Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Keir Starmer Says Labour Will Be "Party Of Change" In Scotland And Across UK

Keir Starmer, Michael Shanks and Anas Sawar (Alamy)

7 min read

Celebrating a landslide Labour by-election victory in Scotland, leader Keir Starmer said the party had changed and would be the "party of change" in Scotland and across the rest of the country.

Labour’s candidate Michael Shanks beat the SNP’s Katy Loudon by 17,845 votes to 8,399 in Rutherglen and Hamilton, and has doubled the number of Labour Westminster seats in Scotland from one to two. The win has boosted Labour’s hopes for the next general election, due to be called before the end of 2024, as they look to replicate this success across other seats in Scotland.

Addressing campaigners in the constituency on Friday morning, Starmer said the win was an important step towards a general election victory.

"[People] saw not so long ago a Labour Party that drifted away from them," he said.

"We have changed and because we've changed, we are now the party of change here in Scotland, we are the party of change in Britain, we are the party of change right across the whole country."

"There's much more work to do. This is a first step on a very, very important journey for all of us in Scotland, for all of us across the whole of the United Kingdom," he continued.

"We get the chance now to lay out our positive case for change when we go to our conference in Liverpool."

Starmer called the recent Conservative Party conference in Manchester a "circus", describing Tory MPs and cabinet ministers as "jostling for the prime minister's job" and "tangoing with Nigel Farage". 

Labour campaigners hope that the result indicates more seats across Scotland could be open to the party than previously expected. 

Many had been optimistic about the prospect of a win, given previous SNP MP Margaret Ferrier’s majority of around 5,000, and had Labour not won, some would have been questioning the party’s prospects in Scotland overall with an election expected in 2024. But the size of the swing on Thursday was a surprise and seats that were not previously considered to be in play can now be looked at as prospects for the party.

New MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton, Michael Shanks, said the result showed people were "fed up" with both the governments in Westminster and Scotland's devolved seat in Holyrood.

"It's been the honour of my life to talk to all those people, to get to know them, to find out from them what they want their MP to fight for," he said.

"This result shows not only that people are fed up with two governments that are distracted, out of touch, but also that they're ready for change, people wanted a fresh start."

He said change would be "coming across the whole of the United Kingdom".

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sawar praised Starmer for his work to "change our Labour Party in a short space of time".

"In truth this is not a result that is weeks or months in the making, it is years in the making," he said.

The Scottish Labour leader added that a few years ago, "people were talking about Scottish Labour's survival, not revival", but claimed the swing of more than 20 per cent in this by-election towards Labour showed "Scotland will lead the way in delivering a UK Labour government".

"The morally bankrupt Conservatives are only appealing to their hardcore base, the incompetent and out of touch SNP is only appealing to their hardcore base," he continued. 

"It's only Labour that's saying let's pull our country together and let's deliver that transformative change for every part of our country."

Labour MPs agreed that this by-election win is a "good sign" for the party's electoral prospects, although many are cautioning that it should not mean the party should become complacent and take a general election victory for granted.

“As far as I can see, it's a really good sign," Labour MP Charlotte Nichols said. 

"The best way for Labour to get in nationally, is making inroads in Scotland, and this is obviously a seat that has gone backwards and forwards between SNP and Labour.

"If this is the kind of swing that we can expect to see in other parts of Scotland as well, it makes the prospect of a labour majority look that much closer.”

A shadow minister told PoliticsHome the by-election victory was a huge result in Scotland that changes the "political weather" and claimed it would be of "generational significance".

Another shadow minister said the result had lighted up a few WhatsApp groups among Labour MPs. They felt Labour's victory came at the perfect time ahead of conference, allowing the leadership to arrive in Liverpool on a strong, positive note.

However, a third shadow minister insisted that while it was a huge result for the party, they should not be complacent and still had a lot of work to do.

Backbench Labour MP Alex Sobel described it as a "huge result" but warned that going into conference, the party would have to back up its claim of being a "party of change" with a "really big, bold set of change policies".

"So let's see if we get those a conference, because we're not we're not quite reaching that bar now," he said.

"We've not quite reached the bar where we can expect to maximise our vote and maximise our seats. If we're going to be the largest party in Scotland and have a majority in the whole of the country, we need to not just have a message of change, we need the change policies, and we’re not there, we're on the journey.”

In Rutherglen and Hamilton, the SNP vote share collapsed by 16.6 per cent compared to the 2019 general election, while the Conservatives saw their vote share decrease by 11.1 per cent. 

One senior SNP MP claimed the result was not "as big as [Labour] are making out" and accused Labour of not offering much difference from the Tories. 

“I don’t think this Labour result is as big as they’re making out," they told PoliticsHome. 

"I think it’s fair to let them have their celebrations for today, but when I’m out on the doorstep they can tell there’s not much difference in what the Tories and Labour are offering.

"Folk in Scotland know the Labour Party’s policies are geared towards England.

"As a political party we now need to have conversations and need to look at what we can do to make our voters come out.”

Although the Liberal Democrats were not among the leading contenders in this by-election – with only 2.9 per cent of the vote – the result could nonetheless have implications for their strategy in Scotland as well as Labour's.

Deputy leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats Wendy Chamberlain told PoliticsHome the swing away from the SNP and Tories was significant, but that the Lib Dems would continue to aim towards "rebuilding" their support base in Scotland.

"It certainly was quite the swing. We are pleased that we were fourth ahead of the Greens," she said. 

"We are definitely reviewing our plans but our strategy looking to next Holyrood and Council elections for rebuilding remains."

Another Scottish Liberal Democrat MP, Jamie Stone, said that in seats that used to be Liberal Democrat, there was a "parallel reflection" of Labour's experience in Rutherglen.

He argued that frustration towards the Tories and anger at the SNP could mean that a number of seats in Scotland could be back in play for the Lib Dems with a possible "return to old geographic loyalties".

Rutherglen and Hamilton was the first by-election of a series of contests taking this place this autumn: voters in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire will head to the polls on 19 October, and Labour are hoping they can secure victories in both by unseating the Conservatives.

Labour MP Barry Gardiner told PoliticsHome the Rutherglen result has set a "wonderful tone" going into conference and into the other by-elections.

Additional reporting by Tom Scotson, Nadine Batchelor-Hunt and Caitlin Doherty

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