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Why Starmer’s landslide by-election victory is such a big deal

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaks to the media at a rally following Scottish Labour's win in Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election. Picture date: Friday October 6, 2023. (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)
Sir Keir Starmer speaks to reporters at a rally following Labour's win in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election. (PA Images via Getty Images)

What's happening? Labour has won the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, and leader Sir Keir Starmer sounds confident he will be the next prime minister.

Labour candidate Michael Shanks won the seat, which is in the west of Scotland, with more than twice the votes (17,845) of his closest rival, the SNP’s Katy Loudon (8,399).

The 20% swing of votes to Labour from the SNP was markedly higher than expected, with Starmer hailing the result as “seismic” and a “big step in the right direction” on his path to Number 10.

At a rally in the constituency on Friday, Starmer was in a bullish mood, saying his party “blew the doors off” in the contest.

The next general election must be held in January 2025 at the latest. Here, Yahoo News UK looks at why the Rutherglen and Hamilton West result is so important in the context of the national vote.

Has the tide turned in Scotland?

Labour once enjoyed strong support in Scotland. As recently as 2010 - the election which ended the party's 13 years in office - it sent more than 40 MPs from Scotland to Westminster.

But its representation collapsed after the independence referendum in 2014, and it was all but wiped out in in 2019, managing to hold just one seat of Scotland’s 59 seats in the House of Commons.

The Rutherglen and Hamilton West result means Labour still only has two MPs in Scotland, meaning there is a vast amount of ground to make up.

Even so, its victory is seen as a change in the Scottish political weather. Rutherglen and Hamilton West is viewed as representative of the central Scotland constituencies which were once Labour heartlands before being won by the SNP.

The SNP's fortunes appear to be going the opposite way. Its poll ratings have declined in the wake of the ongoing police investigation into the party's finances. Its leader Humza Yousaf has failed to convince. And even after controlling the Scottish Parliament since 2007, the SNP's ultimate objective of Scottish independence is appearing an ever more distant prospect.

What does this all mean for Starmer?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaks to the media at a rally following Scottish Labour's win in Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election. Picture date: Friday October 6, 2023. (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)
Sir Keir Starmer in Rutherglen and Hamilton West on Friday. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Prof Sir John Curtice, the prominent polling expert, has suggested it’s very good news for Starmer.

He told PA: “This result very firmly confirms the direction of travel indicated by the polls [the latest YouGov voting intention tracker has Starmer’s party leading on 45%, with the ruling Conservatives second on 24%] and that Labour do pose a serious challenge to the SNP’s continued dominance at Westminster.

“That potentially has implications for the overall outcome in the general election because if that were to happen, they would find it easier to get an overall majority.”

After Rutherglen and Hamilton West and Selby - where in June Labour overturned the Tory majority of over 20,000 - Prof Curtice said these are “kind of results that you see in advance of general elections when parties are on course to win.

“Obviously, 12 months to go and all the rest of it, but I think one has to say that not only now are Labour clearly posing a serious, serious threat to the continuation of a deeply unpopular Conservative government south of the border, but they are now also posing a threat to a relatively unpopular - at least by its historical standards - SNP government north of the border.”

But...

TOPSHOT - Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addresses delegates at the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, northern England, on October 4, 2023. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak's Tories have a majority of 63 in the House of Commons. (AFP via Getty Images)

There are notes of caution.

First of all, Rutherglen and Hamilton West was hardly a safe SNP seat: it has changed hands with Labour four times since 2010.

Turnout was also low. At 37.2% (30,531 votes cast) it was well below the 66.5% turnout in the 2019 general election.

And in Scotland, Labour has been helped by headlines on the police probe into the SNP’s finances, as well as the chain of events which led to the by-election in the first place.

It was called after a recall petition against Margaret Ferrier, who won the seat for the SNP in 2019. She was the MP who famously broke COVID lockdown rules in 2020. Even though she had the SNP whip removed, was the party nonetheless tainted by association?

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak's personal ratings have improved in the wake of this week's Tory conference: up 3% to 25%, compared to Starmer on 34%. This is something to consider given the Tories are said to be planning a "presidential" campaign centring around Sunak.

Finally, following its 2019 disaster, there is also the simple fact Labour needs to win scores of seats in order to win a majority at the next election.

According to the Institute for Government, it currently has 196 "active" MPs (i.e. not suspended) with 320 needed to have a working majority. The Conservatives have 351 MPs and a majority of 63.

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