The first by-election in Scotland since the SNP’s change of leadership is a huge test for First Minister Humza Yousaf. If the nationalists lose the seat of Rutherglen and Hamilton West, made vacant when constituents recalled their MP Margaret Ferrier after she broke Covid rules, Yousaf will face difficult questions about his party’s direction of travel.
Unlike his predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon — who dominated her party and enjoyed the support of the vast majority of its members — the current First Minister firmly divides opinion among the SNP rank and file. In this year’s leadership election, he barely scraped together enough support to ensure victory and almost half of SNP members preferred other candidates. The loss of Rutherglen and Hamilton West will surely convince them that they were right not to think him up to the job.
But if the stakes are high for the SNP leader, they are higher still for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Scottish leader Anas Sarwar. Long before voters in the north of England and the Midlands abandoned Labour, the first ‘red wall’ to fall was Scotland. In the 2015 general election, Labour lost 40 seats to hold on to just one — that belonging to the shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray. Now, the party seems to be back in the game after recent polling from Panelbase for the Sunday Times suggests Labour is on course to overtake the SNP in Scotland at the next general election. Crucially, Labour’s apparent revival in Scotland has undermined the SNP’s message that only it can ‘protect’ Scots from Tory governments they do not support. A vote for Labour cannot easily be dismissed as a vote wasted.
The coming by-election will move things on from the theoretical; it is crucial for Labour not only that it wins but that it does so handsomely.