What the SNP by-election win tells us about Labour’s predicament

Labour’s share of the vote went up in Airdrie and Shotts, but not enough for them to win the seat.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The SNP have won the Airdrie and Shotts by-election. The scores on the door:

SNP: Anum Qaisar-Javed 46.4 per cent (+1.4)
Scottish Labour: Kenneth Stevenson 38.4 per cent (+6.4)
Scottish Conservatives: Ben Callaghan 12.9 per cent (-4.7)

The minor parties were scattered to the wind. It’s closer than Labour got in the Holyrood elections last week, and that narrowed margin is surely a vindication of the SNP’s decision to force MPs wishing to trade Westminster for Holyrood to step down before last week’s election, allowing them to hold the by-election just seven days later and therefore minimise the possibility of an upset.

It underlines that even in an era of success – frankly the Conservatives are never going to have a better day in the office than the most successful vaccine roll-out in Europe, and it’s unlikely any other party will either – their SNP problem isn’t going anywhere.

As for Labour: that increase in the SNP vote shows that incumbents across the United Kingdom are continuing to do very well. In many ways, that increased Scottish Labour vote-share probably allows us to quantify the cost of the avoidable mistakes that Keir Starmer made in terms of candidate selection and contest timing in Hartlepool: we can see that a local Labour candidate would not have won in Hartlepool, but nor would they have seen their vote share go backwards.

[See also: Labour’s loss of Hartlepool is the final death rattle of a movement that has abandoned its heartlands]

Those poor decisions may recur in Batley and Spen and they have already done damage to Labour thanks to last weekend’s botched reshuffle. More troublingly for that party, if IpsosMori’s latest poll is to be believed, they have caused Starmer’s ratings to come uncoupled from David Cameron’s at the same point in his tenure as leader of the opposition for the first time. That is far more troubling than their opinion poll rating, as leadership approval tends to be more predictive of election results in the long run. Labour has a job of work to do in England and Scotland.

[See also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

Free trial CSS