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View from the Street: Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election result

Malcolm Robertson
Founding partner

In the end, it was easy – the margin of victory for Labour larger than most people had dared to predict.

Little did former MP Margaret Ferrier know when she took a covid test on 26 September 2020 that – as it proved positive, and she inexplicably went about her life as normal – she was setting in train a series of events that would lead to Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar talking of a “seismic” change in UK and Scottish politics.

It must be said that one by-election win does not a change of government make – our political history is peppered with eye-catching by-election results that made little or no difference in the grand scheme of things.

Importantly, that is clearly understood in senior Labour circles – they will celebrate this success to motivate the party and inspire voters to join them on their journey to government. However, complacency is Labour’s principal opponent now, and the matter of winning the next election is far from settled.

While Labour celebrates (albeit briefly) and builds momentum, spare a thought if you will for the beleaguered leaders of governments north and south of the border.

For Humza Yousaf in Scotland, the pride he must have felt at being put on Time magazine’s front cover this week means nothing today. He’s in trouble, and his expression of disappointment is an understatement that will do little to temper concerns in his party that he is presiding over a period of decline that ends in defeat next year. However, some will argue that a bloody nose at this point in the electoral cycle can be treated before it becomes a bigger problem.

Perhaps implausibly, the Tories still believe they can overturn what YouGov recorded yesterday as a 21-point lead for Labour. We can be sure they will throw the kitchen sink at it, but the share of the limelight competition they held in Manchester last week suggests they know it’s over, and that a period of opposition and in-fighting looms. Today’s result in Scotland does nothing to help – it might even be described as seismic.

The raw politics: quick takeaways

  1. This is the moment Scottish Labour needed to reflect trends south of the border. In England, Labour had taken by-election seats from the government on big swings, and the same was needed here. Labour has clearly won back the ‘working class unionist’ vote in central Scotland but some SNP voters (many of whom used to support Labour) simply stayed at home rather than switching back to Labour.
  2. This seat really was about as good an opportunity as possible. Repeating a point from our last brief, Rutherglen and Hamilton West was one of six seats Labour took from the SNP in its modest 2017 revival (before losing it again in 2019). Of all the central belt constituencies, this has again proved one of the most loyal to Labour , so do not assume the result will be mirrored elsewhere.
  3. This is a critical moment for the SNP and for Humza Yousaf. The result is clearly worse than the SNP expected, and for a generation of SNP activists and employees so used to success, it will sting. We have cautioned against excitable commentators, many of whom reside south of the border, proclaiming the end of the SNP or of Scottish nationalism – polls simply do not support that notion at present.
  4. Some in the SNP believe they can use this result to galvanise and reset. A bold idea for sure, and it may stem from the need to find a silver lining on the dark cloud of Friday morning but from the conversations we have had today, there is a view in the SNP that such a defeat, whilst demoralising, could sharpen minds and tackle complacency ahead of the general election. They know they’re in a real fight now.
  5. The Scottish Conservatives are mildly alarmed – but for 2026, not 2024. It is clear that in the Central Belt, the party will suffer at the next general election. However, its focus will be in the north and south of the country, where support is still strong in a first-past-the-post system. For the more proportional Holyrood elections, a marked decline in support across urban Scotland will have severe repercussions.


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