There’s no two ways about it: Labour absolutely smashed the Scottish National Party in last night’s by-election. Having returned Margaret Ferrier, the disgraced former MP, with a Nationalist majority of over 5,000 in 2019, the voters of Rutherglen and Hamilton West gave Labour a thumping one of over 9,400.
That Michael Shanks secured this margin despite the substantially lower turnout typical of a by-election should put paid to any efforts by SNP partisans to downplay the significance of the result. Labour secured almost the same number of votes as it did at the general election, whilst the Nationalist vote slumped from almost 24,000 to just 8,400. It doesn’t seem likely all those missing voters just sat this one out.
Such was the state of the polls going into this race that even a narrow win would have seemed like a setback for Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader. No fear of that now, and no comfort for Humza Yousaf. His party’s hard-won base in the Central Belt is now in serious trouble.
It wasn’t a great night, on the surface, for the Scottish Conservatives, who despite placing third lost their deposit. But in fact this result does not contradict the fairly optimistic assessment I reported in yesterday’s column. With Labour in second place and a Nationalist to unseat, their vote was always likely to be squeezed; Tory voters tend to be the ones most open to voting tactically for the best-placed unionist candidate in their constituency.
Nor is that the only reason for them to take heart. Whilst part of the swing against the SNP will be down to the deeply unpropitious circumstances of the election – triggered by a successful recall of ‘Covid Margaret’ – Conservatives will hope that it also in part reflects a deeper dissatisfaction with the Nationalists that will help them not only retain their current seats, but also win the handful where they, not Labour, are second-placed and thus best-positioned to oust the SNP.
Better still, if Yousaf gets drawn into a life-or-death struggle for his party’s new heartlands in central and western Scotland, that means he is more likely to double down on Nicola Sturgeon’s progressive iteration of the SNP.
That could leave the Nationalists vulnerable in its old heartlands, the areas it wrested off the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s, where it has for decades served as a home for centre-right voters who wouldn’t back Labour but, in the wake of the 1997 rout, wouldn’t give the Conservatives a hearing.
Such a strategy poses a serious danger to MPs and MSPs in those areas (such as Kate Forbes), and thus likely deepen the already visible divisions within the once formidably-disciplined SNP machine.
But if the Scottish Conservatives have reasons to be cheerful, CCHQ has more grounds for concern. Whilst it is probably wildly optimistic to read directly from this result to a national election (which could put Labour on north of 40 seats in Scotland), it does make predictions that Starmer could scoop 20 seats or more north of the border perfectly plausible.
That would go some way toward smoothing his path to Westminster. Labour would still need to make huge advances in England to win a majority, given where they’re starting from, but every seat taken off the SNP is one they don’t need to take off the Tories.