This is an expanded and extended version of an article I wrote for The National on Friday.
There’s only really one story in town this weekend in Scottish politics, Labour’s not entirely unexpected win in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by election. There is no denying that the result is a poor one for the SNP and a good one for Labour, but some of the excited coverage of the story in the British media has been risible. On Friday morning Sky News was breathlessly touting a graphic purporting to show that if the result of the by election were to be replicated at the next general election then the Labour party would almost sweep the board in terms of Scottish seats won, taking 42 of the 57 Scottish Westminster seats up for contention with the SNP being reduced to a rump of 6, the same number as the same Sky News graphic predicted for the Tories. The graphic took no account at all of the collapse in the Tory vote recorded in the by election. On Thursday’s showing they’d be erased from the Scottish electoral map.
The graphic was utterly meaningless, serving nothing but propaganda purposes. There was a lot of that in Friday’s reporting of the result. By election results are never replicated at subsequent general elections, particularly a by election in which turn out was as low as the 37.2% reported for Thursday’s election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West. A responsible news provider should have pointed that out. Indeed you might say that a responsible news provider would never have indulged in such a graphic to begin with, far less giving it such prominence and failing to present it with the necessary caveats. It speaks of the desperation of the British media to convince itself that what it perceives as the decade long “threat” of Scottish independence has passed, and that it’s back to British nationalist business as usual. They’re in for a big disappointment.
Naturally BBC Scotland gleefully reported the by election, devoting almost half of Friday evening’s Reporting Scotland to a succession of voices telling us how it was all over for the SNP. You know that BBC Scotland is really getting its teeth into an SNPbad story when it cuts into the airtime it normally allocates to the fitba.
In some respects this was the perfect seat for Labour to contest, having swung back and forth between Labour and the SNP at successive general elections since the SNP tidal wave of 2015. Had a by election been held in an SNP stronghold the result might have been rather different.
It’s important to remember that even the most spectacular by election swings, far exceeding the 20.4% swing to Labour from the SNP achieved on Thursday, are never repeated at subsequent general elections. In 1993 there was a by election in the Dorset constituency of Christchurch. The by election was called following the death of Conservative MP Robert Adley. Then as now the Conservatives had held power at Westminster for many years and there was widespread public anger at a Conservative government which was seen as corrupt, incompetent, and out of touch.
The by election was won by the Lib Dem candidate Diana Maddock who took the seat with a 34.5% swing from the Conservatives. This was largely due to the fact that Conservative supporters largely did not bother to turn out to vote, and Labour supporters voted tactically for the Lib Dem candidate, although it should be noted that voter turn out in this by election was still 74.2%, almost double that recorded in yesterday’s by election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West.
However despite a swing which dwarfed that achieved by Labour’s candidate in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, at the subsequent general election in 1997 the seat was retaken by the Tories who have held it ever since.
The big winner in Thursday’s by election was not the Labour party, it was apathy. Keir Starmer’s Labour party has certainly not sealed the deal with a Scottish electorate which has no great enthusiasm for Starmer’s brand of Blairism on steroids. The Labour vote was boosted by significant tactical voting from the constituency’s not insignificant number of Conservative voters, many of whom are of a distinctly orange persuasion. It’s a sign of how far to the right that the Labour party has moved that they feel so comfortable voting Labour. The Conservative vote collapsed and the Tory candidate Thomas Kerr lost his deposit.
It is unarguable that the SNP failed to motivate independence supporters to turn out and vote for the party. That is the key takeaway from the by election that the SNP will have to address. In part that failure to turn out will have been because independence supporters did not for the most part believe that the outcome of a Westminster by election would have any meaningful impact on progress towards Scottish independence. In part it will have been a reflection of public anger about the irresponsible behaviour of Margaret Ferrier, although it must be said that she has paid a far higher personal and political price for her breach of covid regulations than senior Conservatives have paid for theirs – we’re looking at you Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson. It was also due in no small measure to a barrage of negative SNPbad media stories recently, even greater in number and intensity than we have grown used to, with its murder tents and relentless attention to ferry services even as it ignores Scottish Government success stories such as the Scottish Child Payment and the successful avoidance of strikes in NHS Scotland. Partly there will also have been an element of independence supporters wanting to give the SNP a wake up call in order to get it to refocus on independence.
