next year.

“It’s a perfect seat for Labour at the perfect time,” says pollster Mark Diffley. “It’s a seat that has a tendency to kind of swing according to the national mood. Labour couldn’t really have hoped for a better seat to be fighting at this time, a year or so out from a general election.”

Indeed, that national mood was reflected in the victory speech from Michael Shanks, Scotland’s newest MP. He mentioned the cost-of-living crisis hammering households, patients languishing on NHS waiting lists, and the “divisiveness” of politics across the UK.

“The message from tonight is a resoundingly clear one: we’ve had more than enough of managed decline, more than enough of division, more than enough of distracted, chaotic government. It’s time for change,” Shanks said in the early hours of Friday morning.

“That change can’t come fast enough, but one thing is now clear – there’s no part of this country where Labour can’t win. Labour can kick the Tories out of Downing Street next year and deliver the change that people want and this country so badly needs. Tonight is one part of that journey; tomorrow our fight continues.”

However delighted Labour is, the SNP is the exact opposite. While few will have expected the party to keep the seat, the final tally will have come as a shock. Just 8,399 voters backed candidate Katy Loudon, who Yousaf had described as “exceptional”, more than 15,000 fewer than backed the former MP Margaret Ferrier in the previous general election. Even accounting for the lower turnout normal for by-elections, the failure of the party to get their vote out will be a concern.

Professor Sir John Curtice, leading psephologist, said that if the swing in Rutherglen was replicated across Scotland in a general election, Labour would be on track for upwards of 40 seats and the SNP would be “back down to not much more than half a dozen”. That is, he said, “a big if” – but it does prove that “Labour do pose a serious challenge to the SNP’s continued dominance at Westminster.”

Diffley agrees, saying the swing in Rutherglen is about double the swing seen in recent polls. “The hope for the SNP will be that this was a bit of an outlier. They can see the direction of travel, but perhaps at a national level, Scotland-wide that is, it’s not quite as extreme as the result from this by-election.”

It was also a dire night for the Scottish Conservatives, who for the first time in this constituency secured so few votes that the party lost their deposit. Their vote fell by 11.1 percentage points. Candidate Thomas Kerr said he was “disappointed” but suggested it was a result of those who previously backed the Tories instead switching to Labour to send a message to the SNP. “After 16 years of SNP failures, voters wanted change, and our vote was squeezed,” Kerr said.

Likewise, the SNP also put Labour’s victory on the collapse of the Conservative vote. In a statement put out half an hour after the declaration, SNP depute leader Keith Brown said “Sir Keir Starmer’s pro-Brexit Labour Party… benefited from support from Tory voters”.

But Andy Maciver, former head of communications for the Scottish Conservatives and now director of consultancy firm Message Matters, isn’t so convinced by this narrative. He questions who people mean when referring to Tory voters. “The person who we might now consider would normally vote Tory is maybe a Unionist, not a Tory,” he says, going on to explain that this cohort of people were likely New Labour voters previously but who have felt unable to vote Labour for the last decade because of the threat of a second independence referendum.

“The difficulty is that the Tory party has begun to consider them to be part of the core vote, and I don’t think they are,” he says. This has meant the Conservative vote has been “artificial” but Maciver believes the Rutherglen result is a sign the ground in Scottish politics is shifting again – back into territory not so dominated by the constitution. 

“What this result is a reflection of is that voters are moving beyond constitutional politics,” he says. “And that is a massive worry for the SNP and for the Tories. Because the SNP and the Tories have this mutually assured destruction – they both need each other to do well.

“The SNP need the Tories to be strong, because if they are they can point at the bogeyman and say, ‘the only way to get rid of the Tories is through independence’. They need the Tories to win this general election, I mean, the SNP are desperate for the Tories to win this election.

“And similarly, the Tories need a strong SNP because the Tories need to be able to credibly say ‘independence is on the table, it’s really dangerous, and we’re the only ones who will stop it’. And I think the problem at the moment is that both of those messages from both of those parties are not credible. Nobody believes them.”

