More than three years after the COVID law-breaking that cost the SNP’s Margaret Ferrier her job as MP, voters in Rutherglen and Hamilton West will be summoned to the polls on October 5 for a by-election to choose her successor. Why is Labour’s Michael Shanks very widely expected to win? And what would a Labour gain here mean?
The first thing to say is that this is one of Scotland’s friendlier seats for Labour. Since the independence referendum in 2014, the party has been frozen out of 52 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies, including many of its former strongholds in Glasgow and the central belt. Rutherglen is one of the few seats that it has won in that period – albeit just once and very narrowly, during the SNP’s dip in 2017. Clearly the party can win there, given a little bit of national tailwind.
How favourable are those winds these days? The most recent Scotland-wide poll gives the SNP almost the same lead over Labour (38% to 27%) as it had in that 2017 general election (37% to 27%). But the poll before had the parties tied on 35%, and generally the SNP lead has been well down in single digits for months, so the national picture points to a Labour gain.
Of course, national polling can be an unreliable guide to by-elections, which typically have much lower turnout and often see outbreaks of tactical or protest voting. What is happening or what has happened locally is also far more important in a by-election than a general election, when voters always have one eye on the national picture.
What should make Labour so well fancied in Rutherglen is that most of these things point in its favour, too.
Since the SNP supplanted Labour as the most popular party among working-class Scots, it also supplanted Labour as the party that suffers more from low turnout. That victory in Rutherglen camp; Hamilton West in 2017 was owed not to Labour gains, but a collapse in the SNP vote driven largely by abstention. The unionist vote in Scotland looks more reliable; it is the nationalist vote that waxes and wanes, along with enthusiasm about independence.
Insofar as this by-election is to be a protest vote, Labour looks well placed, being in opposition at both Westminster and Holyrood and being the challenger party in this seat. Anger has probably subsided since Ferrier was first found to have travelled from London to Scotland by train despite knowingly having COVID in September 2020, but the circumstances that led to the by-election can hardly help her successor in the yellow rosette, Katy Loudon. More recently, of course, a motorhome rolled over SNP hopes of presenting themselves as an outsider or anti-establishment protest option.
On the tactical front, there remains a problem for Labour in this and many Scottish seats. The unionist vote is split while the SNP tends to monopolise the pro-independence vote. However, while Alex Salmond’s Alba Party is standing aside, the Scottish Greens are contesting the seat for the first time and, while this is hardly a Green hotspot (one of many points made in the excellent Ballot Box Scotland preview of this by-election), even a couple of percentage points off the SNP vote would make an unlikely victory even harder.
There is also plenty of scope for Labour, unambiguously the challenger here, to gain from a further tactical squeeze on the anti-independence side. Scottish Conservative voters have a recent record of swinging behind Labour and even the party’s politicians have wavered in their condemnation of the idea.
All of this means that Labour is rightly the warm favourite and so, whatever the various parties’ spinners say following the result, a Labour gain would not signal much new. If Keir Starmer’s majority depends on winning a lot of Scottish seats, he will need to harvest higher-hanging fruit than Rutherglen (as the seat is to be renamed after the boundary changes). A thumping Labour win would hint at such gains, however.
In particular, it would signal that currently the key swing voters in Scotland – that is, those on the left torn between expressing their support for independence and kicking the Tories out – are giving a higher priority to the latter. This is a precondition for Labour progress in Scotland.