LONDON — “There is no part of this country where Labour can’t win,” Scottish Labour candidate — and soon-to-be-MP — Michael Shanks declared in his victory speech early Friday after the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election.
Such talk would have been preposterous until recently, thanks to the Scottish National Party’s near-dominance of all things Scottish politics under former leader Nicola Sturgeon. But the thumping win over the pro-independence party has Scottish Labour dreaming again.
Shanks triumphed by a clear 31 percentage point margin in this week’s by-election, a result beyond wildest expectations even though Labour had been expected to re-take the seat.
“It provides evidence that Scottish Labour is back in business,” Scottish politics expert James Mitchell, a professor at Edinburgh University, said.
“Labour still has a lot of work to do but this result will make that much easier, not least as the goal of replacing the SNP as Scotland’s largest party next year looks attainable,” he added.
With Shanks becoming just Scottish Labour’s second MP, the party had hoped to seriously compete with the SNP for a chunk of their 44 House of Commons seats at the next U.K.-wide general election, expected in 2024. The win in Rutherglen will put rocket boosters under those hopes.
Labour’s recovery in Scotland has been a steady, rather than sudden, one.
The party hit a low point in 2021 as elections to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood loomed. Struggling for funding and attention under then-leader Richard Leonard, there seemed little prospect of a revival. Polls at the time indicated Scottish Labour — once dominant in Scotland until the pro-independence SNP’s rise — were around 30 points behind the SNP.
After an intervention from senior Scottish Labour figures — and Starmer himself — Leonard was forced out and replaced with Anas Sarwar, a better-known figure among journalists and Scots in general with closer links to Starmer’s team in England.
While hopes the party could mount a recovery in that year’s Holyrood election proved forlorn, Sarwar gradually began to make an impression. Labour’s position in the polls was steadily improving before Sturgeon suddenly resigned as SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister. The chaos that followed — a fractious SNP leadership election against the backdrop of a police investigation into the party’s finances — saw Labour cut further into the SNP’s lead.
One SNP MP, granted anonymity to speak frankly about the opposition, grudgingly described Sarwar as a “slow-burning success.”
“He’s a good operator and has clearly been very effective,” they admitted.
Thanks to the steady improvement, Labour strategists both north and south of the border began to dream of winning enough Westminster seats to become a force in Scotland again. Pollsters say the Rutherglen result shows they can now dream bigger.
“The scale of the victory increases our confidence that Labour are on course not just for winning 15 or 20 seats, but potentially winning more than that and potentially overtaking the SNP,” pollster and postgraduate researcher at the University of Glasgow Mark McGeoghegan said.
Winning more than 20 seats would be a boon for Starmer, whose chances of winning a Westminster majority would be greatly enhanced by gains in Scotland. In opposing the SNP’s goal of Scottish independence and promising to oust the Conservatives from government, Starmer aims to win both pro-union voters and soft-independence voters in Scotland.
As prospects in Scotland improved, the party’s U.K. operation has devoted increasing resources northward to Scottish Labour — which, while operationally separate from Labour’s London HQ, is still part of Starmer’s party.
Starmer himself arrived on the scene for a victory rally in Rutherglen Friday morning, the latest in a series of Scotland trips for the leader that show how seriously his team are taking the prospect of a Scottish revival.
“This is the first step on a very important journey for all of us in Scotland, for all of us across the whole U.K.,” Starmer told assembled activists and journalists.
By-elections are notoriously hard to extrapolate general election results from, due to typically low turnout, local factors and the fact they sit outside of wider national election campaigns.
Rutherglen and Hamilton-West is no different. The election was called after the local MP Margaret Ferrier was expelled from parliament for COVID rule breaches that sparked fury back in 2020 and saw her booted out of the SNP.
Those unique circumstances — and the low turnout of just 37 percent — were at the front of SNP minds as the party tried to spin the Rutherglen reversal.
“Circumstances of this by-election were always very difficult for us,” SNP leader Humza Yousaf tweeted in the early hours of Friday morning.
“Our vote has not turned out and we know that we need to re-motivate people to vote for the Scottish National Party,” the SNP’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn bluntly told the BBC.
The SNP won just 8,399 votes in Thursday’s election, compared to over 23,000 in 2019’s general election where the turnout was almost double. By comparison, Shanks won 17,845 votes — a drop of less than a thousand votes from the total won by Labour’s 2019 candidate in a proper general election campaign. It shows many SNP voters opted not to brave Rutherglen’s pouring rain on Thursday.
“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,” Mitchell said.
In a general election campaign, those absent voters are more likely to turn up — and could still be up for grabs. Yet increasing dissatisfaction with the SNP-led Scottish government and Yousaf himself suggests they are not guaranteed SNP voters.
“If I was Humza Yousaf I would be extremely worried. If I was Anas Sarwar I would be extremely encouraged … but there’s a lot more to do in his case,” pollster McGeoghegan added.