How will new SNP leader Humza Yousaf fare as the people of Rutherglen and Hamilton West take to the polls?
The constituents of Rutherglen and Hamilton West will go to the polls on Thursday 5 October to participate in a closely contested by-election, triggered by the removal of their former MP Margaret Ferrier. Almost 15% of eligible constituents signed the recent recall petition to remove Ferrier from the seat, which she has been occupying as an independent since her suspension from the SNP in 2020. Ferrier was suspended from her party after she was found to have broken lockdown rules in late September 2020, when she travelled to Glasgow from London despite having received a positive Covid-19 test result by text. She was sentenced to 270 hours of community service after pleading guilty to breaking Covid-19 regulations.
Although there are 14 candidates running for the seat, including 20-year-old University of Glasgow student and Scottish Green Party candidate, Cameron Eadie, the by-election looks to be a neck-and-neck race between Labour candidate Michael Shanks, a local teacher, and SNP candidate Katy Loudon, a local councillor.
The stakes are high for UK Labour party leader Keir Starmer, who desperately wants to show that he can take similarly closely-contested seats from the SNP at the next general election in January 2025. Rutherglen and Hamilton West is one of five seats in Scotland in which the SNP holds only a single digit majority over Labour.
This will also be the first electoral test for First Minister Humza Yousaf, who narrowly won the SNP’s leadership election earlier this year. Mr. Yousaf campaigned for leadership of the SNP as the ‘continuity candidate’ after former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon resigned, but has reoriented his messaging towards promoting a ‘fresh start’ for the party since Sturgeon and her husband, former SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell, were arrested in April 2023 as suspects in a police investigation into party finances. Winning the Rutherglen seat would help Yousaf dispel the perception of the SNP as a party in decline.
The extent of resentment amongst constituents towards their former MP, expressed by the high turnout at the recall vote, means that Labour have the advantage of campaigning on their disillusionment and compounding the message of the SNP as untrustworthy. Recent polling also indicates that independence has lost some salience amongst Scottish voters as the cost of living crisis intensifies, a trend which should favour Labour as a unionist party. However, even if Shanks prevails on the 5th of October, this should not be taken to necessarily foreshadow a dramatic return to political prominence for Labour in Scotland. There are strong sentiments involved in this by-election that are highly localised and don’t extend to the national context. Furthermore, although Scottish voters are not impressed with the SNP’s record on the economy, Ipsos polling indicates that only a small minority of voters think a Labour government in the Scottish Parliament would do a better job. Indeed, this contest comes at a time when the trend of SNP voters drifting towards Labour appears to be reversing. Recent YouGov polling corroborates the notion that the UK Labour party’s electoral strategy on the national level, which has consisted in pitching rightwards on the economy and cultural issues to woo English Tory voters, is putting off portions of the SNP’s base.
However, neither polling nor by-elections are crystal balls through which to foresee political events over a year away. The SNP’s chances of dampening a Labour resurgence in Scotland in 2025, irrespective of the outcome in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, likely depends more on the extent to which Mr. Yousaf’s messaging on strengthening the Scottish economy and tackling poverty registers amongst voters concerned with the cost of living as policy priority.