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by Kirsteen Paterson
03 September 2023
Rutherglen by-election: What it really means for the SNP and Labour

Illustration: Allyson Shields for Holyrood

Rutherglen by-election: What it really means for the SNP and Labour

Rutherglen, according to a sign painted on the wall of the local shopping centre, is “a town full of energy”.

Candidates in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election will be hoping that vitality rubs off on them. After all, the race has been running for weeks now, and the official starting pistol has yet to be fired. And although several parties have said they’ll put up entrants, this is widely expected to be a head-to-head between Labour and the SNP. These are the only parties to have ever won (and lost) this Westminster seat. As what may be the last major test before next year’s general election, it is taking on totemic properties. 

Bordered by Uddingston to the east and East Kilbride to the west, it is in this South Lanarkshire seat that the SNP will face its first big electoral challenge under new leader Humza Yousaf and in the shadow of Operation Branchform, and it is here that Labour will try to build a momentum that will last all the way to the general election. Voters may be selecting a local MP, but the contest is about much more. “It will be difficult for the SNP if indeed they lose it,” said polling guru Sir John Curtice. “It will underline the fact that they are much less popular. For the Labour party, this is an absolute must-win.” 

The constituency was left vacant by Covid-scandal MP Margaret Ferrier, the former SNP politician who lost the whip after breaking isolation rules and was unseated by constituents in a Scottish first. Almost 12,000 voters signed a recall petition to get rid of her – a result of about 15 per cent against a minimum threshold of 10 per cent. The petition was held after MPs agreed to suspend her from the Commons for 30 days for travelling by train while she had the virus in 2020 and, confirming that she would not seek re-election, Ferrier said it had been “the privilege of [her] life” to serve there. “This has been a difficult and taxing process that has now come to its conclusion, and I do not wish to prolong it further,” she said.

The result came in shortly before parliamentary recess and, as that summer break ends, the SNP is expected to move the writ to start the official by-election process within days. The earliest possible date for the vote is October 5 and all five major parties – the Conservatives, the Greens, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP – have put forward candidates as Ferrier’s replacement. Alba, which had called for a single “Scotland United” candidate to avoid splitting the pro-independence vote, has decided to stay out of it. The Scottish Socialist Party, Volt UK, the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Reform UK and the Independence for Scotland Party will also be represented.

Over the summer, locals in Rutherglen have had a taste of the campaigning to come – photocalls by candidates, activists clutching clipboards, leaflets through the door. But, standing on the main street on a Friday afternoon, there is little sense that this is currently the most politically important region in Scotland. The media circus is not in town today and life continues as normal. An older couple complain about the state of the pavements and say the area needs “honest people” in charge; an ex-roofer, leaning on a crutch, slates the Tories. “I absolutely hate them,” he tells Holyrood. “I was thinking of voting Labour.” “Humza Yousaf, he’s been out here a couple of times,” says a man living in sheltered housing. “I saw him and thought ‘I’m going to approach that guy’, but by the time I got out the door I missed him.” The Scottish Government’s handling of ferry procurement, he adds, has been “a disaster”.

Neither ferries nor pavements are the meat of this contest, however. Labour, which has pinned its rosette on modern studies teacher Michael Shanks, is promising “change” if locals pick him and he’s pledging to “restore faith in politics”. The SNP, meanwhile, is telling voters that Labour can’t be trusted on the cost-of-living crisis, welfare or workers’ rights, with candidate Katy Loudon, a local councillor, making much of Keir Starmer’s U-turn on scrapping the rape clause and two-child cap. A Labour government may not be able to get rid of the bedroom tax either, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has said, leading to accusations that the party is turning its back on long-standing pledges.

Loudon, also an MSP’s staffer and former primary teacher, is “pretty well known in her patch,” an SNP source says. However, it is Yousaf who was front and centre at the outset of the campaign and at times it seems it is the young leader, not the prospective MP, that the SNP is seeking to sell to voters. That sell is heavy on policy – devolving workers’ rights, rejoining the EU, boosting welfare provision – and has sought to weaponise differences in thinking between Scottish and UK Labour, and between Shanks and the party hierarchy. 

Shanks, a keen runner who covered every street in Glasgow in a lockdown exercise drive, quit Labour over Brexit and antisemitism under Corbyn and rejoined under Starmer. “It’s a party that seems oblivious to how utterly unelectable it has become,” he wrote in 2019, but during selections this year he praised the “transformation” achieved “under the leadership of Keir and Anas [Sarwar]”. And he has defended policy divergence between Scottish and UK Labour, after Sarwar said his team will “continue to oppose” the two-child cap, regardless of what London does.

That difference of thinking, Shanks has said, shows the “maturity of devolution” amidst SNP claims that Starmer’s pledges are “not worth the paper they’re written on”. The SNP wants to make this by-election about divisions within Labour, Shanks suggested, because “they’ve got nothing to offer themselves”. In contrast to recent lines from UK Labour, he’s said he would scrap the cap and axe the bedroom tax but does support self-identification for transgender people. Though stopping short of this, Sarwar too has raised issues with the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, saying “everybody’s lost” since that legislation was passed.

