In his victory speech on Friday, Michael Shanks, the Scottish Labour candidate and soon-to-be-MP, confidently declared that there is no area in the country where his party cannot achieve success. This statement was made following his win in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election.
Until recently, this type of discussion would have been considered absurd due to the Scottish National Party’s strong control over Scottish politics with former leader Nicola Sturgeon. However, Scottish Labour is now hopeful again after their significant victory over the pro-independence party.
Shanks achieved a resounding victory with a 31% lead in this week’s by-election, surpassing all expectations despite predictions that Labour would regain the seat.
According to Professor James Mitchell, a Scottish politics expert at Edinburgh University, this serves as proof that Scottish Labour has regained momentum.
“Although there is still much work to be done, this outcome will greatly facilitate Labour’s efforts. This is especially true as their goal of surpassing the SNP as Scotland’s biggest party next year now seems achievable,” he stated.
Shanks’ victory, making him the second MP for Scottish Labour, raised their hopes of challenging the SNP for a portion of their 44 seats in the House of Commons at the upcoming UK general election in 2024. This triumph in Rutherglen will greatly enhance those aspirations.
The improvement of Labour in Scotland has been gradual, rather than abrupt.
In 2021, as the Scottish Parliament elections approached, the party faced difficulties. Under the leadership of Richard Leonard, they struggled to attract funding and attention, leaving little hope for a comeback. Polls showed that the SNP, a pro-independence party that had gained dominance in Scotland, was leading Scottish Labour by around 30 points.
Following involvement from prominent members of the Scottish Labour party, including Starmer himself, Leonard was compelled to step down and was succeeded by Anas Sarwar. Sarwar, who is more well-known among journalists and the Scottish population in general, has stronger connections to Starmer’s team in England.
Although there were hopes for the party to make a comeback in the Holyrood election that year, Sarwar slowly started to make a positive impact. Labour’s standing in the polls was steadily getting better until Sturgeon unexpectedly stepped down as leader of the SNP and Scotland’s first minister. The ensuing chaos of a contentious SNP leadership election amidst a police probe into the party’s finances allowed Labour to narrow the gap with the SNP even more.
One SNP MP, granted anonymity to speak frankly about the opposition, grudgingly described Sarwar as a “slow-burning success.”
They acknowledged that he is a skilled worker and has shown great efficiency.
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Due to consistent progress, strategists from the Labour party in both the northern and southern regions began to envision winning enough seats in Westminster to regain influence in Scotland. Pollsters suggest that the outcome in Rutherglen indicates they can now set their sights even higher.
“The magnitude of the triumph boosts our belief that Labour is not only on track to win 15 or 20 seats, but also has the potential to surpass the SNP in terms of total seats,” stated Mark McGeoghegan, a pollster and postgraduate researcher at the University of Glasgow.
If Starmer were to win more than 20 seats, it would greatly benefit him. This would greatly increase his chances of gaining a majority in Westminster. Starmer’s strategy is to appeal to both pro-union and soft-independence voters in Scotland by opposing the SNP’s push for Scottish independence and promising to remove the Conservatives from power.
As opportunities in Scotland have become more favorable, the U.K. branch of the party has been allocating more resources towards Scottish Labour. Despite being operationally distinct from Labour’s headquarters in London, Scottish Labour still falls under Starmer’s leadership.
Starmer personally appeared at a celebratory event in Rutherglen on Friday morning, which is just one of many visits he has made to Scotland in order to demonstrate the importance his team places on the potential for a resurgence in the country.
Starmer addressed a group of activists and journalists, stating that this is the initial stage of a significant journey for both Scotland and the entire United Kingdom.
It is difficult to use by-elections as a predictor for general election outcomes because of their usual low voter turnout, influence of local issues, and their separation from larger national election campaigns.
The situation in Rutherglen and Hamilton-West is the same. The election was initiated due to the expulsion of local MP Margaret Ferrier from parliament for breaking COVID rules, causing outrage in 2020 and resulting in her being removed from the SNP.
The SNP took into account the uncommon circumstances and the low voter turnout of only 37 percent when attempting to explain the Rutherglen defeat.
“The conditions for this by-election were consistently challenging for us,” SNP leader Humza Yousaf tweeted in the early hours of Friday morning.
The Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, frankly stated to the BBC that our vote did not turn out and we must find a way to re-encourage people to vote for us.
In the recent election on Thursday, the SNP received 8,399 votes, significantly less than the 23,000 votes they received in the 2019 general election with a higher turnout. In contrast, Shanks won 17,845 votes, only slightly lower than the total won by Labour’s candidate in the previous general election. This indicates that a significant number of SNP voters chose not to vote in Rutherglen due to the heavy rain on Thursday.
Mitchell stated that one does not need to be advanced in age to remember the numerous times when the SNP has been declared dead, but it has a tendency to bounce back.
During a general election, the absentee voters are more inclined to participate and could potentially sway their votes. However, the growing discontent with the Scottish government led by the SNP and Yousaf himself indicates that they may not be guaranteed to vote for the SNP.
McGeoghegan, a pollster, expressed concern for Humza Yousaf and encouragement for Anas Sarwar. However, there is still much work to be done for Sarwar.