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by James Mitchell
02 August 2023
With Margaret Ferrier gone, Rutherglen and Hamilton West is Labour’s to lose

Anas Sarwar and Keir Starmer join Labour candidate Michael Shanks on a visit to Rutherglen | Picture: Alamy

With Margaret Ferrier gone, Rutherglen and Hamilton West is Labour’s to lose

Rutherglen and Hamilton West is Labour’s to lose.  But how significant is this by-election and what should we read into the result?

By-elections often attract more attention than results merit. That was particularly true before devolution when elections were far and few between. They are ‘second order elections’ i.e. voters are not electing a government and have the luxury of voting for a party they might not support in a general election. Protest voting is more likely. Many by-election winners only serve to the end of the Parliament when the seat reverts to the previously held party.

Local issues are at a premium and weak candidates face greater scrutiny than is likely in a general election. Candidates are expected to know the names of local football players etc to prove some affiliation with the constituency (though such questions from journalists really only betray a lack of local knowledge of issues on the part of the fourth estate).

The cause of the by-election can play a part in the result. Voters are more likely to be less sympathetic to the party of the previous incumbent if he/she swans off to a better paid job or leaves in disgrace, rather than following his/her death.

Some by-elections prove significant, harbingers of things to come. The run of Tory losses during the 1992-1997 Parliament pointed towards defeat for John Major’s government.  Compare that to Labour’s record between 1997 and 2001, when the governing party held each of the seats subject to a by-election during that Parliament. But even when a seat reverts to the previous party, as happened after the SNP won Hamilton in 1967 but lost it in 1970, it may intimate underlying stirrings.

Rutherglen and Hamilton West is likely to be significant for three main reasons. Firstly, it comes early in Humza Yousaf’s leadership.  He has struggled to establish his authority on a divided party.  He really needs a win to placate, if not entirely silence, critics. An SNP defeat is unlikely to lead to him being toppled but critical voices will grow louder.

Secondly, it will be an important fillip for Labour. Scottish Labour has had a spring in its step of late but needs some tangible evidence, beyond opinion polls, that the tide has turned.  Anas Sarwar needs this win to consolidate his leadership, motivate his supporters and build towards the next election. Defeat would be a major setback.

And finally, just as important as a win will be for Scottish Labour, it will also be taken as evidence that Keir Starmer may not have the Scottish problem many commentators have often suggested.  A majority Labour government has been seen as highly unlikely without a reversal of fortunes in Scotland.  A Labour victory in Rutherglen and Hamilton West does not guarantee an overall Labour majority at the next election but it would help make it look more likely.

This by-election will be keenly fought for all of these reasons.  The SNP has money problems but no more so than in the past when it made up for a lack of money with enthusiastic activists pouring into by-election constituencies. But is the enthusiasm there?  Labour cannot afford to lose.

The last Rutherglen by-election was in 1964. Three other by-elections were held on the same day in May.  On the eve of poll, the Glasgow Herald reported that the results are “awaited with more than the usual interest” as a general election was anticipated later that year. 

Labour’s Gregor Mackenzie won the seat from the Tories in what the paper described next day as a “rank bad” result for the Tories.  It would not be the last occasion that Iain Sproat lost what had been a Tory seat despite a formidable local organisation run by FWS Craig, best known as the chronicler of election results in the pre-internet age.  A good local organisation and a wealth of activists could not prevent a Labour win almost six decades ago against an unpopular government.

The Tories insisted they would regain the seat – the last seat they held in Lanarkshire – at the subsequent election but Gregor Mackenzie went on to win seven more elections until he retired in 1987 having won 48 per cent of the vote in his last contest in 1983 after serving as a minister in Labour Governments. Labour’s Michael Shanks will be hoping to follow in Gregor Mackenzie’s footsteps.

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