Cause of By-Election
If you’ve been paying any attention to Scottish politics, you can’t possibly have missed the circumstances leading up to this by-election for the Westminster Rutherglen and Hamilton West seat – but for completeness sake, let’s go through it all anyway.
Margaret Ferrier was elected as SNP MP for the constituency in 2015, but was one of that party’s casualties in the snap 2017 election when Labour very narrowly regained the seat. Ferrier made her return at the next snap in 2019, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic turned 2020 on its head. Amidst the various lockdowns and restrictions, Ferrier came down with symptoms of the disease in September 2020 and took a test, but continued to go about her life and parliamentary business, including travelling down to Westminster to speak. When the test then came back positive, she got on a train back up to Scotland.
Whilst much has been made of various breaches, major and minor, of COVID-19 restrictions, impacting politicians of all parties, precious few people actually broke restrictions whilst actively and knowingly infected with the disease. Ferrier was accordingly immediately suspended from the SNP, serving as an Independent for the rest of her tenure. Legal processes also kicked off which culminated in her pleading guilty and being sentenced to community service. The slow turn of parliamentary wheels eventually led to her being suspended for a Recall Petition-triggering number of days after a parliamentary vote in June this year.
You could be forgiven for not knowing what a Recall Petition is or how it works, because when one was opened against Margaret Ferrier, it was only the fourth ever held since they were introduced in 2015. Neatly, this completed a bit of a set, with each of the UK’s four constituent countries having had one by that point. It’s worth noting this isn’t for lack of MPs who were in line for petition-triggering sanctions. See the December 2021 North Shropshire by-election for example, which followed the dramatic scandal of Owen Paterson who was in line for such a sanction. The Government attempted to change the rules in his favour, met with extreme fury, and then he resigned anyway. Similarly, Tamworth MP Chris Pincher recently resigned rather than go through an inevitably successful recall process.
In short, if an MP receives a prison sentence of less than one year (any longer and they get chucked automatically anyway), is done for dodgy expenses, or is suspended from the Commons for at least two weeks (either 10 sitting or 14 calendar days) and exhausts all appeals, a recall petition will be opened. The petition will open for signature for a six week period, and if at least 10% of voters in the constituency sign it, their MP is successfully recalled and a by-election must go ahead, though they are eligible to stand for re-election if they wish, and if they can secure re-nomination.
With 81,123 registered voters in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, a total of 11,896 (14.7%) voted to recall Ferrier, quite comfortably crossing the 10% threshold. That made her the third MP to be recalled, after Christopher Davies (Brecon and Radnorshire, Conservative) and Fiona Onasanya (Peterborough, Independent but elected as Labour), both in 2019, whilst Ian Paisley Jr (North Antrim, DUP) narrowly avoided recall in 2018.
Notably, of the recalled MPs, Ferrier ended up with the smallest vote against her. My initial thoughts were that this could relate to the constitutional question, similar to how Paisley Jr successfully avoided being recalled by an electorate overwhelmingly on his side of the divide. In short, despite the fact the SNP were actively supportive of recall, their core of Pro-Independence voters might have been less inclined to actually sign the petition, knowing that doing so would likely usher in a Pro-Union victor at the resulting by-election.
On top of that however, someone on Twitter did point out that this was an extremely lengthy process relative to the other recalls, taking nearly three years from the COVID-19 breach to the petition closing. The recalls against Onasanya and Davies followed more immediately after being jailed and being done for expenses, respectively, and so voters may have had less time for anger against their representatives to cool. That’s not to say folk in this constituency weren’t scunnered with Ferrier, but instead that some people may have been more motivated by a recall petition in 2021 than they were in 2023.
Rutherglen and Hamilton West kind of is what it says on the tin, splitting into two distinct areas. In the west it includes both Rutherglen itself and neighbouring Cambuslang, which form a clear single urban area both with one another and with Glasgow. That’s what led to them being included in the city following the 1973 Local Government (Scotland) Act, though they were pulled back out when the 1994 Act created South Lanarkshire.
The eastern portion includes Blantyre, which is effectively part of the Hamilton urban area now and has been surpassed as the most important Blantyre on the planet by Blantyre, Malawi, in a Perth-esque upshot of colonialism. The core Hamilton components are Burnbank but mostly the substantial Earnock area in the town’s southwest. Despite family connections to Earnock specifically, I have to admit I’ve never been to Hamilton in my puff, but perhaps I’ll cycle along, inspired by this by-election?
