Rutherglen by-election: crucial test for Labour - result will set mood for general election
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This week's Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election is a hugely significant test ahead of the next general election, which some pundits now think could come sooner than expected.
One commentator described the contest as the most important UK by-election for decades. The outcome will show whether Labour really is on the way back in Scotland or not – and that is crucial in helping determine whether Sir Keir Starmer becomes prime minister.
Labour are the favourites to win in Rutherglen – it only needs a five per cent swing and the national polls have been showing the party with a UK lead of around 20 points. So the size of the majority matters. A narrow win would be seen as falling short of expectations and interpreted as a sign that Labour's hopes of a general election triumph could yet be dashed. A big majority would be a signal that the party's long-awaited revival in Scotland is under way and Labour's chances of forming the next government at Westminster are indeed promising.
Rutherglen is Scotland's first "recall" by-election and follows former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier's breaching Covid rules in September 2020 by taking a train from London to Scotland despite knowing she had the virus. Nearly 12,000 constituents signed the petition to remove her from office. Keir Starmer and other leading Labour figures have been up to join the by-election campaign.
In July, the Tories lost Selby and Ainsty to Labour and Somerton and Frome to the Lib Dems, but managed to hold on to Boris Johnson's former Uxbridge seat which Labour had hoped to take. That Conservative win was attributed to public anger over London's Ultra Low Emission Zone and prompted Rishi Sunak to row back on net zero policies, postponing the deadline for ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and slowing the phasing-out of new gas boilers.
And since then Mr Sunak has also taken an outspoken stance against 20mph limits and low traffic neighbourhoods, leading to speculation that instead of holding the general election in autumn next year he could be planning it for the spring or even sooner.
After Rutherglen, the Tories face further potential losses in a couple of weeks at two more by-elections in Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire. These, too, will be important tests for Labour, but the Tories have big majorities in both seats so the expectations on Labour are nothing like as high as in Rutherglen. Labour lost the seat in 2015, won it back in 2017 and lost it again at the last election. Margaret Ferrier’s Covid rule-breaking and the SNP’s recent troubles do nothing to help the SNP’s chances.
Of course, one by-election is not a guarantee of what will happen at the general election. But the Rutherglen result will help set the political mood in the run-up.
The last time there was a by-election in Rutherglen was May 1964. Then, too, a general election was looming and a long-standing Conservative government looked as if it was on its way out, but was managing to hold on in some by-elections. Labour won Rutherglen from the Tories with a 3,747 majority. Five months later Harold Wilson walked into Number Ten as prime minister.