Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election is the barometer of the political weather in Scotland

4 October 2023, 19:30

Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election
Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election. Picture: Alamy
Gina Davidson

By Gina Davidson

There is a monument in the South Lanarkshire town of Cambuslang to its miners.

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Giant winding wheels which once winched cages into the gaping black mouth of the pit head, now sits in a tranquil site, surrounded by grass and trees; a plaque pinned to its stone mount declaring all those who died below ground, including children as young as six, will never be forgotten.

Yet speak to people in Cambuslang and many of them feel they have been forgotten. It’s a similar story in Rutherglen, in Blantyre, and in Hamilton, the towns which are the beating heart of a constituency now firmly in the spotlight thanks to a by-election which is being regarded as a barometer of the political weather in Scotland.

Ask them how they feel about tomorrow’s by-election and you can be met with an apathetic shrug, and a lack of interest in voting at all - what’s the point, what will it change? Others are angry, but it appears with politicians of all stripes and none, and as a result say they’ve yet to decide where to place their cross. Consensus seems far away.   

This is a constituency where people have hard lives, and always have done. The mines were grim, and it’s no surprise that the same streets the current wannabe MPs are plodding were the same ones Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party, also once campaigned for election. 

Yes, there are pockets of wealth scattered throughout the constituency -  lovely stone built detached homes with immaculate gardens, perfect for the commute to Glasgow - but there is also deep deprivation.

Children may no longer be sent down mines but there are many living in poverty; 3260 kids under the age of 15 living in households where out-of-work benefits are being claimed.

Which made it all the stranger that Keir Starmer, on his campaign visits, has refused to pledge to scrap the two child benefit cap - something Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has called for, and indeed the party’s candidate backs.

The cost of living crisis is brought up as the main issue across the constituency - but then around 6700 people living there claim benefits such as Universal Credit and Employment and Support Allowance, and overall 9,600 people are considered “economically inactive” – meaning they are neither employed nor looking for work.

That’s more than one in 10 working-age people in the constituency. They are looking for help, for work, for hope. For a long time that’s what they believed the Labour Party offered, and the party of the red rosette had the constituency in a steel-like grip.

That all changed in 2015 when the electoral landscape of Scotland was altered utterly, and Rutherglen and Hamilton West, like 55 other constituencies all voted SNP. Labour knew it was coming. The independence referendum campaign had been bitterly fought in this part of Scotland and ultimately there was a 50-50 split vote across Rutherglen and Hamilton West, but Labour’s grip was loosened. 

Since then the party has only won the seat back once, scraping through with a majority of 265 votes in 2017, before losing it again in 2019 - Margaret Ferrier winning it back for the SNP.  The by-election is, of course, because Ferrier was ousted as MP.

She broke Covid laws, received a ban from the Commons which led to a recall petition, and that was signed by around 15 per cent of voters in her constituency. She had been sitting as an independent for the last three years after losing the SNP whip for the same Covid breaches. It has been a lonely time for her, but her political career is over.

The battle now is between the SNP’s Katy Louden, a local councillor, and Michael Shanks, a high school teacher. Labour smells victory in the air. It believes the pendulum of Scottish politics is swinging back in its direction; the SNP has been too long in government, its members say, and its domestic record is not good enough.

Then there’s the division and turmoil that has engulfed the party and its new leader Humza Yousaf since Nicola Sturgeon resigned - especially that Police Scotland inquiry.

The polls have certainly shown a trend that Labour could be making a revival - it has been closing the gap on the SNP for months. So determined to win are they, that Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner, Rachel Reeves and other frontbenchers have never been in Scotland so often.

They believe that a win could mean more constituencies will be in their grasp come the General Election and may even pave the way to Downing Street. But, and there’s always a but, the latest poll put the SNP back in front of Labour by 11 points - and the SNP has been clinging to that for its life.

Over the course of the campaign Humza Yousaf has put himself front and centre, keenly aware that this will be a significant moment for his leadership of the party. It will gather for its annual conference just two weeks later, and a defeat in Rutherglen could mean a far more rancorous affair than he would have wanted, especially as he’s looking for members to back his latest independence strategy.

SNP members on the ground will admit they’ve not been getting the responses on the doors they have been used to. They are hearing of people moving to Labour, but more often it’s that folk are just not going to bother voting.

Turnout is going to be key in this by-election they say, and if the SNP doesn’t get its vote out, then Labour might not be able to read anything from the result runes for a General Election. But still they hope that it will go their way, and they are pinning that hope on the apparent divisions between the Scottish Labour Party and Keir Starmer on key issues, including Brexit and that two child benefit cap. 

While the focus has been on the two frontrunners, there are another 12 candidates standing in the by-election. Thomas Kerr is a Glasgow Conservative councillor, but the talk from both Labour and SNP campaigns is that Tory voters will swing to Shanks; either to send a message to Rishi Sunak, or just a tactical vote to ensure the SNP doesn’t win again. 

The Scottish LibDems have chosen a former council candidate and appear more interested in shoring up support for the party at the next local elections rather than this Westminster contest.

There’s also Cameron Eadie of the Scottish Greens, the first time the party has contested this seat - which has angered some in the SNP who fear some pro-independence votes could go his way. They seem less concerned by Colette Walker of the Independence for Scotland party, a new organisation of mostly former SNP members disaffected with the party. She is pledging not to take up her seat in Westminster should she be elected. Interestingly Alex Salmond’s Alba Party opted not to stand.

The other candidates include Bill Bonnar of the Scottish Socialist Party and Chris Sermanni  for the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, both perhaps hoping the political radicalism which once existed in the area - and went deep into the pits thanks to people like Mick McGahey, a former vice-president of the NUM when the miners took on the government of Margaret Thatcher - still resonates.

There’s also Niall Fraser of the Scottish Family Party - who recently heckled Humza Yousaf while he was interviewed at the Edinburgh fringe by LBC’s Iain Dale - Ewan Hoyle for Volt UK, David Stark of Reform UK and three independent candidates, Garry Cooke, Andrew Daly and the grandly titled Prince Ankit Love, Emperor of India.

By around 1.30am on Friday the result will be in - and we will know if the trend in the polls, that Labour is having some kind of revival in Scotland, will be proved right, or if the electoral juggernaut of success which has been the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon continues to flatten all in its way under Humza Yousaf. 

For the voters who do choose to go to the polls, they are just hoping that whoever wins will deliver.