In local ward terms, there are five wards of South Lanarkshire Council entirely within this constituency: Rutherglen Central and North, Rutherglen South, Cambuslang West, Cambuslang East and Blantyre. All but a tiny chunk of Hamilton West and Earnock is also included, as is the Meikle Earnock part of Hamilton South, plus the Burnbank fragment of Hamilton North and East. The fragmentary nature of some of these inclusions reflect the fact that whilst South Lanarkshire’s wards were last redrawn ahead of the 2017 election, those used to build the constituency ahead of 2005 date from 1999.
The constituency is one of three entirely within the South Lanarkshire Council area, which also covers part of a fourth. When the new boundaries come into play for what we expect to be a 2024 General Election, the constituency is redrawn into simply “Rutherglen”, losing the portions drawn from Hamilton wards and instead gaining the Bothwell and Uddingston ward.
In the Scottish Parliament, the area of this constituency is functionally split between two seats. Most of it is within the Rutherglen seat, whilst the Hamilton portion lies within Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse instead. In strict geographic terms a tiny portion is within the Uddingston and Bellshill constituency, but it’s just an industrial estate so doesn’t contain any voters. Both seats are held by the SNP, having won the Hamilton-centred seat in 2011 and Rutherglen in 2016, gaining both from Labour. That also means the constituency is split between the Glasgow and Central Scotland regions, with Rutherglen’s inclusion in the former partly a relic of when Rutherglen and Cambuslang were part of Glasgow City Council for 20 years.
When Labour were Scotland’s dominant party, they were capital-D Dominant in the urban Central Belt. At their first outing they easily won a majority of the vote, and in 2010 even managed to push past the 60% mark, with none of their competitors even making it to 20% at either election. That obviously all changed in 2015 when it was the SNP sweeping to majority support, albeit with Labour retaining a fair chunk of their vote as no party outside the top two even surpassed 10% that year.
Labour narrowly regaining the seat in 2017 had nothing to do with a surge in their own support – they actually lost around 1,200 votes in real terms – but was instead because the SNP lost around 12,500, in part due to reduced turnout with about 7,000 fewer voters overall. That’s how Labour’s percentage share ticked up slightly even though it was the Conservatives who made the big gains that year, coming close to – but just missing out on – being only the third party to hit at least 20% in the constituency. That was a significant improvement on having never hit double figures, though they did lose about a quarter of that share when the SNP bounced back in 2019, also causing Labour to win their smallest share yet.
Although now a distant fourth place, the Lib Dems actually started out in second. It’s easy to forget these days that before the 2015 election, the SNP were actually pretty weak in most Central Belt seats just due to Labour’s sheer dominance. Indeed, 2005 was the only UK election of my lifetime that the Lib Dems beat the SNP in the popular vote nationwide. They have recovered somewhat from their nadir of 1.8% in 2015, managing to scrape to a saved deposit at the last election. Overall this is the best bit of South Lanarkshire for the party, with all three of their councillors representing wards within the constituency, albeit one of them was elected as a Conservative in 2017 before defecting over Brexit.
The only other party to have stood at every election since this seat was created is UKIP – all the more remarkable when you consider that the party only contested 7 seats in 2019, after having lost most of their support and activist base to the newly formed Brexit Party. Although you can see the upwards trajectory of UKIP from 2005 to 2015, it’s notably nowhere near what they were achieving in English seats through the same period.
Local Elections 2022
Thanks to the completely unparalleled collation of election data from the 2022 Local Elections, pulled together single-handedly by yours truly into the most comprehensive breakdown of results Scotland has ever seen, it’s possible to break the constituency down to really local levels. However, remember this is data from an election two and a half years later and using a different voting system. I’m providing some of what we can glean from it as a matter of context and interest, but remember this is not from 2019.
Firstly, we can largely reconstruct the constituency using polling districts. The districts do match (to all intents and purposes) perfectly to the constituency, it’s just that box mergers went across constituency lines in a couple of instances, muddying a small number of votes.
Note that due to not contesting every ward covered by the constituency, a portion of voters in 2022 could not vote for the Lib Dems (2.2%) or Greens (6.3%). In both cases, it’s only a pretty small minority of voters however, so the impacts will be pretty marginal. Overall this isn’t actually very different to the 2019 results, except that the Lib Dems narrowly pip the Conservatives to third place and the Greens were actually present.