It seems likely the success of the Scottish Conservatives at the next general election will depend on how good the SNP are at making that vote about independence. And according to Diffley, that gives Conservative voters in the central belt in particular in “a little bit of a dilemma”. “Do you vote tactically for Labour to keep the SNP out, and increase the chances of a UK Labour Government? Or do you keep voting Tory, which reduces the chances of a UK Labour government but helps the SNP retain its dominance in Scotland?”

As for the other two parties represented at Holyrood, neither did well. The Lib Dems secured 895 votes, while the Greens came in fifth on 601. But as neither party has historically performed particularly well in that part if Scotland, little can be read into what this means for their futures at either Holyrood or Westminster.

First Minister Humza Yousaf, interviewed by Holyrood, admitted the SNP had known it would lose Rutherglen for some time.

“We expected genuinely a very, very difficult night indeed for the SNP. It was a disappointing result, of course it is – that’s an understatement… but we expected to lose and expected the defeat to be considerable given some of the contextual factors around that seat.”

That’s a reference to the reason the by-election was taking place in the first place – it followed a successful recall petition of former MP Margaret Ferrier, who less than a year after being re-elected as an SNP MP in 2019 had the whip removed for breaching Covid travel rules – as well as the ongoing Operation Branchform investigation into the handling of party finances.

Yousaf adds: “I was knocking many doors in the weeks and months ahead of polling day and it was pretty clear that people were obviously and understandably very hacked off with the actions of Margaret Ferrier and, to be frank, the police investigation.”

But it wasn’t just the response on the doorstep that has been disappointing; the response of activists was dispiriting too. So few members were turning up that the party resorted to paid leafleters. Even elected representatives seemed reluctant to spend any time on the campaign trail – senior party whip Rona Mackay was forced to WhatsApp MSPs urging them to “make it your top priority” after several did not turn up for scheduled sessions.

The message, leaked to the Sunday Times, read: “Folks, as you know I’m slipping two groups every parliamentary day to go to Rutherglen. On Wednesday, there were two MSPs there, myself and a minister. I understand three members were there yesterday. Please be clear you are only being slipped for the by-election... We’re less than two weeks away from this crucial by-election. Please make it your top priority.”

It’s been a tough year. Everybody needs to recognise that – I’m sure they do recognise that – and the party needs to change to account for that

Notably, Yousaf made no reference to the impact of ongoing infighting within the party on the result, in his interview with Holyrood or elsewhere. The famed iron discipline of the SNP had started to crack towards the end of Nicola Sturgeon’s tenure as first minister, largely related to the controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill that would later be blocked by the UK Government. But if that discipline was creaking a year ago, it is beginning to crumble now.

High-profile rows between former cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing and the party, covering everything from Highly Protected Marine Areas to short-term let regulation to the deposit return scheme (DRS), have been ongoing for months. Ultimately the latter led to Ewing backing a Scottish Conservative motion of no confidence in circular economy minister and Green MSP Lorna Slater. While not the only SNP member to poke their head above the parapet on DRS, Ewing was the only one to actually vote against his government – and the Holyrood group suspended him for it.

But if SNP whips believed that would quell the disquiet, they were wrong. Ewing has since confirmed he is appealing the suspension, telling newspapers he was “not going to be hounded out of the party I love.” He also used the First Minister’s Questions session which took place the day after the internal vote to put the FM’s feet to the fire on the delayed dualling of the A9, another pet topic.

And Ewing is not the only one the SNP may be worried about. Both of Yousaf’s leadership rivals, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan, spoke out against a number of policies earlier this year – and both were critical of the SNP’s Bute House Agreement with the Scottish Greens, which had brought Slater and her co-leader Patrick Harvie into government in the first place. That deal continues to be under pressure, though Yousaf has insisted it will remain in place.

Policy problems are not the only splits, either. Selection contests for general election candidates are ongoing and some have proven difficult.

The bombshell defection of Lisa Cameron, MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow – which neighbours Rutherglen – follows a row over her possible deselection as the SNP’s candidate for next year’s general election.

