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Let’s Party Like It’s 2001

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The Hamilton and Rutherglen West by-election was a remarkable success for Labour. If repeated across Scotland, Labour would be at a level not seen for many years.

Of course, the usual caveats apply, but if this result was repeated across central Scotland next year, then Labour would have 42 Scottish seats and the SNP would have just 6. In the UK election context, for every eight seats Labour wins in Scotland means that Keir Starmer needs a 1% less swing across England and Wales. This result, if repeated across Scotland, would be worth more than 5% of a UK swing. 

Scotland has had its fair share of controversial MPs over the years, as well as a good number of consequential ones. I’ll spare everyone’s blushes by not putting names to either list, but undoubtedly the former MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West may go down as being both controversial and consequential. 

When the then MP Margaret Ferrier boarded a train at Euston and travelled hundreds of miles with Covid, she set her Party and constituency on a path to a byelection at the worst possible moment for the SNP.  

This byelection proved that the SNP and Scottish Labour’s converging opinion polling lines of the past six months have a real-world correlation. If something of this nature is repeated across central Scotland next year then Keir Starmer’s entry to Downing Street, and Humza Yousaf’s exit from Bute House, are both far more likely.   

So, what lies behind the SNP’s recent dramatic demise – and spoiler alert – it’s not all camper vans and police investigations. The SNP are disorientated by Labour’s rise and drunk on their own previous successes. As a consequence, there is growing disquiet about their fall from grace and discord about how to recover. Once famed for their iron discipline and devoted followers, internal divisions now dog the SNP. When many in the fundamentalist wing followed Alex Salmond to his new party, Alba, many assumed this exodus would take most of the SNP’s troublemakers with it.  

However, since the departure of Nicola Sturgeon there have been a string of stories which have undermined Humza Yousaf’s leadership. The police investigation into Nicola Sturgeon’s party finances has continued and many in leadership positions have been anxious to distance themselves from a leader that until recently they had elbowed one another out of the way to share a selfie with.   

This lack of discipline is no doubt exacerbated by a sense that SNP MPs are likely to lose their seats. Angus MacNeill, the Western Isles MP who is likely to lose to Labour’s Torcuil Crichton, had an ugly spat with the SNP’s chief whip and was expelled from the party. In East Kilbride the sitting MP faces a deselection campaign lead by the local SNP MSP and threatens resigning to force another byelection. Meanwhile veteran MSP Fergus Ewing was suspended from the SNP group after refusing to fall into line.  To add to the SNP’s woes, Kate Forbes, the defeated leadership foe has continued her campaign for leadership. 

In contrast, Labour is buoyant. Labour strategists point to three strategic factors beyond the police inquiries that have driven their recovery.  

Firstly, previously social democratic voters who supported independence in 2014 were mobilised by the SNP who argued it was Labour who had denied Scotland independence and the opportunity for change. With Nicola Sturgeon walking away and the SNP seen as being in crisis, fewer of these voters now believe that independence is an immediate prospect. For these voters, it’s not Labour who are standing in the way of the change they wanted to see, it is the SNP’s disarray. Labour’s strong lead across the UK allows Labour to offer the change the SNP once embodied and are now unable to provide.  

Second, is the political fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives. Previously the Scottish Tories have managed to stoke up the constitutional fight and portray themselves as a bulwark against nationalism. The pro-Union voters they had been able to strip away from an uncompetitive Labour have returned to Anas Sarwar’s party, angry at the Tories on the economy and no longer as fearful of an obviously weakened nationalist movement.  

Thirdly, incumbency is finally catching up with the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon was in power for so many years and managed to escape almost all accountability; in contrast Humza Yousaf, in power for just a few months attracts all the blame.   

Where previously Labour struggled to find a message that worked for both change-minded Yes voters and anti-SNP No voters, now the mantra that it is ‘time for change’ is stitching together a new Scottish electoral coalition.  

However, the SNP’s structural advantages mean it should not be written off. Scottish politics has been cast in nationalistic terms for a generation and it is still the dominant political force and frame North of the Border. And they are likely to be aided by a British Conservative campaign that many Scots will feel to be pro-Brexit and English nationalist. 

The SNP will also take some comfort in the fact that Labour’s recovery has, so far, been stronger for Westminster than in Holyrood. They may hope for a return of ticket-splitting where Scots vote for a Labour Government across the UK but turn to the SNP for the Scottish election – time will tell on that. They may be relieved that support for independence has not fallen below the 2014 independence referendum result. They will also be puzzled as to why support for independence has rarely risen much above the 2014 independence referendum result. 

This by-election result will see Labour pouring resources into ever more Scottish seats, most of which would become marginal.  

If that happens, the Prime Minister will be looking for a new role next autumn, Scotland’s First Minister may be jettisoned by his Party soon afterwards, and Labour would be on course for their first General Election win since 2005. 

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