It’s those two parties I’m most interested in from this data though, as I reckon those vote shares are about the absolute ceiling for them in the by-election, representing as they do voter behaviour at an election with limited tactical incentives. For the Lib Dems, a lot of that share (43% of their total vote) comes from former MSP Robert Brown, who is a very popular councillor for the Rutherglen South ward. I reckon that’s a largely personal vote that won’t carry over to a closely fought by-election. The Greens meanwhile struggle in First Past the Post scenarios, so given this was their performance under STV, I’d be surprised if they exceeded it.
Overall, the SNP were the leading party in the overwhelming majority of the constituency in the 2022 local elections. Labour led in scattered areas around Fernhill, Bankhead (both in Rutherglen), Flemington (Cambuslang East), Low Blantyre, eastern Hillhouse and Meikle Earnock (Hamilton). Meanwhile, the bumper vote for Robert Brown saw the Lib Dems leading in Burnside (Rutherglen). In terms of wards the SNP did best in Cambuslang East, Labour in Blantyre, the Lib Dems in Rutherglen South and the Greens in Cambuslang West. The Conservatives are unique in that, rather than one of the whole wards, their best bit is in the little Burnbank slice of Hamilton North and East.
We can also look at the councillors those votes elected – though in the chart above, I’ve opted only to include the wards entirely or mostly within the constituency, rather than the tiny fragments of the two other wards. In total, the 2022 elections saw 9 SNP, 7 Labour and 3 Lib Dem councillors elected across the six relevant wards. Notably, the Conservatives are totally absent despite nearly tying with the Lib Dems in votes, due largely to being extremely transfer-unfriendly in South Lanarkshire. They had won three councillors across the area in 2017, but lost one to the SNP and two to the Lib Dems.
Winner and Key Stats
🟡SNP: Margaret Ferrier
Change vs 2017: SNP gain from Labour
Valid: 53794 (99.8%)
Spoiled: 125 (0.2%)
Majority: 5,230 (9.7%)
🟡SNP: Margaret Ferrier
🔴Labour: Ged Killen
🟤UKIP: Janice MacKay
🟠Lib Dem: Mark McGeever
🔵Conservative: Lynne Nailon
Although Ferrier would be allowed to defend her seat, she obviously would not be selected as an SNP candidate. She confirmed shortly after the outcome of the petition was declared that she would not be standing in the by-election, meaning the seat is guaranteed a new MP for its last few months of existence. UK Parliamentary by-elections always have a distinct sense of the circus coming to town, and this by-election is no different, with a lengthy candidate list facing voters.
Starting with the serious parties and working our way from bottom up in terms of recent strength in the constituency, the Greens have picked Cameron Eadie, who contested the East Kilbride West by-election elsewhere in South Lanarkshire this summer. This is the first time the party have contested the constituency, and it led to one of the silliest moments in the summer silly season when Labour demanded via press release the party nonetheless contest this by-election, only for the Greens to confirm 14 minutes later their campaign launch was the next day. Reader, you may not be as familiar with the Greens’ democratic processes as I am, but I can exclusively reveal to you they require a bit more than 14 minutes to select a candidate, so the net result here was just some publicity for the fact they’d done so. Scottish politics, what is it like, eh?
Meanwhile, Lib Dem Gloria Adebo stood more locally in the Rutherglen Central and North Ward in 2022. I find it somewhat interesting they’ve gone for an unsuccessful candidate rather than a sitting councillor, seeing as their Hamilton West and Earnock councillor Mark McGeever (the one that defected from the Conservatives) did comparatively well in 2019. Conservative Thomas Kerr has been a councillor for Glasgow’s Shettleston ward since 2017, just across the river from this seat, and last year led his local group to a crushing drop from 8 to 2 seats in the city, only holding onto his own by about 40 votes.
