Labour wins Rutherglen by-election in boost for election hopes

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The Labour party has won almost 59 per cent of the vote in a by-election in Scotland, a result that exceeded the opposition’s own expectations and buoyed hopes for Sir Keir Starmer’s party to prevail in the UK’s general election next year.

Michael Shanks took 17,845 votes, or 58.6 per cent, in Thursday’s election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, achieving a 20 percentage point swing that will boost confidence that Labour can end the dominance of the crisis-hit Scottish National party north of the border.

“This seismic result shows Scotland, like the entire UK, is crying out for change,” said Anas Sarwar, leader of Scottish Labour.

The pro-independence SNP’s Katy Loudon got 8,399 votes, or 27.6 per cent, in a seat that the party won by more than 5,000 votes in 2019. The Conservatives’ share collapsed to 3.9 per cent. Turnout was 37.2 per cent.

The margin of Labour’s victory, which was sparked by the ousting of former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier for breaking Covid-19 rules in 2020, is a big boost for Starmer ahead of the Labour party conference on Sunday, when he will seek to portray himself as a prime minister in waiting.

Starmer said the result represented a “clear message” from voters. “I have always said that winning back the trust of people in Scotland is essential,” he said. “Tonight’s victory is the culmination of three and a half years of hard work and humility on that journey.

Sir John Curtice, leading pollster and professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said that if the party’s performance was replicated across Scotland in a general election, Labour could win 42 seats north of the border, having dropped to just one before its victory on Thursday.

“The Labour party will be able to justifiably claim that this is the kind of result that suggests that [it] is potentially capable of winning seats again in Scotland,” Curtice said.

The outcome is a big blow for the SNP and its leader Humza Yousaf, whose time in office has been dominated by a struggle to stabilise a party assailed by divisions and an escalating police investigation into its finances since the resignation of his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon in March.

Yousaf said the “circumstances of this by-election were always very difficult” for his party and pledged to “reflect” on what it needed to do to regain voters’ trust in Rutherglen and Hamilton West. “We lost this seat in 2017, and like 2019 we can win this seat back,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Labour was heavily backed in betting markets to retake Rutherglen and Hamilton West given the crisis in the SNP and voters’ anger at the actions of its former MP. But the scale of the victory was a surprise, Curtice said.

Labour previously indicated that it hoped to win more than 20 Scottish Westminster seats next year, which would boost its chances of defeating Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives.

Labour held a majority of Westminster seats in Scotland until 2015, when its share of the vote collapsed after an independence referendum held the previous year. While Scots voted in favour of staying in the UK, the result galvanised independence voters under the banner of the SNP, which has dominated Scottish politics since.

Thursday’s outcome means Yousaf faces a difficult conference when his party members gather in Aberdeen next week. The party last month suspended veteran MSP Fergus Ewing, an outspoken critic of its co-operation agreement with the Scottish Greens.

Turmoil in the party deepened after Sturgeon, Peter Murrell, the party’s former chief executive, who is also her husband, and its former treasurer, Colin Beattie, were arrested this year as part of a police probe into the SNP’s finances.

All three were released without charge pending further investigation. Sturgeon has denied any wrongdoing.