Recent polling by Survation found support for Scottish Labour at its highest level since 2014. The data, captured for Aberdeen advocacy firm True North, put Labour just two points behind the SNP on Westminster voting intention and pointed towards a major shift in the parties’ fortunes. Based on current boundaries, which are due to change at the next election, the rivals could end up on 24 seats each in next year’s general election, Curtice said. Such a result would be a major victory for Labour in Scotland, coming from a baseline of just one MP, shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray, and after recording its worst-ever Scottish Parliament election result in 2021 – and could increase the chance of a Labour government. Conversely, 24 seats would bring the SNP little cheer, giving that party a loss of 20 MPs and damaging its independence aims, if it goes ahead with Yousaf’s plan to use the contest as a de facto decider on the constitution. 

The poll found independence support is holding at 48 per cent, and Curtice said it is further evidence of the “decoupling” of the Yes bloc from the SNP. Its £160,000 leadership contest damaged the party, Curtice said, and the SNP has not enjoyed the “bounce” in favour that typically follows the election of a new leader. Yousaf is “intelligent, affable, charismatic” and “has many valuable qualities,” Curtice said, but is not a “charismatic politician of the kind Alex Salmond always was and Nicola Sturgeon learned to be”. With an approval rating of minus 23, he ranked far lower in the poll than Sarwar, who was on minus 3.

Yousaf’s “crucial task,” according to Curtice, “is to impress himself on the Scottish people”. And he must do so even as rebels in his own party criticise the Bute House Agreement in which the SNP runs the Scottish Government with the Greens. Only 28 per cent of Scots support that, the poll found, while 40 per cent oppose it. In May, 57 per cent of those who voted SNP in 2019 were in favour of it, but this has now fallen to 48 per cent. Meanwhile, there’s Operation Branchform, which continues without any charges having been brought at the time of writing. The arrest of Sturgeon as part of this probe into party finances did “discombobulate some SNP supporters” in a way that the initial phases of the investigation did not, Curtice said, and the party is “exhibiting some of its nervousness and some of its internal dissent in public”.

Behind the scenes, the party knows that a defeat in Rutherglen must be measured by its scale, but insiders say there is cause for optimism. “They are definitely in with a shot of winning it, there’s no doubt,” one source says of Labour, but Loudon is a “decent candidate” and things are “not as bad as I expected it to be”. “In some areas we’re winning some canvas runs 2:1. I’ve had people saying to me, ‘I’m voting for Katy Loudon’, not ‘I’m voting for the SNP’. That’s music to my ears, to be honest.” The party is road testing messaging for the general election here to “see what sticks”.

“Labour are behaving as if they’ve won the election already,” a source says, but Shanks’ positioning means it is “quite difficult for Labour Shadow Cabinet members to come up and campaign for him”. “The candidate they’ve chosen means they don’t have their troubles to seek,” they add.

But Scottish Labour is bullish. People here are “sick and tired of the SNP”, an insider says, and see Loudon as having “baggage”. “The brand is now so toxic”, the source says of the SNP. “They are in a defensive strategy. All they currently do is throw things at us.” “Very few” locals raise the welfare policy splits on the doorstep and this is a “winnable seat for us,” the source goes on. “It’s a big moment for us. It’s the first time we’ve looked forward to an election for some time. 

“We’ve had the shit kicked out of us for years. Scottish Labour is in a different psychological place now. We’re hopeful.”

Former Scottish Labour advisor Andrew Liddle, of True North, says the polling shows the party is “finally recovering Scotland after more than a decade in the wilderness”. “Months ago, let alone two years ago, Scottish Labour would have bitten your hand of for these kinds of numbers,” he said, claiming the momentum is firmly with that party. However, differences over policy mean Starmer cannot expect a smooth run into Downing Street, he told a recent webinar. The party is “winning by default without actually winning people over,” he said, and must more clearly articulate a consistent set of values. “They haven’t offered anything to Scottish voters and where they have, they often reversed on [policies].” 

There is both a long and short game at play in this election and, as is so often the case with by-elections, it is difficult to gauge the likely level of turnout on the day. In 2019, when Ferrier won the seat back from Labour’s Ged Killen, there was a turnout of 66.5 per cent. Ferrier, who had herself been ousted by Killen two years earlier, achieved a majority of 5,240, taking 44.2 per cent of the vote to his 34.5 per cent. The Tories finished on 15 per cent, the Lib Dems on 5.2 per cent and Ukip on 1.2 per cent, with the latter losing its deposit.

This time round, speculation over whether or not the Greens would stand ended when the party announced 20-year-old student Cameron Eadie as its candidate. The news came shortly after Scottish Labour depute leader Jackie Baillie challenged the party to compete, accusing the Greens of having “taken Humza Yousaf’s shilling” and being “nothing less than an SNP branch office”.

If elected, Eadie will be the party’s first-ever MP and, launching his pitch, he said every vote for him would be “a vote against the Westminster status quo, a vote for change and a vote for people and for planet”. “We are at a crossroads where cynical politics of the past are being replaced by a new positive vision of what the world should be,” commented Scottish Greens co-leader Lorna Slater even while commentators questioned whether Eadie’s entry would damage SNP support by offering pro-independence voters an alternative. 

It is that prospect, said Alex Salmond, that led to his Alba party declining to compete. Alba’s two MPs voted against the recall petition against Ferrier and Salmond has said that Alba remains, “fundamentally opposed to this by-election taking place at all”. He added: “By combining with the Labour party to treat Margaret Ferrier with such disproportionate disdain, the SNP have created their own problem in Rutherglen and should be now left to face it.”

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