Likely favourites Labour have picked my old neighbour Michael Shanks. Shanks’ early foray into elections was for the Partick West ward in Glasgow in the 2012 elections, when he had the dubious distinction of being the only Labour candidate in the city not to be elected. Lest you think I’m being cruel with that reminder (or indeed to Kerr earlier), I myself then came up about 40 votes short as a Green candidate when Partick West was redrawn into Victoria Park in 2017, so I’ve similarly felt the sting of rejection from the same voters. He also stood as the Labour candidate for Glasgow North West in the snap 2017 election, with the 2019 election coming in a period where he briefly had left the party before re-joining. Finally, defending for the SNP, Katy Loudon has represented the Cambuslang East ward slap bang in the middle of the constituency since 2017.
Turning now to the circus in all its glory, we’ve got the minor party candidates. The ghost of the Scottish Socialist Party have put forward Bill Bonnar, a regular candidate for them including for local elections in Glasgow (Southside Central 2012, Govan 2017 and 2022), and indeed in 2005 for this very constituency. I’m assuming the Scottish Family Party’s Niall Fraser is the same as was fifth on All for Unity’s Glasgow list in 2021. Volt’s Ewan Hoyle stood in Glasgow’s Pollokshields ward in 2022. ISP’s Colette Walker stood in East Renfrewshire’s Clarkston, Netherlee and Williamwood ward in 2022. TUSC’s Chris Sermanni and Reform UK’s David Stark are fresh faces for this electoral cycle as far as I can make out, though Stark did stand for the Conservatives back in 2017.
All three Independent candidates are also new as far as I can make out, and I have to say that the award for Lead Clown at the By-Election Circus goes to, I kid you not, “Prince Ankit Love Emperor of India” (who seems to have been associated with this outfit, the One Love Party). UK Parliament by-elections are always a fantastic reminder that the UK Government are so wise, so good, and so right not to follow the Electoral Commission’s advice to abolish deposits. Let’s remember their justification (with Labour in agreement) for not doing so is that deposits present a barrier to “frivolous” candidacies. I’m sure we can all agree there’s no frivolity here, and definitely nobody that should have been barred by the more democratic mechanism of asking the voters if they want them on the ballot in the first place!
🟠Lib Dem: Gloria Adebo
🟤SSP: Bill Bonnar
⚪Independent: Garry Cooke
⚪Independent: Andrew Daly
🟢Green: Cameron Eadie
⚪Independent: Prince Ankit Love Emperor of India
🟣Family: Niall Fraser
🟤Volt: Ewan Hoyle
🔵Conservative: Thomas Kerr
🟡SNP: Katy Loudon
🟤TUSC: Chris Sermanni
🔴Labour: Michael Shanks
🟤Reform UK: David Stark
🟤Independence for Scotland: Colette Walker
Humza Yousaf and the wider SNP certainly won’t be thanking Margaret Ferrier for forcing the situation to a recall petition. They’d been pretty consistent almost from the outset in calling for a by-election, with then-First Minister Nicola Sturgeon urging Ferrier to stand down in early October 2020. Had she done so, the SNP would have been the hands-down favourites to win a 2021 by-election, their national polling for Westminster being consistently 25-30% ahead of Labour at the time, riding the peak of their pandemic surge. Local voters would also probably have been inclined to agree the fault was with their MP and not the party she’d previously represented until it took swift action.
That’s obviously not what happened, however. Voters in the constituency will be going to the polls almost exactly three years after Ferrier’s egregious breach of rules, and whilst that may have dimmed anger over the breach, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the SNP. Support has been plummeting since Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, aided by the bruising leadership election, Operation Branchform arrests, and vocal internal criticisms from a small core of dissatisfied parliamentarians.
Instead, it’s Labour who are the clear favourites here. As one of the seats they’d briefly regained in 2017, albeit only by a hair, they fared a lot better here in 2019 than they did nationally, only losing 3% of the vote on a national swing approaching -9%. That’s got them in a pretty strong starting point in the first place and this seat, or its purely Rutherglen successor following boundary changes, was obviously going to be a key target for the next full election anyway.
Add in the fact that the party are once again in the ascendant after a bleak decade of defeats, facing off against the slumping SNP and being the obvious candidates for constitutionally conscious constituents contemptuous of the collapsing Conservatives to vote for, and it’s hard to see how this isn’t a Labour win. However, whilst they don’t have as much of a margin to overturn as in some recent English by-elections, they probably also won’t experience so dramatic a collapse in their opponent’s vote share. I certainly expect the SNP to lose a fair bit of their vote, but they’ll be a lot more buoyed by the usual constitutional voting than was possible for the Conservatives in Selby and Ainsty.
