Will Scotland help Labor form Britain’s next government?
“I do DON’T KNOW—it’s all,” (Scottish slang for trash) says a retired cleaner in Rutherglen, when asked how she would vote in an upcoming by-election. The last time voters in that suburb south of Glasgow went to the polls it supported the Scottish National Party (snp); this time she could bow to Labour. Her loyalty was apparently shared by many of her predecessors snp voters, showing the party’s significant decline. Since the beginning of the year, and especially after the arrest in June of Nicola Sturgeon, the former prime minister and the most powerful advocate for the dream of independence that the snp to power, the party has slipped in the polls in a way that was once unthinkable.
That gives an opportunity to the Labor Party, which at one time was on the north side of the border. In 2010 Scotland had 41 of the 59 seats currently in Westminster. After the independence referendum in 2014, Labor withdrew support. In 2019 it was almost wiped out, managing to hold just one seat. He is now hoping for a revival that could help him win a general election that must be held no later than January 2025.
The first real test will come when Rutherglen and Hamilton West hold a by-election in October. The vote was promoted two years ago, when Margaret Ferrier, who used to be there snp mp, on a train from London to Glasgow even though she had tested positive for covid-19. She was banned from the snp but he continued to sit as an independent. This August, after a recall petition, she lost her seat. (Some of Rutherglen’s former supporters say they are still angry about her behavior during the lockdown.)
Labor could hardly find a better place than Rutherglen to try their Scottish fortunes. In the general election his priority is to pick up the handful of seats he won in the 2017 election. Rutherglen has moved in recent general elections between the SNP (in 2015 and 2019) and Labor (2005, 2010 and 2017). In 2019 Ms Ferrier won there with 5,230 votes. A move of just 5% would return it to Labour.
Recent polls have suggested that Labor could do much better than that. One, published by Survation on 23 August, found that 35% of Scottish voters support Labor and 37% for snp (a drop of eight points from 2019). Sir John Curtice, a political scientist at Strathclyde University, suggests that could mean both parties picking up 24 seats at the general election. (The Tories retained their current six seats; the Lib Dems won five, a gain of one).
Such a boost from Scotland would give Labor a chance to win outright. Sir Iain calculates that for every dozen seats that Labor picks up in Scotland “you can knock a point or two off the lead he would need across the country. UK to win an absolute majority”. Strength in Scotland also reduces the risk of a hung Parliament, hence the awkward prospect of Labor relying on support from smaller parties, such as the snp. A success in Roy Glenn in October is likely to be described as “historic”, says Chrisdean Carman, professor of politics at the University of Glasgow.
When margins are tight, unexpected results are also possible, of course. If Labor were to fall short in Ruhglenn, that would indicate a bad outlook for the party throughout Scotland. Labour’s narrow failure in July to win a by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Boris Johnson’s old seat, means the party is taking nothing for granted, says a campaigner in Rutherglen.
The snp is less popular as support for independence declines. Opinion polls show that this remains stable, at 48%, rather than the proportion of voters who support the SNP. That shows that Scots are becoming more rational about the scene, said James Mitchell, professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh.
For such voters, a desire to kick the Tories is reinforced by Labour’s lead in the polls. That arose after a disastrous mini-budget in September 2022. The High Court’s decision, in November, that an independence referendum is not possible unless Westminster agrees, has made it more difficult the SNP argued that it could bring about division. It also weakened the case for Union voting for the Tories.
But the snp she didn’t really start to slip in the polls until Ms Sturgeon’s arrest, four months after she resigned as party leader. Her non-charismatic replacement, Humza Yousaf, is not nearly as popular. Kate Forbes, who lost the leadership contest in February, did not give him much support. (“Never say never”, she said in August, when asked if she would have another chance).
The snp which is preparing to challenge a Labor government for the first time in 13 years, using two lines of attack against the party in Scotland (which they call a “branch office”). The first is about Brexit, which the Scots voted overwhelmingly against. Katy Loudon, the snp A candidate in Rutherglen has blasted Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer for his promise to “make Brexit work”, pointing out that lost trade has cost the region dearly.
The other line of attack is that he refuses to split with the Tories on a number of social issues, particularly the two-child cap on child welfare. She reminds the voters that the snpThe child payment gives families £25 a week on universal credit per child. That’s a strong combination for many in Rutherglen. “The snp showing more care for children and families,” said Kay, who works for the prison service. “And we don’t want to be ruled by Westminster,” she said.
South of the border, where Labour’s main battle for Tory votes is, the party emphasizes moderation and its fiscal credibility. In Scotland the message is very different. Michael Shanks, the Rutherglen Labor candidate, who left the party for a while over his stance on Brexit, has said he is not opposed to being reinstated. He has also said that he will vote against the cap on the benefits of two children. He wants to confirm that he is a leftie. He, like Ms Loudon, laments the high cost of living again.
That may be particularly evident in Rudhglen, which contains some of the poorest areas in Scotland. An unscientific straw poll on Rutherglen’s High Street, where a gothic baronial town hall looms over shady shops, suggests that worries about money trump all other matters. Few expected their vote to be important, however. More than half of the people asked said they had never voted and had no intention of doing so.■
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