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Labour Is Braced For The Prospect Of A “Game-Changer” By-Election In Scotland

Sir Keir Starmer has been to visit Labour's Scottish leader Anas Sarwar three times in recent weeks as the party targets winning back 20 seats from the SNP (Alamy)

4 min read

A Scottish by-election that could be triggered by standards committee sanctions against MP Margaret Ferrier would be a "game-changer" for Labour, according to the party's only Westminster MP in the country.

On Thursday, parliament's committee on standards recommended a 30-day suspension for Ferrier who travelled across the country by train with Covid during the tightest lockdown restrictions in 2020. She currently sits as an independent MP for Rutherglen and West Hamilton having lost the SNP whip over the incident. 

If MPs vote to approve the proposed Commons suspension, it could trigger a recall petition, and if 10 per cent of constituents in that seat ask for one, there will be a by-election. 

Labour's Shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray told PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown that any such snap poll would act as a significant bellweather on the party's renewed fortunes north of the border, and believed the party's recovery in Scotland would be key to an overall victory at Westminster.

A by-election would also test Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar’s popularity against new SNP leader and First Minister Humza Yousaf, as well as taking the temperature on Keir Starmer’s popularity as national leader.

“For every percentage point that we put on now, and we take from the SNP and get them into the 30s, the number of seats rises quite considerably," Murray explained. 

“That makes a huge difference across the UK, because if we can get to the magic number of 20 seats, the gap that is required between Labour and the Conservatives across the UK goes from 15 points to nine.

"That's a game changer mathematically to put Keir Starmer into No 10.”

Murray acknowledged that the stakes weren't just high for Labour. “It's a huge electoral test for all parties, actually. Everyone will be relishing it as well as dreading it.”

In 2019, Ferrier took back the seat for the SNP from Labour with a majority of 5,230, having been the MP between 2015 and 2017.

An uptick in polling for Labour has seen hopes rise they can win back up to 20 seats in the country’s so-called ‘central belt’ running between Glasgow and Edinburgh at the next election, having been reduced back to just a single MP in Scotland in 2019. 

Leading pollster Professor Sir John Curtice told PoliticsHome if Labour is to “convince us that they could possibly win the 20 seats that they've been talking about” in Scotland, following the departure of Yousaf's predeccesor this month – the hugely popular Nicola Sturgeon – then they “have to win this by-election”.

Ian Murray
Labour's shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray (Alamy)

“It's a 10 per cent majority for the SNP over Labour, so even if the SNP were to hold their share of the vote in [Ferrier's constituency], but Labour were to register the 11 point increase in support that they currently are in the opinion polls as compared with 2019, Labour would still pick the seat up,” the professor of politics at Strathclyde University explained.

Curtice said Labour would enter any by-election as favourites, but warned against complacency, with consistent poll leads having recently tightened slightly. 

"There are beginning to be signs in the GB-wide polling that Labour's numbers are beginning to come down a little," he continued. 

“The Labour lead over the Conservatives in the GB-wide polling is not quite what it was, it’s now below the 20 point mark.

“We will wait and see what the more recent polling in Scotland says about this, so that might make it a wee bit more difficult for Labour in Rutherglen.

“But if Labour are going to convince anybody that they're going to potentially at least begin to have at least some serious representation in Scotland, then this is a by-election they should win.”

 

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