Criticising the “toxic and bullying” culture within the party’s Westminster group, Cameron announced she had joined the Conservatives just days before the SNP’s conference. She also blasted her former party’s continued focus on independence, telling the Scottish Daily Mail: “I have come to the conclusion that it is more helpful to focus my energies upon constructive policies that benefit everyone across the four nations of the UK, and to move towards healing these divisions for the collective good.”

The SNP has called for a by-election. A spokesperson said: “Her constituents elected an SNP MP not a Tory, and they deserve to have the democratic opportunity to elect a hard working SNP MP.”

Let us resist the temptation to rush to a core vote strategy, and instead plot an offer rooted in the future that can bring Scotland behind it

Then there’s Mhairi Black. Holyrood exclusively revealed earlier this month that the Westminster deputy leader had threatened to quit – on the eve of the by-election, no less – unless one of her staff members was approved as a potential candidate to replace her. Holyrood asked Black if she was committed to serving out her term as deputy, but she didn’t answer and has made no public statement on the matter.

SNP president Michael Russell recognises that these splits will have played a role in the loss of Rutherglen and Hamilton West. He argues the result has more to do with SNP voters staying home because they are “a bit pissed off” with the party. When asked how the party should – as Yousaf put it – reflect, regroup and reorganise, Russell says: “We should do it, frankly, with solidarity.”

He adds: “We’ve got to work out how we re-energise the movement, how we re-energise the people of Scotland with a vision of what independence is. I unashamedly believe the SNP is a good thing and is the vehicle to take us there. But I also think the Yes movement as a whole is looking to the party to sort out its problems.”

This by-election is not the first time voters have sent a warning shot to the SNP. In the 2017 general election, the party went from 54 seats to 35 in a setback that was largely seen as a result of its continued focus on independence. The party had misjudged the mood of the nation. In the days and weeks following, then leader Sturgeon stepped down the rhetoric on holding a referendum so soon after the Brexit vote.

The SNP seems unlikely to take those same lessons from the by-election now. Indeed, in a letter sent to members the day after, Yousaf said the upcoming conference in Aberdeen was “more important than ever, as we reflect, regroup and reorganise, and work towards building a compelling case for voting for our party at the upcoming Westminster election.”

Asked whether he thinks using the next general election as a de facto referendum will shore up the SNP’s support or not, Russell replies: “It’s not either / or. It’s not give up on independence or promote it with more vigour.

“It is saying, there is an exciting thing here which is the prospect of independence, that should excite people. We need to find a way it does excite people, we need to find a way to continue to build support. Support for independence remains very high, we need to build that even further and the party needs to play a key role in that. It needs to enthuse and excite its members.

“Now, it’s been a tough year. Everybody needs to recognise that – I’m sure they do recognise that – and the party needs to change to account for that and to move forward to give people confidence.

“One of the interesting things in Rutherglen was the number of people who were saying, ‘we haven’t changed our views on independence, but we need to develop confidence in the SNP again’. That’s precisely what we should do.”

And so, against a backdrop of the by-election, the in-fighting, a police investigation, questions over the Bute House Agreement, and an acrimonious leadership contest which saw Yousaf only narrowly succeed, the party faithful head up to Aberdeen for its annual conference.

I want that to be the beginning of a campaign which is about the benefits of independence

Coincidentally, it also takes place just days before the would-be second independence referendum (19 October), had Sturgeon got her way.

Instead, the party is set to debate its independence strategy for the first time in several years. Yousaf and the group’s leader at Westminster, Stephen Flynn, have jointly tabled a motion which says the party should use the next general election as “an opportunity to advance the cause of independence”.

Committing the party to putting Scottish independence “page one, line one” in its manifesto, the motion says: “If the SNP subsequently wins the most seats at the general election in Scotland, the Scottish Government is empowered to begin immediate negotiations with the UK Government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”.

A series of amendments prove the party is still split on this approach, particularly on the idea that “most seats” could mean the party losing several but still claiming a mandate for independence. The Deeside and Upper Donside branch believe the wording should change to a “majority of the seats” – Yousaf is reportedly minded to back this approach. Long-standing MP Pete Wishart will argue the party should be seeking a “majority of the vote”. And Edinburgh MP Joanna Cherry will call for votes for all pro-independence parties, not just the SNP, to count in that tally.

