It is only one result, and it is only a by-election. But despite these caveats, Labour’s overwhelming victory in Rutherglen & Hamilton West feels like the moment that Scotland finally began to change its mind.
Following the long years in which the SNP banished Labour from its former west of Scotland heartlands, Labour didn’t just win back Rutherglen, near Glasgow: it stomped into town and seized it in an iron grip. The party’s candidate, Michael Shanks, won 17,845 votes, or 58.6 per cent, to the second-placed SNP’s 8,399. Every other party, including the Conservatives and the Greens – who are in government with the SNP at Holyrood – lost their deposit.
Keir Starmer will be hoping that as goes Rutherglen, so goes the rest of Scotland’s populous central belt in next year’s general election. That remains to be seen, of course, but the pollster John Curtice has suggested that replication of last night’s result would see Labour win 42 of Scotland’s 57 Westminster seats (under the new boundaries) to just six for the Nationalists. In 2019 the SNP won 48, and Labour just one.
It is hard to view this as anything other than the start of a political rebalancing in Scotland. Voters in Rutherglen simply didn’t accept the SNP’s argument that Labour and the Conservatives are, to use the Scottish vernacular, two cheeks of the same erse. They didn’t agree that the answer to ongoing Conservative rule in London was to send yet another Nationalist tribune marching south. Instead, in what looks like an early indication of how Scotland will vote next year, they chose to put their trust in Labour once again. The hope of a Labour government evicting the Tories from office is clearly going to have as much electoral appeal north of the border as it will in many parts south.
Time for a change, then. But is the appetite for one change or two? Humza Yousaf, the First Minister, may have found himself on the front of the new edition of Time magazine, but voters in Rutherglen have shown him their backs. Nicola Sturgeon’s successor has struggled to establish himself since taking office in March. Parts of the SNP remain unpersuaded that he is the right person for the job. In his first national democratic test, voters seem to share these doubts.
Not only does this bode ill for the SNP’s performance at the general election, but party strategists will be terrified of the potential for the 2026 Holyrood election to go badly awry. The Nats have been in power in Edinburgh since 2007, a modern-day hegemony unmatched in devolution’s history. Until last night it was felt that even with a Labour comeback at Westminster, victory at Holyrood would remain beyond the party. In 2021 the SNP took 63 of the Scottish Parliament’s 129 seats. Labour finished third with 24 seats to the Scottish Conservatives’ 31. Suddenly, given the 20.4 per cent swing to Labour from the SNP in Rutherglen, Bute House will be looking all too attainable to the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.
For the first time in many years, Scotland looks to be entering fresh political territory. The SNP will no longer be able to take its dominance for granted, and matters may be even graver than that. Have the Nationalists, after all the troubles they’ve faced in the months since Sturgeon’s resignation, finally lost the confidence of Scotland’s voters? And, if so, what can Yousaf do about it? If Rutherglen tells us anything, it’s that the tectonic plates of Scottish politics, frozen in place for so long, are finally shifting.
[See also: Scottish Labour must do less, better]