6 October 2023

Rutherglen is a big win for Labour, but the battle is only just beginning


Labour has had very little to celebrate in the last decade when it comes to Scotland, so it is entirely forgivable that they’ve got a bit ahead of themselves this morning.

The result in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election proves that Keir Starmer can win a swathe of Scottish seats and so make his move into Downing Street all the more likely. At least that’s the message being eagerly promoted by talking heads this morning. This is an entirely sensible and justified claim. But making it a reality will take even harder work than what has been put into the by-election these past months. It will also require luck.

The despondency of the defeated is something that Labour itself had to endure on many an occasion, back when it was the political establishment and the SNP were the insurgents. On those dark nights when seemingly safe strongholds fell to the nationalists – Hamilton in 1967, Govan in 1988, Glasgow East in 2008 – it grimly and stoically recited all the factors that somehow justified its humiliation and then, some months or years later, won every one of those lost seats back when the next general election came around.

The task for Labour between now and an expected polling day towards the end of next year is to ensure that the SNP can’t pull the same trick it played between 2017 and 2019. During that period, having lost 21 of the 56 seats the party had won at the 2015 election (including Rutherglen, by a tiny 265 vote margin), Nicola Sturgeon refocused all her energy on hyping up the prospect of a second independence referendum. 

Such an event, as Sturgeon knew even then, was always unlikely, even before the Supreme Court told her in no uncertain terms that she was on a hiding to nothing. But that didn’t matter; the point of her campaign was to get Scots talking about independence again and not about less important stuff like taxes, jobs and the health service.

The tactic paid off and the SNP in 2019 won their second largest ever victory, winning back all six seats it had lost to Labour in 2017 plus a handful of others. But Humza Yousaf, who replaced Sturgeon in March this year, will find it much more difficult to play the same card this time around. Promises of a second ‘once in a lifetime’ referendum will be listened to with cynical derision by most Scots who now know definitively – thanks, ironically, to Sturgeon’s decision to consult the Supreme Court on the matter – that such a vote is nowhere near in prospect.

Scotland is little different from the rest of the country in its impatience to see the back of the current UK government, and the Rutherglen result shows that Labour, not the SNP, is voters’ best bet for bringing that about. That doesn’t mean that independence is no longer the wish of a large minority of Scots – polls suggest that support for it far outstrips support for the SNP. But a relentless focus on the cost of living crisis, on NHS waiting lists and on inflation looks likely to convince former SNP supporters that Labour is a palatable alternative for now.

Nationalists will point to the circumstances in which this by-election was called and suggest that these unique circumstances (the incumbent SNP MP, Margaret Ferrier, was suspended from the Commons for breaking Covid rules and subsequently recalled by her former constituents via a petition) offer the SNP some hope that, in better circumstances, it can regain the seat and successfully defend others that may be vulnerable to a Labour comeback.

There is some merit to this argument, but there’s also a historic example that blunts it. In 2005, the Labour MSP for neighbouring Glasgow Cathcart, Mike (Lord) Watson, was sentenced to 16 months in prison for setting fire to curtains in a hotel that, at the time, was jam packed with MSPs, journalists and others celebrating the Scottish Politician of the Year awards. Those circumstances were, as in Rutherglen, unique. But the by-election that ensued was, extraordinarily, won by Watson’s Labour successor. By-elections, however bizarre or unique the cause, don’t always result in a loss for the incumbent party. There must be other factors that negatively impact on the party, other than the poor behaviour of incumbent office holders.

Such was the case in Rutherglen. That the SNP lost the seat is down as much to Humza Yousaf’s leadership, his party’s impotent obsession with a second referendum and an unimpressive record in government as much as it is to Margaret Ferrier’s unfortunate travel choices back in 2020.

Rutherglen doesn’t so much prove that Labour can rely once again on a significant number of Scottish seats to help it get over the winning line at the next general election, as it confirms that Scotland need no longer be a drag on the party’s success. So long as it can keep voters focused on what matters, and not what the nationalists think matters, then the prospects of Keir Starmer becoming our next prime minister just improved significantly.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.