Away from the question of who wins the by-election, a small subplot is who will lose their deposit. I reckon only the SNP and Labour can count on theirs being returned. The Greens, contesting the seat for the first time, suffering under Westminster FPTP votes regardless and only having hit roughly 4% in the last PR vote in the area, seem vanishingly unlikely to do so. The Lib Dems only barely crossed 5% last time, and are generally polling worse now than they did then, though their vote could be padded out a little by people scunnered with the Conservatives but still unwilling to make the jump to Labour.
That leaves the Conservatives themselves. On balance I think the overwhelming likelihood is that they do cross the 5% mark, but I don’t think it’s impossible they get pushed below it. In national polling they are generally doing as bad as the SNP, coming in 8-10% lower than their result at the general election. Whilst you wouldn’t necessarily expect a comparable swing in this seat, since their starting point is lower anyway, if enough of their voters do opt for the tactical constitutional vote, that could be what does them in.
Special polling day update: I’ve added this little section onto the end to reflect both the fact people have been asking about and discussing this side of things, and because it’s offers an interesting and important nuance to the contest.
Everyone, with the possible exception of some in the SNP, is working on the assumption Labour will win this one. Yet despite that foreknowledge, great political store is being put in the outcome, and what it may mean for the longer term. The simple fact of Labour winning the seat, and the SNP losing it, by itself doesn’t actually tell us very much: instead, it’s the margin that’s going to be key.
That’s because this seat isn’t equally as important to both parties. That may seem like a surprising thing to say at first glance, but think about it – no party in Scotland has ever won an election by winning every single seat in the country, although the SNP ran that pretty close in 2015. It stands to reason then that parties can “afford” not to win certain seats as they can still win the election overall without them.
For example, when Labour were at the peak of their strength in Scotland, they still weren’t winning seats in areas like the Borders, Angus or Perthshire. Whilst they may very well have liked to, they didn’t need to – for decades, they dominated Scottish politics through rock-solid control of the Central Belt. By the same token, the Conservatives have proven quite capable of winning elections UK-wide whilst having absolutely zero prospect of picking up seats in Glasgow.
So with that in mind, how does Rutherglen and Hamilton West differ in importance for the top two parties here? Well, as pollster and academic Mark McGeoghegan has put it, the seat is “must win” for Labour, but not for the SNP. The SNP have won three major national elections without winning this seat, or it’s Holyrood equivalent of Rutherglen. Their original narrow 2007 win, by just one seat overall, was without Rutherglen. Their surprise 2011 majority, when they won 53 out of 73 constituency seats, was without Rutherglen. And of course in 2017 for the UK Parliament, they won five times as many seats (35) as Labour did (7), even though Labour won this one.
For Labour on the other hand, because this is one that they won in an election they otherwise had very few seats, and because it’s one they’ve held at other elections even where the SNP won overall, it’s essential they win it. If they can’t win this seat, one of the easiest for them to flip in the country, that would suggest they’d struggle to gain seats in areas like Renfrewshire or North Lanarkshire, where they simply need to do so in order to cross the 20-seat mark they are aiming for overall.
So Labour have to win, but the SNP can afford to lose, even though they’d obviously rather not. That’s why the margin matters, because that’s what’ll give us the better read about the wider situation. The following figures aren’t a hard and fast rule to how to interpret the result, but instead a simplistic means of translating the reality described above to numbers.
If Labour’s win is by less than 5%? That may in fact be worrying for them, as especially given by-elections are unfavourable for the SNP that’s really not a big margin. Between 5-10% is more secure, but the SNP can still claim it’s a traditional marginal overall. Beyond the 10% mark, it becomes harder for the SNP to explain away the obviously bruising loss which is likely to be replicated in a fair few other seats at a full election, and beyond around 15-20% it’s so catastrophically bad that it may indeed signal that the SNP are on track to lose the overwhelming majority of their Central Belt seats to a resurgent Labour.
This kind of nuance matters much more at by-elections than at full elections, because the incentive is very much to draw national conclusions from by-elections, yet we lack so much of the data we need to do so firmly. Whilst we will be able to learn far more from this parliamentary level contest than the wards we’re far more used to seeing by-elections in, it’s crucial we remember no seat is by itself a proxy for the whole nation, and when analysing results we must take care to site them in the right context.
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