A key indicator of Labour's General Election hopes
First big test for Humza Yousaf
Labour's target should be a 10% victory
When Labour were last in government, they held 41 out of the 59 seats in Scotland. When they lost power in 2010, they retained that number. In the current Parliament, they hold just one. Naturally, any plans to regain power involve improving considerably on that and, on Thursday, they face a key test of whether they are indeed making that progress.
Labour spinners are claiming the Rutherglen and Hamilton West By-Election is by far the most important of October's three such contests. That is probably explained by their implied chance of winning each one. According to the latest Betfair exchange odds of 1.061/18, that chance stands at 95%, compared to 74% in Tamworth and 45% in Mid Bedfordshire.
Must-win seat if Labour expect a majority
Expectations management aside, this is a key indicator of whether Labour are on course to win an Overall Majority. Whilst odds-on at 1.564/7, that target remains a big ask given the scale of their deficit and historic trends.
Unlike in England, where they face a Conservative Party at rock-bottom, beset by ongoing disasters, here Labour must usurp the SNP.
They too have endured a miserable period of scandal, a divisive leadership change and are suffering from the problems associated with being in government for a long time, but they are not trailing Labour by double-digits nationally.
National swing implies a Labour gain
Far from it. The latest Yougov poll shows SNP ahead by 11%. That does represent a 7.7% swing since the 2019 General Election, whereas they require only a 4.9% swing to take this seat.
SNP continue to dominate the Nationalist vote, while the Unionist vote remains split between Labour and the Conservatives. That is another reason why winning this is essential for Labour. They need to demonstrate they are the stronger Unionist party, as the Tories did at recent elections, with a view towards picking up the tactical swaps that have become commonplace since the independence referendum.
This by-election was called after MP Margaret Ferrier was suspended for breaching Covid rules, prompting a successful recall petition. The saga dragged on for ages, so will presumably have been big news in the constituency.
To be frank, anything less than a Labour gain would be a disaster for Keir Starmer. Rutherglen and Hamilton West is their fourth easiest target in Scotland, and was won as recently as 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Since then the SNP have lost a very popular leader and by general consensus, gone backwards.
Internal SNP division could prove costly
Furthermore, regardless of what happens at the general election, this feels like a really bad time for the SNP to be defending a by-election, where turnout and boots on the ground are critical. Usually they have a fearsome ground game but that may not be the case right now.
The party is damaged by a very public police probe into Nicola Sturgeon, her partner and the party's finances. Following her resignation, the leadership election was bitterly divisive, revealing a stark ideological split amongst the grassroots. There are several selection battles ongoing across the country.
Consequently, this by-election will be portrayed as a judgement on Humza Yousaf's leadership. His internal opponents have no incentive to campaign, and there have indeed been multiple reports of MSPs staying away. The party are apparently paying activists to knock on doors.
It is also worth recalling SNP fortunes prior to this remarkably successful period over the past nine years since the independence referendum, under Sturgeon's leadership. They had a chronic problem with Westminster races, for the logical reason that many of their supporters didn't want any part of the UK parliament.
Those dynamics may well resurface now the wind has gone out of their sails and the cause for independence seems a distant dream.
Demographics point to two-horse race
This particular constituency will always be a Lab/SNP fight. As always refer to the very useful indicators at Electoral Calculus. Out of 650 constituencies, this ranks 576th for 'Leave', 638th for 'Economic Right', 557th for 'National' and 569th for 'Social Conservative'.
In other words, about as left-wing and unsuitable for the Tories as any seat in the UK.
It is more deprived and has lower education levels than the Scottish average (and well below UK-wide averages). It is 97% white and, at 63%, has a much higher percentage of identified Christians than the Scottish average.
By all accounts and unsurprisingly, the cost of living has been the big issue on the doorstep. The Guardian report that Angela Rayner's 'New Deal for Working People' has been the centrepiece of Labour's campaign. A signal that Labour are wising up in terms of tailoring their strategy to constituency specifics.
Labour's confidence is a key signal
One would think they would gain the seat given the circumstances but the big giveaway is that they are allowing their confidence to seep into news reports. The last time that happened was Selby and Ainsty by-election and they duly landed one of their best ever results.
Assuming they do land these short odds, the narrative to emerge will revolve around the size of victory - 10% or higher will be deemed a success, 5% or less a disappointment.
Ten per cent sounds about right. From 2010 onwards, the two main parties have won at least 75% between them and in 2015 that figure was 88%. I reckon SNP will struggle to hit 35% and that there will be some swing from CON-LAB. If 1.7 becomes available in our Labour Vote Share market about 42.5% or higher, take it.
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