THE bookies, commentators, and SNP activists (in private) could all be wrong. But it looks like Labour will win the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election.

What does that mean for the SNP and for independence?

Actually, it might mean the SNP have simply succumbed to the same “mid-term blues” that affect every other governing party. And it could prompt a useful and timely refocus on the need for a credible independence strategy, before the crucial SNP conference in Aberdeen. Neither of which would be terminally bad outcomes.

But I’ll grant you, such a reading might seem optimistic.

Losing a seat is never a good look, especially for an SNP leader who is constantly judged against the strong electoral track record of his predecessors.

The National:

Somehow, under Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon (both above), the SNP defied political gravity for 13 years, winning the 2015 General Election in Scotland despite losing the indyref eight months earlier.

That kicked off a narrative about SNP invulnerability and a presumption that Scottish Labour was dead in the water – its social democratic clothes stolen by the insurgent, left-of-centre SNP.

It’s been a useful narrative for independence supporters – backed by the fact that old Labour fiefdoms did produce sizeable Yes majorities in 2014.

But like all convenient narratives, it needs a serious refresh.

In part because of the impacts of time and in part because of a changing UK context.

No political party can expect to survive unscathed after 13 years in power, domestic policy failures like the ferry debacle, an unexpected resignation by an internationally recognised leader, a police investigation into “missing” funds, the stalemate over a lawful referendum, public washing of dirty linen in a fractious and closely-run leadership competition and constant internal challenges to Humza Yousaf’s leadership thereafter.

READ MORE: John Curtice gives his verdict on divided Tories after chaotic conference

Add in uncertainty over how Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell really managed the party, nervousness about the ongoing police inquiry, aimlessness in the absence of a straightforward independence strategy and sheer fatigue amongst activists who’ve been “ready to go” for 10 years despite day jobs, families, Covid and the fragmentation of the Yes vote that followed the creation of Alba.

Such a combination of woes would have decked any other political party. But somehow, the SNP have appeared immune from internal dissent and thus generally invincible. Astonishingly, the SNP have never lost a Westminster by-election. Until – probably – today.

So, the first thing to say is that losing Rutherglen would simply make the SNP like every other governing party in history. Liable to voter pushback at by-elections, especially after a long, unbroken period in office.

And especially in a once safe Labour seat.

The National: A senior Scottish Labour councillor has been arrested and charged

Rutherglen and Hamilton West is the fifth most Labour-supporting seat in Scotland and the 36th most SNP-supporting seat. It had Scotland’s third-highest Labour vote in 2015 and fifth-highest in 2019. If Labour can’t win there – with local issues to grind like the cost of entering SNP-run Glasgow because of its pollution-busting LEZ – they won’t win anywhere.

It’s also worth pointing out that few by-election victories survive the following General Election. Indeed, Winnie Ewing’s historic 1967 victory over Labour in Hamilton was reversed in 1970.

Recent analysis by Electoral Calculus suggests seats gained in by-elections over the last 40 years are more likely to flip back to their “original” holders than to be held by challengers.

And in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, the “original” holders have pretty much been Labour since the party was formed.

So, the SNP may be set to lose a seat they were always lucky to hold – just like every other governing party.

It’s just that, until now, the SNP has not been like everyone else.

Besides domestic policy manifesto, the party exists to promote a cause.

READ MORE: I went to Rutherglen to ask locals who they'd be supporting in the by-election

I suppose Labour once had the cause of advancing public ownership of resources and redistributing income. These days – not so much. The Tory cause remains the protection of Britain’s elite – favouring cronies, dismantling the welfare state and whipping up xenophobic hatred of foreigners. But that’s hardly the stuff of lectern posters or election slogans.

The Greens’ cause is clear and credible – saving the planet. What the Lib Dems want these days I’ve no earthly idea.

But the cause driving the SNP (and Plaid in Wales) is crystal clear – independence and an end to the Union. And the sense of mission created by this cause has lent the SNP an extra buoyancy in the often-shabby business of winning elections.

But whilst independence remains at the 52% mark, the party has fallen back. This is the real worry about Rutherglen. Not losing the seat – but how the seat is (probably) lost.

Will independence supporters stay at home because they’ve lost faith in the SNP as a competent government and a conduit for constitutional change? If so, that would be the ultimate double whammy and one which could be replicated at the next General Election.

A lot depends on Keir Starmer (below), because Labour are set to become the face of the Union again. And that’s the biggest change in backdrop to any by-election since 2010.

The National: Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer hit out at the SNP’s record in Government (Andy Buchanan/PA)

The SNP has positioned itself and the Scottish Government as the Sonsy David to the Implacable Goliath of Tory-run Westminster. The Conservatives’ capture of the Commons has helped cement the constitutional issue to progressive politics, squeezing Labour out for a decade, during which Unionists held their noses and voted mostly Tory, while lefties and nationalists voted SNP.

Now the “leftiness” of Sir Keir Starmer is about as robust as a cardboard box in the rain.

But as Labour becomes the (imminent) face of the Union, the old fault-lines of Scottish politics are bound to shift.

If conservatism and Unionism are decoupled (for the next five years at least), the constitution may no longer dominate – until, Starmer’s Government fails to inspire, fix Brexit, restore benefits, renationalise energy or explain how it supports democracy but won’t hand control over the referendum process to the parliament his party created.

READ MORE: Bookies’ predictions for Rutherglen and Hamilton West ‘two-horse race’ by-election

Any hope, glamour or expectations of permanent change will rapidly fall away from Labour in government.

But for many of us older troupers, by then it will be too late.

So there really is no other choice for the SNP but to fight the next election on a vision of Scotland post-independence, because the party cannot easily outcompete Labour for the leftie/social democratic vote until Labour disappoint. As they inevitably will.

The SNP need the cause and the party to be reconciled and that will demand a massive and sincere effort from Humza Yousaf at the forthcoming party conference. There are other kids on the indy block, the SNP have the offputting look of incumbency and the unquestioning support of Yessers can no longer be taken for granted.

In short, though every Yessers in the parish should rouse themselves today and get out to vote (with photo ID) for a pro-independence candidate, Rutherglen may be a disappointment and even a shock to the system for SNP members and Yessers. And that may be exactly what we all need.