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The Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election - All or nothing for Starmer's Labour?

Updated: May 23

On Tuesday the 15th of August, I attended a Labour Party event at the Rutherglen town hall, attended by Sir Keir Starmer and the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Anas Sarwar. This marked yet another of Starmer’s trips up north to the Rutherglen and Hamilton West constituency, and business as usual for Mr Sarwar who has been campaigning closely with the Labour Party candidate, Michael Shanks. 

With the Labour Party dedicating so much coverage and effort to this by-election, it underlines its huge relevance for Labour in Scotland. 

The constituency is an urban seat of Greater Glasgow, just south of the city. It has historically been a safe Labour seat until the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) landslide in 2015, where they won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons. Ever since, the constituency has been a swing seat between Labour and the SNP, demonstrated when Labour took the seat back by just 265 votes (2017). 

However, Margaret Ferrier’s tenure as the MP (re-elected when the SNP took the seat again in 2019) has been a deadly blow to the SNP’s hold on the constituency, but also a notable part of the scandals that are ripping the party to shreds. Specifically, after Ferrier clearly breached COVID regulations, her whip was withdrawn in October 2020. 3 years later, a successful recall petition has triggered a by-election which will take place in October 2023. 

If the electorate of Rutherglen and Hamilton West chooses to elect Michael Shanks as a Labour MP, particularly with a substantial margin, it is viewed as the last nail in the coffin for the SNP in Scotland and - on the flip side - the opportunity for Starmer’s Labour to take back Scotland and build a majority in 2024.

This is even more important when you consider that Labour currently holds 1 Scottish seat, whilst the Conservatives hold 6 - underscoring the disillusionment of Scots with Labour since 2015. Thus it is worth considering the impact of Starmer’s reforms of the Party, and the election of the charismatic and dynamic Anas Sarwar as the leader of Scottish Labour. Also, with the potential return of Scottish political heavyweight Douglas Alexander, who stands as the Labour Party candidate for East Lothian, Labour’s Scottish heart, dormant since 2015, is riveting with a pulse. 

According to whatscotlandthinks, the SNP and Labour are de facto neck and neck in the polls for the UK general election, with the SNP on 37% (down 7% since the start of the year) and Labour on 34% (up 3% since the beginning of 2023). This proves that Labour is, in the eyes of Scots, electable on par with the SNP.

It is also worth mentioning that Scotland is at the heart of Starmer’s ambitions and plans for “Building a Better Britain”. The “Clean energy revolution” for example takes root in Scotland, with the Clyde wind farm operating in Scotland (the largest in the UK) and offshore wind farm projects in the North Sea, illustrating its importance to the UK as an energy source, into which Scotland provides access to. 

Furthermore, moving away from the significance of this Scottish revival for Keir Starmer, it is also worthy to analyse the data around Holyrood elections. Anas Sarwar, according to Ipsos, holds a positive net approval rating of +7, which is on par with the popularity of Nicola Sturgeon whilst she was in office (2014-2023). Additionally, Sturgeon’s successor, Humza Yousaf, has not inherited his predecessor's popularity and has instead inherited a financial scandal, which puts him at a negative rating of -9. 

In regard to the Conservative Leader, Douglas Ross, who, to his credit, denounced Boris Johnson whilst he was still in office, and has performed well ever since taking over from the very popular Ruth Davidson, has been left with -25 net approval rating, which is actually up from -38% in December. It is a testament to the damage that the Johnson and Truss premierships have had on the Party and how its respected leaders, MPs and councillors across the country are being made to suffer as a result of gross incompetence and callousness by their colleagues.

Having considered this data, it is likely that Anas Sarwar will finally reap the rewards of his transformation of Scottish Labour and may become the first Labour First Minister in Scotland since 2011. 

To conclude, Starmer and Sarwar have set a course for Labour to win the next general election, for which Scotland is the foundation. A win in Rutherglen and Hamilton West will cement this, symbolising the collapse of the SNP under the weight of its own scandals, clearing the path for rewriting of the political landscape. 

Image: Jeremy Corbyn

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