By Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s opposition Labour Party won a bigger-than-expected victory in an election for a parliamentary seat in Scotland on Friday, raising expectations they can unseat Scottish nationalists and go on to win a UK-wide vote expected next year.
Labour is leading Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party in national opinion polls, but will likely need to regain much of the ground lost to the Scottish National Party in Scotland over the last decade if it is to return to government in Westminster after a 13-year absence.
“This is a seismic result. People in Rutherglen and Hamilton West have sent a clear message – it is time for change. And it is clear they believe that this changed Labour Party can deliver it,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a statement.
The by-election for an area on the outskirts of Glasgow was called after lawmaker Margaret Ferrier was stripped of her seat in London’s parliament for breaking COVID-19 rules.
Labour candidate Michael Shanks received 17,845 votes, beating the second-placed SNP candidate Katy Loudon, who got 8,399 votes, and marking a swing to Labour from the SNP of 20%.
John Curtice, Britain’s most prominent pollster, said it was a “remarkable result” for the Labour party, which comes on the eve of its annual conference next week.
“By-elections swings on this scale are the kind of swings that, historically at least, oppositions have secured when they’re going to go on to win the next general election,” he told BBC Radio.
“If Keir Starmer can start winning seats in Scotland his chances of getting an overall majority and avoiding a hung parliament increase quite significantly.”
Ferrier was one of a wave of SNP politicians who swept Labour from its one-time Scottish stronghold in 2015.
She tested positive for COVID in September 2020 after speaking in Britain’s House of Commons. Instead of isolating as was mandatory at the time, she took a train more than 400 miles back to Scotland.
Ferrier was suspended from her party and had since been sitting as an independent before she was removed by a petition of her constituents in August.
SNP leader Humza Yousaf said it was a “disappointing night”, adding that the “circumstances of this by-election were always very difficult for us” in reference to Ferrier’s conduct.
Labour will hope the result marks the start of a political comeback in Scotland.
It lost all but one of its Scottish seats in 2015 to the SNP as the nationalists retained support of pro-independence voters in the aftermath of a 2014 referendum where Scots voted to stay part of the United Kingdom by 55% to 45%.
After Labour retook Rutherglen and Hamilton West with an improved showing in Scotland in 2017, the party again lost all but one Scottish seat in 2019. The SNP had won the Rutherglen and Hamilton West seat with a majority of 5,230 in 2019.
Polls show Labour could draw level with the SNP or even win the most seats in Scotland for the first time since 2010 after the resignation of long-time SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and a police probe into the party’s finances.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout; additional writing by Kate Holton; Editing by Jamie Freed, Michael Perry and Toby Chopra)