OPINION - The strange rebirth of Scottish Labour

Labour’s win in Rutherglen and Hamilton West has been described as ‘seismic’ by Sir Keir Starmer (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Wire)
Labour’s win in Rutherglen and Hamilton West has been described as ‘seismic’ by Sir Keir Starmer (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Wire)

To understand the Labour Party, you first have to understand the importance of Scottish Labour. From Keir Hardie to John Smith, Ramsay MacDonald to Gordon Brown, Scotland runs to the very core of the labour movement. For goodness sake, even Tony Blair was born in Edinburgh.

The party is so Scottish that, although it was founded in 1900, it took six leaders and 21 years before John R. Clynes became the first Labour leader to have been born in England. As a result, its collapse in Scotland in recent years has created not just an electoral nuisance, but a deep psychological bruise.

Since its formation, Labour has historically dominated north of the border. Between 1958 and 2010, the party won at least 38 seats in Scotland at general elections. Its dominance ensured Labour remained a going Parliamentary concern during the 1980s, while in 2005 it helped deliver Blair’s 66-seat majority on just 35.2 per cent of the national vote.

There have been exceptions, of course. 1955 saw the Unionists plus the National Liberals and Conservatives (it’s complicated) secure more than 50 per cent of the Scottish vote. While the SNP has dominated the last fifteen years or so in both Westminster and Holyrood. But the status quo may be finally reasserting itself.

Last night, Scottish Labour won the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election on a swing of more than 20 per cent. If replicated at a general election, this would see the party win roughly 40 seats in Scotland. While this wouldn’t deprive the Tories of much, given that they have only six MPs in Scotland, it would, crucially, slash the 13-point lead Labour needs for an overall majority by five or six, according to Professor Sir John Curtice. Now that is seismic.

Some health warnings at this point. If by-elections were a perfect predictor of general election results, we would be living in a one-party, Liberal Democrat state. Moreover, this by-election was called for somewhat unusual reasons, in that the previous SNP MP, Margaret Ferrier, had the whip removed after breaching Covid-19 rules back in 2020. Nonetheless, this result is further confirmation that the polls are broadly correct and Keir Starmer is set to be the next prime minister.

A final thought: politics is dynamic. Had Ed Miliband in 2015 been on course to secure Labour’s ‘normal’ seat haul in Scotland, that would have been good news for obvious reasons: 40 more seats. But the Labour collapse and the SNP’s rise also cost Miliband votes in England, where the SNP doesn’t even stand candidates.

That is because the Conservatives successfully convinced voters down south that a Labour government would be in hock to Nicola Sturgeon (remember this advert?) This fed on itself. Because at the same time, Miliband’s poor showing in the polls in England meant that wavering voters in Scotland didn’t back Labour as a means to kick the Tories out.

Labour retaking Scotland, perhaps not 40 seats but closer 20, is that rare beast in politics – a genuine game changer, something worth even more than a couple dozen MPs.

In the comment pages, Tracey Emin says she’s finally happy to take her work to America – and the just-opened White Cube New York. I complain (as per) that football used to be pure escapism, but now all the world’s problems can be found there too. While Culture Editor Nancy Durrant speaks out on the real problem in publishing.

And finally, if you’re reading this and you’re not a high-speed rail line, congratulations – you survived Conservative Party Conference. Diary Editor Robbie Griffiths brings you the best gossip (and worst dancing) from Manchester.

Have a lovely weekend.

This article appears in our newsletter, West End Final – delivered 4pm daily – bringing you the very best of the paper, from culture and comment to features and sport. Sign up here.