But it is the amendment from the gradualists in the party which will likely generate the most debate. Backed by a raft of MPs including Tommy Sheppard, Stewart McDonald and Alyn Smith, it calls for more power to be devolved to Scotland to “tackle the twin crisis of the cost of living and climate”. Those powers include control over the minimum wage, borrowing for Just Transition purposes, and windfall taxation.

Proponents hope that in using these powers, the Scottish Government can prove what more could be done with the full powers of independence. It’s a similar approach to that espoused by former First Minister Alex Salmond in his early days in office, that the SNP must prove it can govern well before enough people are convinced on independence.

Following the by-election, McDonald – who has previously argued the party should be looking to build sustained support for independence rather than caving to “impatience” – urged his party to “think deeply” before moving on from the result.

He tweeted: “Yes, the circumstances of the [by-election] and ongoing investigation are obvious factors, but these numbers – turnout and result – point to something more fundamental. Let us resist the temptation to rush to a core vote strategy, and instead plot an offer rooted in the future that can bring Scotland behind it. No other route to independence exists.”

Russell would not be drawn on his favoured approach, but he says that once the party has “clarity” on its strategy, it is important for members to “move on”. “I want that to be the beginning of a campaign which is about the benefits of independence,” he adds.

Which way delegates will vote is not year clear, but what is apparent is that they are attending conference under a cloud. While polling continues to put the party ahead of all others, Labour is fast gaining on them – and there could still be another year of turmoil before the election.

Buoyed by by-election victories both here and south of the border, Labour is going into next year on a strong footing.

But the reason the Rutherglen by-election result was watched so closely is because winning back Scotland, or at least big parts of it, is central to Keir Starmer’s path to Downing Street.

Specifically, the path to a Labour majority government is lined with Scottish seats.

Polling experts have done the maths: if the SNP were to maintain its current number of Commons seats, Labour needs to beat the Conservatives across the UK by 12 percentage points for a single-seat majority. But for every 12 seats that go to Scottish Labour, that takes two points off the swing needed in the rest of the UK.

It’s a worry for Labour, they will know that there is still a huge SNP-supporting rump 

While a swing of 20-plus per cent seems unlikely in a general election, recent polling puts the SNP to Labour swing in Scotland at roughly 11 per cent. That would be enough to give Labour around 16 Scottish seats.

“The Tories next year are going to really hammer the line that there could be a hung parliament, that Labour and the SNP are going to be cobbling together some arrangement for another independence referendum – [that] Labour are going to be at the behest of the SNP,” Diffley predicts. “Results like [Rutherglen] completely nullify that argument. That’s really important for Starmer in the rest of the UK, in England, where we know from 2015 that was quite a big issue.”

Catherine MacLeod, former special adviser to Alistair Darling, says the “big challenge” for Labour now is to “actually make people believe that they’re going to make the world a better place”. That is difficult in the context of the current pressures on government and household budgets. So far Starmer has been reluctant to make many big spending commitments in a bid to ensure his party looks capable of managing the economy.

That’s a point the SNP hopes to capitalise on. There was already evidence of this during the by-election campaign, with several references made to Starmer’s stance on the two-child benefit cap in particular. And so while voters in England may value the more steady-as-she-goes approach from Starmer, the SNP is banking on Scottish voters wanting something more radical – which prepares the ground for arguing for independence.

And if the main problem for the SNP is turnout, and the party then successfully makes the general election about the constitution, that could put Labour in danger.

“I think it’s a worry for Labour, they will know that there is still a huge SNP-supporting rump in that constituency,” MacLeod adds.

Prof Curtice agrees that Labour may not yet have done enough to ensure the early success in Rutherglen – and indeed in North Yorkshire over the summer – translates to victory in 2024. “Whether as yet Labour has necessarily sealed the deal with the electorate, that I think looks uncertain.

“If Humza Yousaf can turn around his government and can unite his party, if the economy turns around, then we may well discover both the SNP and the Conservatives can indeed recover ground because many of the voters Labour have at the moment are not necessarily strongly committed to Labour. They are saying at the moment, ‘we don’t like anything else’.”

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