However the main factor in the SNP’s failure to inspire the pro independence vote to come out and support it must surely be a lack of any public clarity about how independence or a referendum can be achieved in the face of the absolute intransigence of the Labour and Conservative parties to recognise the will of the Scottish public as expressed through the ballot box – except that is when it is a result to the liking of the parties of “we’re not nationalist we’re British.” When people do not believe that their vote will be respected or that they are being offered only a supposed choice between one right wing Brexit supporting British nationalist party and another slightly less right wing Brexit supporting British nationalist party, then they are just not going to bother voting at all, and that is what happened yesterday in Rutherglen and Hamilton West.
Hopefully this result will force the SNP to renew its focus on independence as that is the only way in which it can motivate independence supporters to turn out and vote. A far more muscular and assertive approach is required. The SNP must also reestablish its links with the wider grass roots independence movement. Scotland is not going to win back its independence by asking for it nicely. There is still time before the next general election for the SNP to turn things around. Formulating an independence strategy which can enthuse and motivate a pro independence support base which remains undiminished will be the key task for the SNP over the weeks and months ahead. That strategy needs to be muscular and assertive, refusing to depend on asking Westminster nicely for an independence referendum which it is never going to agree to.
However it’s probably better for the SNP to have received this electoral kicking now, in a by election which is probably a year out from the really crucial vote represented by the general election which is most likely to be held towards the end of next year. That gives the party time to formulate and implement a new strategy more suited to the current political climate. The pro independence vote is still there, but the SNP needs to mobilise it and motivate it to come out and vote.
From 2010 until now the main party of British nationalism in Westminster has been the Conservatives. The SNP is now dealing with a resurgent and increasingly right wing Labour party which is presenting itself as the only party which can get a corrupt, incompetent and increasingly authoritarian Conservative party out of office. This pro-Labour message floods a media which presents the upcoming general election as a Labour-Conservative contest and speaks to an electorate which is desperate to rid itself of the Tories. The SNP needs to establish the message that not only is a vote for the SNP equally effective at unseating the Tories as a vote for Labour, it is also an explicit rejection of the Tory policies which Labour has taken on wholesale.
But above all the SNP needs to establish the message that Starmer’s Labour party is hand in glove with the Tories when it comes to denying the people of Scotland their right to decide the future of Scotland for themselves. The “change” that Labour offers is illusory and is no change at all. It simply represents back to Westminster business as usual, with Scotland being marginalised and ignored. Labour’s false promise of “change” can only enjoy traction while it is in opposition. Once in power its true Blairite and Brexit supporting British nationalism will inevitably be revealed. Any Labour gains in Scotland at the next general election will not breathe fresh life back into British nationalism in Scotland. They will be its death rattle.
Only a vote for the SNP can keep the dream of independence alive. Labour would like nothing more than to crush the SNP and remove the prospect of Scottish independence from the table for the foreseeable future, thus allowing the British nationalist Starmer to pose as the latest incarnation of the Saviour of the Union. But Labour will do nothing to allow Scotland to defend itself from a future Conservative government which will inevitably occur, with a Tory party which by then will fully have espoused the extreme right wing authoritarian populism and espousal of conspiracy theories which was strongly in evidence at the recent Tory party conference. Only independence can protect Scotland from the British nationalist fascism which has taken over the Conservatives and which will one day, sooner or later take the reins of power.
It’s not too late, despite the predictable crowing from the Scottish media and the Labour party, there is still time for the SNP to turn things around. It’s a big challenge, but an achievable one. Westminster was never going to make this easy for us, but Scotland can still take its own destiny into its own hands.
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