Are by-elections important indicators of a political turning point?

By-elections are important. This week’s three are definitely important for Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer as they sniff the wind ahead of the general election.

They are important to MEPs as they weigh the fate of their seats and their careers.

And they’re important for MSPs as they try to calculate what this means for Holyrood in 2026.

The importance of by-elections is, of course, often exaggerated.

Of the 520 detained for Westminster since 1945, few are known to be real political turning points. Many are notorious for their vile campaigning. But they really count. After Winnie Ewing died last month at the age of 92, every obituary drew attention to her staggering victory over Labor in the Hamilton by-election in 1967.

It showed Labor was vulnerable in its core regions, heralded further SNP successes in the 1970s and confirmed the arrival of a major political figure.

“We can safely say that this woman changed Scottish history,” as Alex Salmond later put it.

The SNP’s by-election victories in Glasgow Govan in 1973 and 1988 also saw key players appointed by voters, as first Margo MacDonald and then Jim Sillars ousted Labour.

When Roseanna Cunningham defeated the Tories in Perth & Kinross in 1995, it heralded a crisis for the government. Two years later, the Tories were wiped out north of the border.

The SNP’s John Mason also won the Glasgow East by-election in 2005 against Labour. Two years later Labor lost at Holyrood and Mr Salmond became First Minister.

And when the Tories beat Labor in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election in 2008, it was the first such win in 26 years. Two years later, David Cameron was at Downing Street.

HeraldScotland: Roseanna Cunningham won the Perth & Kinross by-election ahead of the Tories in 1995 – two years later the Tories were wiped out north of the borderRoseanna Cunningham won the Perth & Kinross by-election ahead of the Tories in 1995 – two years later the Tories were wiped out north of the border (Image: Newsquest)

But by-elections can also be false hope. Ms Ewing was the SNP’s second MEP, not her first.

This award belongs to Dr. Robert McIntyre, who won the Motherwell by-election in 1945 and then lost the seat to Labor three months later.

Ms Ewing’s victory was notable not only for the place but also for the timing and showed that the SNP had returned as a political force after more than 20 years without a single MP.

The history books are littered with by-elections that seemed to herald major change but ultimately proved to be isolated cases and outliers.

The Liberals took over Orpington from the Tories in 1962, only for Labor to win the following general election; the unfortunate SDP winner Crosby in 1981 and Glasgow Hillhead in 1982; the nomadic George Galloway defeated his old Labor Party in Bradford West in 2012.

So what about the three by-elections this week?

Should the Tories suffer a triple defeat, as the all-knowing bookies are predicting, it would be the worst result for a ruling party since Labor lost three seats in a single-day by-election in 1968.

This cannot be attributed to medium-term despondency. This is historical.

This week’s seats are scattered across the country – Uxbridge & South Ruislip near London, Somerton & Frome in Somerset and Selby & Ainsty in Yorkshire – with sizeable majorities of between 7,000 and 20,000, but Labor and the Liberal Democrats could topple them.

The common factor would be that voters are turning en masse against the Tories and unwilling to forgive Mr Sunak for the sins of his chaotic predecessors.

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At this point in the election cycle, it would portend a bloodbath that would no doubt lead to more power struggles between the Tories and a self-fulfilling downward spiral.

Labor and the Liberal Democrats will quarrel. As the narrative of impending doom is established, the Prime Minister will make plans to spend more time with his money.

It will also be instructive to observe the reaction of the SNP. A resurgent Labor party will eat up the SNP’s support in the general election and deprive it of a Tory bogeyman.

The SNP may also be reluctant to dance on Mr. Sunak’s grave for another reason.

In its 79-year history, the party has lost only one by-election in parliament. While it failed to meet many of its goals, it lost only one seat it won in the last election.

That was Dunfermline in 2013 after MSP Bill Walker was convicted of assault.

The SNP is now facing its second defeat at the Westminster seat of Rutherglen & Hamilton West after Margaret Ferrier MP was brought down for breaking Covid rules.

As with Walker, the party could attribute defeat to exceptional circumstances.

But after 16 years in power and questions about competency and direction, the SNP will fear it could be one of those ominous by-elections that foreshadow the future.

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