It was not a surprise that Labour won the by-election. Like much of west central Scotland, the seat was safely Labour until a tsunami of SNP support swept across Scotland in the 2015 general election. But the SNP have never had a firm grip on the constituency, losing it narrowly to Labour in the 2017 election, only to recapture it again in 2019.
Labour only needed a 5% swing for the seat to change hands again – far less than the 11% swing from the SNP to Labour that has recently been registered by the opinion polls.
Yet the scale of Labour’s success, described by Sir Keir Starmer as ‘seismic’, was truly unexpected. The swing from the SNP to Labour was as much as 20%. Even Labour themselves were somewhat taken aback.
By-elections can be an opportunity to protest against Holyrood or Westminster
At 59%, Labour’s share of the vote was only a little below the 61% it achieved in the constituency in 2010. The result seemed to open up the prospect that politics in Scotland was reverting back to its pre-2014 pattern.
Still, by-elections do sometimes produce some very large swings. Voters can take the opportunity to protest against the government of the day even though they then switch back again on general election day. The outcome in Rutherglen is certainly consistent with such a pattern – not only did the SNP’s share of the vote fall by 17 points, but the Conservatives were down by 11 points too.
But even if the result is an exaggerated reflection of voters’ current disillusionment, it is ample confirmation of the message of the polls that Labour are now presenting the SNP with their biggest challenge since the 2014 referendum.
On average the polls currently put Labour on 32%, just four points behind the SNP on 36%. In a general election that could be enough to deliver Labour 20 seats, potentially significantly boosting Sir Keir Starmer’s chance of winning an overall Commons majority.
Why have Labour nearly closed the gap on the SNP?
Labour themselves argue their progress is a testament to the success of Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar in reversing the damage done to Labour’s reputation by Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard. They also claim that voters in Scotland are more attracted by the realistic prospect of helping Labour defeat the Conservatives rather than the seemingly impossible dream of independence offered by the SNP.
However, most of Scottish Labour’s advance occurred well before the SNP began to hit troubled waters earlier this year. Support for the party had already risen to 30%, up 11 points on 2019, before the end of 2022. As elsewhere in the UK, this rise in the party’s fortunes largely occurred in the wake of the ‘partygate’ revelations and Liz Truss’ disastrous ‘fiscal event’.
In short, the foundations of Scottish Labour’s rise lie in unionist voters’ reaction to the mistakes made by the Conservatives at Westminster, rather than in anything it achieved or promised north of the border. Moreover, there was no sign last autumn that the growing prospect of a Labour victory at Westminster was encouraging people to switch away from the SNP.
The whys and wherefores to explain the SNP loss can be found within the SNP
The SNP, meanwhile, were inclined to blame their misfortune in Rutherglen on factors outside their control – Margaret Ferrier’s breaking of the COVID regulations, the continuing police investigation into the SNP’s finances, and anti-SNP tactical voting by erstwhile Conservative voters. However, these have the air of convenient excuses.
What neither the SNP nor Labour seemed willing to acknowledge is the role that decisions and differences within the SNP seem to have played in depressing SNP support.
Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to resign in mid-February has left the SNP with a relatively unpopular leader and, following what proved to be a factitious leadership contest, with significant damage to its reputation for unity.
According to YouGov, Mr Yousaf has a net approval rating of -16, well down on the +13 rating that Ms Sturgeon had shortly before deciding to resign. The new First Minister is also finding it difficult to improve his personal ratings. Redfield and Wilton’s latest poll gives the First Minister a net approval rating of -6, little different from the -7 the same poll recorded shortly after he became First Minister.
Meanwhile, according to Savanta 33% now feel that the SNP is united, while 56% have the opposite impression – more or less the reverse of the figures a year ago.
Between them these developments seem to have helped persuade around one in six of those who would still vote ‘Yes’ to independence (support for which has held firm at just under 50%) to switch to Labour.
To win them back and thereby begin to fend off Labour’s challenge, Mr Yousaf needs to unite his party and begin to inspire nationalist-inclined voters. It will be a key test of his leadership.
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