A New Flower of Scotland
If you find yourself on the Glasgow to Liverpool train today, don’t be surprised if you find a couple of battle-hardened Labour activists popping the M&S prosecco amongst the ubiquitous hen dos and lads weekends.
The party has plenty to celebrate – in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, called after former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier was ousted by her constituents for breaking Covid rules in 2020, they achieved an impressive swing of 20.4% from the SNP to Labour.
Newly minted MP Michael Shanks won the Scottish seat with 17,845 votes - more than double the number of the SNP's Katy Loudon.
Perhaps one of the key reasons this victory feels so ‘seismic’ is that Labour were careful to manage expectations in the lead-up. Taking a different tack from previous by-elections this year, they were keen to stress throughout the contest that this was a 50:50 race despite many commentators tipping them for an easy win.
The question on everyone's lips – is this a sign of things to come or simply the result of one bad apple? Polling supremo John Curtice told the BBC: “It does now look as though, perhaps, Labour has some opportunity of becoming once again the largest party in Westminster” north of the border. Yet activists on both sides reported a large amount of tactical voting for Labour including from traditionally Conservative voters which is unlikely to carry through to a general election. Indeed, the Conservative lost his deposit and put it down to widespread tactical voting. Similarly, a lot of door knockers encountered specific criticism of the behaviour of ex-MP Ferrier rather than the SNP as a whole, making this victory a lot less clear-cut.
Furthermore, despite the by-election being almost a year in the making turnout was just 37% meaning extrapolating this to a future general election is risky, to say the least. The low turnout highlights an issue that is increasingly concerning SNP supremos – after a decade of dominance, many of their voters simply aren’t turning out to vote.
Despite the SNP’s current woes – and they have many – it would be foolish to disregard the issue that attracted so many Scottish voters to them in the first place, independence. Polls carried out in September found an average of 47% of Scots still support independence. Initial signs show that cross-cutting issues such as the cost of living crisis may begin to edge out independence as a top priority for voters north of the border however it is certainly not a given.
The result certainly provides a welcome boost to Starmer as he heads into his party’s annual conference in Liverpool this weekend, but Labour should be ultra-conscious of taking Scottish voters for granted – after all, that helped get them into this mess in the first place. And if they don’t learn this lesson? Well as my gran would say, hell slap it into them.