Scottish Cabinet meeting in Inveraray Scottish Cabinet meeting in Inveraray. Photo: Scottish Government / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED

Chris Bambery assesses the state of politics and the independence movement in Scotland after the Rutherglen and Hamilton West byelection

The Scottish National Party suffered a humiliating defeat in Thursday’s by election for the Westminster seat of Rutherglen and Hamilton West. Labour won it with 17,845 votes: more than double the number polled by the SNP. The result was a swing of 20.4% from the SNP to Labour. Turnout for the vote was 37.19%, a major fall from the 66.5% recorded at the last general election.

Evidence suggests that working class pro-independence voters sat on their hands in a seat which stretches from South East Glasgow, through the former industrial town of Cambuslang to the old coalfields of Lanarkshire. The Tories lost their deposit, with their vote falling by 11%, and they were quick to claim that pro-unionists were tactically voting for the best placed pro-Union candidate. That has become a feature of Scottish elections.

Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said it was a ‘seismic’ victory for his party. He failed to say that it had won the seat at the 2017 UK General Election under Jeremy Corbyn, and that before the SNP took it in 2015, off the back of the independence referendum, it had been a safe Labour seat, one taken for granted by Labour.

For the SNP leader, Humza Yousaf, it was the first electoral test he had faced since succeeding Nicola Sturgeon. He was both the continuity candidate, continuing to champion Sturgeon’s record as First Minister, but also a stop gap. Many senior party figures did not fancy stepping into Sturgeon’s shoes after first her husband, Peter Murrell was arrested, then she herself, over some £600,000 supposedly ring fenced for spending in a second independence referendum campaign, but which has seemingly vanished.

Sturgeon’s legacy

For many on the left and liberal side of the electoral spectrum outside Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, prior to her arrest, had seemed a breath of fresh air, especially when contrasted to Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. She was deemed to have had a ‘good’ pandemic, despite the scandalously high number of deaths of Covid-infected pensioners released from hospitals back into privatised care homes.

In fact, Sturgeon was a remarkably cautious political leader who maintained the Potemkin Village image of the SNP as a social-democratic party, while pursuing standard neoliberal policies. Time and time again she would assure her members and pro-independence supporters that she was about to launch a major initiative to win a new independence referendum. Time after time, they were left feeling like the Grand Old Duke of York’s troops, after being marched to the top of the hill and then back down again.

She insisted on taking a case asserting the right of the Scottish Parliament to initiate a referendum without the approval of Westminster, even having been advised it would lose. Which it did. Meanwhile, she and the party leadership, including Yousaf, believed that their priority was to demonstrate to big business, Europe and Washington that they were best suited to run Scotland in the interests of global capitalism. Increasingly Sturgeon was seen to pitch the People’s Referendum campaign, for a revote on Brexit, over independence.

The SNP has been in government in Scotland since 2007. It delivered some significant reforms at the outset, but that now seems a long time ago. The Yes vote in 2014 was strongly rooted in the working class because they saw it as a means to achieve real changes.

In February 2022, official statistics showed that in 2019-20 there were 3,741 children in relative low income and 3,082 children in absolute low income in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, before housing costs.

Darren McGarvey pointed out:

‘Poor health and poverty are also embedded across this part of the country. Three years ago, South Lanarkshire Council published public health statistics that didn’t make comfortable reading: two in three people were deemed overweight. One in three was obese. Just 19% of babies were exclusively breastfed — significantly lower than the Scottish average of 27% — and around 20% of children lived in poverty. Out of a population of over 300,000, 41,000 were income-deprived. And the poorest residents of Rutherglen and Cambuslang — two areas which fall within this well-publicised contest – were, at that time, regarded as among the unhealthiest in Scotland.’

When the SNP made its first electoral breakthrough in 2007, forming a minority Scottish government, it could blame such dreadful facts on both the Tories and Labour, who had monopolised working-class seats for decades.

After sixteen years in office, that no longer washes. The SNP tried to shift left in the by-election campaign focusing on Labour’s support for the Tory Two-Child Cap for those on benefits. This affected 1620 children in the constituency; 320 were ruled not eligible for Universal Credit and 180 were considered ineligible for child tax credits. But the truth is it was too little, too late.

Scotland needs real change

It won’t just be Starmer who is celebrating as he enters next week’s party conference. Many on the left will be believing this is a return to normal ‘class politics’, with the national question put behind us for good. Starmer told Labour’s victory rally:

‘… we’ve changed, we are now the party of the change here in Scotland, we’re the party of change in Britain, the party of change right across the whole country.’

But working-class voters in Scotland, as elsewhere, want real change to improve increasingly miserable lives. Starmer is determined to reassure the board rooms, the City of London and the great and the good that he is a safe pair of hands.

Writing in Holyrood magazine hours after the result came through, James Mitchell, one of the sharpest critics of the current SNP, wrote concerning the mood under Starmer with that under Tony Blair nearly four decades ago:

‘Labour should contrast the mood today with that in the lead-up to 1997. The sense of Tory decline is clear but where is the excitement, the enthusiasm, the expectation of real change that pervaded the political atmosphere quarter of a century ago? New Labour offered a mixture of reassuring caution with the promise of radical change.’

It’s a fascinating argument. It was the reality of New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, from 1997 until 2010, that saw Scottish voters shift from supporting devolution, seen as a shield from the worst of Tory rule at Westminster, to backing independence. New Labour were too right wing for their tastes.

But as Mitchell said, New Labour did bring some changes: devolution in Scotland and Wales, Sure Start, reform of the House of Lords and a bit more. I don’t want to over egg it, but as the results came through in 1997 and it became apparent Blair had won a landslide, there was a sense of euphoria.  A common question was ‘were you still up for Portillo’; meaning were you still awake when a Tory Cabinet Minister and leadership contender lost his seat.

Leaving aside the never-ending decline of the UK state and economy, which created the rebirth of the national question in Scotland, if discontent grows with Starmer in office, the SNP are in place to offer themselves as a more left alternative. That requires sorting out a party in which internal democracy has been hollowed out, where continuity with Sturgeon is not possible, and Yousaf either needs to shift direction or go.

Meanwhile, polls show support for independence is at 50% plus, despite the SNP’s travails. That suggests the potential for a grassroots, pro-independence movement like the Catalan National Assembly. Scotland is crying out for that.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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