The SNP’s emphatic defeat in the Rutherglen & Hamilton West by-election was a “humbling” experience for the party, Stephen Flynn has said.

The Westminster leader told delegates at the SNP conference in Aberdeen that the party had to be honest about losing “comfortably” to Labour in the bellwether marginal

Mr Flynn campaigned repeatedly alongside candidate Katy Loudon in the run-up to the October 5 vote only to see the SNP go backwards.

The by-election was triggered by former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier being ousted in a recall petition after endearing the public by breaking Covid rules during lockdown in 2020.

Ms Ferrier won the seat with a majority of 5,230 in 2019, but Labour’s Michael Shanks gained the seat on a 20.4% swing with a majority of 9,466 on a 37.2% turnout.

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In his opening speech to conference, Mr Flynn said that in politics “saying easy things is… far too easily done” and so he would be honest with the party.

He said: “Because the truth is that this hasn’t been an easy few weeks for our party, let alone an easy few months.

“Despite a brilliant candidate, who worked day and night – and a brilliant team of party activists - we lost Rutherglen and Hamilton West and we lost it comfortably.

“Yes it was a by-election, yes it was a low turnout and yes there were very specific circumstances under which that election was called.

“But there is no point in denying it. That defeat was humbling.”

He went on: “We might not like to admit it, but one of the great things about democracy is that it does that sometimes. It’s how you respond that matters.

“And when used right – democratic defeat is often the best way to renew your relationship with the people who matter most – the public.

“Each and every time the people have their democratic say – the only right response is to listen and to keep listening.  

“The only right response to a humbling defeat is to be honest with ourselves and to be honest with the public.

“That is what leadership is about - that’s what truly representing the Scottish people is about.

"At our boldest and our best - it is what the Scottish National Party will always, always be about.

“And friends when the Scottish National Party listens, and then when we act, Scotland wins.”

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After running through SNP achievements in Government, such as free prescriptions, low business rates, free bus travel and the Scottish child payment, he said independence remained the “unfinished business of this party and this movement”.

He said: “Building that coalition for change is exactly where we now need to get back to. 

“Because the powers we have are not enough to meet our potential.

“And they are not nearly enough to meet the challenge of this cost-of-living crisis.

“I don’t know about you, but I for one am tired of this false debate that says we either focus on independence or on the cost-of-living crisis.

“The cost-of-living crisis is a direct consequence of the constitutional status quo.

“Unfair, unequal - broken, backwards, Brexit Britain is the very reason why people can’t afford to pay their bills. It is the cost of living with Westminster.”

He said independence was “the real change that the Scottish people are crying out for” and urged delegates to “regroup, renew and give Scotland’s people the chance to vote for what they believe in”.