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Late Night Special: Rutherglen Result
What does Labour's stonking victory mean for Scottish, and UK politics?
Congratulations to Michael Shanks. He was an exceptional byelection candidate. That’s a tough gig. Traditionally you’re treated as an irritating legal necessity by your party organisers and a risk to be managed by your press office. Michael was rightly identified as an asset to Labour and will be a superb MP.
Before I slip into a happy sleep, four quick thoughts on why tonight matters:
This milestone result creates a virtuous circle for Labour in Scotland.
The SNP’s leadership crisis will be exacerbated by their resource crisis.
The terrible campaign shows the nationalist machine has broken down.
The Tories lost more than their deposit tonight.
The Night That Scotland Hit Back.
Byelections are either moments or milestones. Some results simply confirm existing political realities and are moments that are soon forgotten, others make history as they herald a shift in the political reality. This election is a milestone.
When Donald Dewar won the Garscadden byelection in 1978 he used his victory speech to proclaim:
“We have changed the psychological climate up of Scottish politics…it’s the night that Scotland hit back.”
Donald’s victory saw a swing against Labour but was seen as halting the SNP’s insurgency. Michael’s victory tonight will go down in history as the night that ended the SNP’s unchallenged hegemony in Scotland.
Tonight was risky for Labour. My party is like an underperforming football team which has been bought by a billionaire. Last season we would have been delighted by any win, now suddenly the expectation is that we should dominate. That Anas Sarwar and Keir Starmer led us into a winning position is a huge achievement - to have delivered a victory like this is extraordinary. The confident buzz between the party activists grazing the buffet in the party offices in Rutherglen earlier won’t go away.
Before tonight, polls had suggested that Labour’s recovery represented something in the region of an 11-point swing from the SNP. That was a prediction, this is a result. This is the first time the SNP have lost a Westminster seat they hold at a byelection. Real voters have gone even further than the polls suggested, delivering a swing of 20.5% away from the SNP and towards Labour.
It is political kryptonite for a nationalist party to lose the support of the nation it arrogantly claims to exclusively represent. Missing from the SNP talking heads on TV tonight was any recognition that this result might have anything to do with anything they have done in government. Their arrogance is so habitual that they are incapable of the humility this moment requires.
Instead of self-reflection, it is more likely that an even weaker Humza Yousaf, knowing that his job now depends on limiting losses, will retreat towards his core support. The same desperate dynamic we saw at this week’s Conservative Party Conference may now take hold in the SNP.
It will be noted everywhere that this result eases Keir Starmer’s route to Downing Street. Every 12 seats that Labour wins in Scotland effectively takes around two points off the national swing needed to defeat the Tories across the UK.
This win creates a virtuous cycle for Scottish Labour: a party that can win in Scotland is more likely to win across the UK; a party that is more likely to win across the UK is more likely to convince more Scottish voters that Labour, and not the SNP, offers change at the general election.
This result needs to be understood in dynamic terms. It is the beginning of something, not the end.
Amidst this Earthquake, Yousaf’s Jaiket’s on a Shoogly Peg.
The SNP is a party that is now in a leadership crisis but also, importantly, a resource crisis. Yousaf’s party attracted just £4000 in donations in the first quarter of this year.
The 11 seats where the SNP majority is smaller than the one they were defending in Rutherglen will now be thrown overboard. The limited money that SNP HQ has will now shift to defend seats that, before tonight, were viewed as safe. As SNP resources flow out of these marginals, Labour resources will now flood in.
An increasing number of sitting SNP MPs may now feel they have nothing left to lose and may no longer bite their lips when they see incompetence by their Holyrood colleagues costing the jobs of their friends.
Every single SNP MP now is fighting for their political life. A further breakdown in the SNP’s once-enviable discipline will start with unnamed briefings to the weekend’s newspapers - but it won’t end there.
Kate Forbes's shadow leadership campaign will now go up a gear. Her courtship of fundamentalists will intensify, dragging Yousaf further away from the middle ground of Scottish politics. Having introduced herself to Scotland as an anti-gay marriage, anti-choice, anti-unmarried parent, and pro-austerity politician when she stood against Yousaf she badly needs to rebrand. Expect carefully placed interviews that paint her as a modern working mother, aiming to shed the image of her as a 1950s throwback.
The SNP’s Campaign is Kaput.
While out knocking doors to get out the vote earlier I came across the SNP’s polling day leaflet which urged voters ‘Don’t waste your vote on Labour.’ GOTV is meant to motivate your own voters, this was a desperately uninspiring message that instead seeks to demotivate another party’s supporters.
The SNP’s strategists are clearly struggling to find a message that meets the new political reality in Scotland: angry voters aren’t willing to wait for an incompetent SNP to build a credible plan for leaving the UK and instead are looking to the immediate change offered by Labour.
Without a clear strategy it is hard to mobilise supporters and deliver a message that persuades. The SNP spent much of the campaign talking themselves. They spent their time going on about how Labour were not really Scottish, indeed they said, Scottish Labour doesn’t exist at all. The dozens of English and Welsh MPs coming to campaign in solidarity for Michael Shanks were supposedly an illegitimate presence on the campaign trail. This nonsense might excite the nationalist hardcore but confirms voter concerns about the SNP.
For a party that doesn’t exist, Scottish Labour had a hell of a result tonight.
Analysing the content of leaflets might sound inside-baseball but remember these are commissioned and signed off by the party leadership. One of their closing leaflets asked voters on behalf of Katy Louden “give me 16 months”. If you have no idea what that means, you are not alone. It’s a leaflet that assumes voters have a countdown calendar to the next general election on their fridges. They have forgotten how to communicate with voters.
Beyond the byelection, the SNP now spends all its time attacking a party that is not in power. After tonight that approach will seem increasingly self-interested. They are a party that exists to protect the jobs of their own MPs, not the jobs, homes and future of Scots.
The Tories are No Longer a Credible Anti-SNP Force
Before tonight the Scottish Conservatives would have hoped that an anti-SNP message would keep them afloat while the fortunes of the Rishi Sunak risked dragging them down. The combative strategy masterminded by Ruth Davidson was complemented by Nicola Sturgeon who shared a need for the fight to be between the SNP and the Tories, squeezing out Labour.
Tonight Thomas Kerr lost his deposit but the bigger costs are that the Tories have lost their only strategy and the SNP have lost their preferred opponent. A strategy that pretends the fight is now anything other than between the SNP and Labour lacks credibility.