Friday 6 October 2023

The significance of Rutherglen and Hamilton West.


The SNP’s catastrophic defeat in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election looks like it will decisively change Scottish and indeed UK politics. The result is much worse than I expected. 58.55% for Labor versus 27.56% for the SNP would if repeated at a General Election take us back to the time when the SNP won a handful of seats and when Labour dominated Scottish politics.

The usual caveats apply. It’s only a by-election. Voters treat by-elections as not really mattering. The reason is that they don’t really matter. Nothing will be changed at Westminster by one more Labour MP or one less SNP MP. Sometimes by-elections tell us something about the future direction of politics sometimes they don’t.

People who write about politics and TV news journalists pay a lot of attention to by-elections, because they are paid to write about these things. Usually, the result of a by-election is forgotten by the time of the General Election, but not always. This may be a case of not always.

A year ago, the SNP was guaranteed to win every election in Scotland. There wasn’t anything much anyone else could do about this. The SNP had around 45% of the vote while the Pro UK parties split the rest. But there is a limit to the effectiveness of tactical voting and electoral pacts between Pro UK parties were not possible nor even desirable as it would prove the SNP argument that Labour was the same as the Tories.

We were stuck. The SNP didn’t have enough to really push for independence, but Pro UK parties had no way of defeating Sturgeon. This situation looked as if it was stretching into infinity.

What happened? No one really has an explanation for the result of yesterday’s by-election. What caused a twenty-point swing to Labour? It certainly wasn’t anything Keir Starmer did. Nor was it anything that Anas Sarwar did. The explanation lies exclusively with what Nicola Sturgeon did.

Nicola Sturgeon resigned. But no one really has a clue why she resigned. She insists that it had nothing to do with her subsequent arrest or problems with her party’s finances. We may or may not believe her. But that is the explanation for the SNP’s defeat. If Nicola Sturgeon was still leader, the SNP would have won in Rutherglen and Hamilton West.

After Sturgeon resigned the SNP elected Humza Yousaf. A lot of the blame for the by-election defeat will fall on him. But I don’t think things would be better if Kate Forbes had been elected instead. Her conservative Christian values would split the SNP. A split SNP would do even worse than an SNP led by Humza Yousaf.

Something has changed in Scotland in the past year. The change is this. People who are still basically sympathetic to the idea of independence who after 2014 automatically voted SNP are now willing to vote Labour.

Independence may still be a long-term goal for these voters, but they would prefer a Labour Government in Westminster and perhaps a Labour Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood, because they no longer trust the SNP to deliver on independence or anything else.

Nicola Sturgeon was trusted by large numbers of Scots. Her resignation without a proper explanation plus the later financial scandals in the SNP generally have destroyed that trust. Independence supporters openly argue that SNP politicians are in it for themselves.

The SNP has continually promised supporters since losing in 2014 that independence is just ahead. Sturgeon always said that next year there would be a referendum even when she knew that it wasn’t up to her.

Worse the SNP has been in charge since 2007 and it is not doing a good job. The standard response is to compare things with England or something controlled by Westminster, but this excuse eventually wears out. It just wore out.

Suddenly the SNP is viewed as corrupt, secretive and incompetent. The investigation into Sturgeon without any resolution actually hurts the SNP. We don’t get to move on. We are left feeling that something important happened but we’re not quite sure what. We are left with rumours and suspicion. No wonder previous SNP supporters are deserting en masse.

What does Rutherglen and Hamilton West mean for the future? We don’t know. The Labour Party in Scotland needs to not take its supporters for granted as it did previously. The Pro UK argument in general must not go to sleep as is our tendency every time there is a victory.

If the result of this by-election is repeated at a General Election then UK and Scottish politics will be changed completely. If Labour can win 40 seats in Scotland, then it will be much more likely that it will be able to form a Government in Westminster. If the SNP goes back to having six seats like it did in the 1980s then the cause of independence will go back at least forty years and it will cease to be an important issue in Scottish politics, which puts the SNP into a further doom loop of loss of support.

A Labour Government in Westminster may be the price we have to pay for UK unity.

I make no predictions. The result of the next General Election will be determined by the events of the next year. Sunak is improving. Starmer is still dull. The investigation into Sturgeon and her husband may cease without any charges.

But if the SNP cannot win in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, then it probably cannot win in much of the Central Belt, which leaves it picking up a few scraps elsewhere. From winning fifty-six seats in 2015 to winning just six in 2024 during the ten-year anniversary of the referendum would destroy the independence movement. This is now the prize that is on offer.

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