I don’t need to explain this one to anyone reading this piece, do I? You all know fine well what went on leading to this vote for the UK Parliament’s Rutherglen and Hamilton West constituency – this was the big set-piece that everyone’s been waiting for for months! Three years after SNP MP Margaret Ferrier broke COVID-19 rules, immediately costing her her party membership, it eventually further cost her her seat, as the first ever recall petition in Scotland successfully removed her from office.
As a seat that Labour had narrowly managed to win back from the SNP in 2017 and at a time where the SNP don’t have their troubles to seek, Labour were the clear favourites to win here. Yet as I noted in my preview, simply winning alone wouldn’t tell us much, and it’d be the margin that mattered most.
Winner and Key Stats
Labour: Michael Shanks
Change vs 2019: Labour Gain from SNP
Change vs vacating: Labour Gain from Independent
Turnout: 37.2% (-29.4)
Valid: 30477 (99.8%)
Spoiled: 54 (0.2%)
Majority: 9446 (31.0%)
Swing: 20.4% SNP to Labour
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
Note: UKIP won 1.2% in 2019.
The Big Beasts
I mean, I was not wrong, but bloody hell! Everybody expected Labour to win, but nobody expected them to win this big. That’s an absolutely stonking victory – well over half the vote, a majority of 31%, a swing of 20.4%. Prior to the election I’d marked out a margin greater than 15% was where things would be disastrous for the SNP, and this is twice that level. In terms of raw votes, although Labour were slightly below their 2019 tally, the SNP’s number dropped by over 15,000.
Scotland hasn’t delivered this thumping a by-election outcome in my voting lifetime (technically I was old enough to vote when the 2008 Glasgow East by-election hit, but I didn’t live there and first got to actively vote at the 2009 EU’s). The closest it comes is the 2014 Cowdenbeath by-election for the Scottish Parliament, which is actually eerily similar in terms of shares and margins between Labour and the SNP, but crucially with much smaller swings, in a seat Labour were the incumbents, the previous MSP Helen Eadie had sadly died from cancer, and before the Independence referendum turned politics on its head.
As is my habit, I’m going to pour a little bit of cold water on both of the key narratives we’re seeing emerging from this by-election – or rather, I’m going to be that annoying person who points out two things can be true at once. From the SNP and Independence-supportive quarters, we’re definitely seeing a lot more of the “by-elections are exceptional and exaggerated circumstances” argument, aiming to suggest the SNP’s loss isn’t as bad as it seems. Counterbalancing that in Labour and more generally Pro-Union quarters, we’re hearing “a 31% margin on 20% swing is astonishing and suggests the SNP are going to lose most of their seats”.
Far from being mutually exclusive, we need to understand the truth of both of these in order to fully explain what this by-election means more broadly. It’s absolutely true that the result is exaggerated, in part due to low turnout being particularly unfavourable to the SNP’s younger and poorer voter base, which is already less likely to turn out and vote at the best of times. I highly doubt we’re going to see 31% margins over and sub-30% vote shares for the SNP at the General Election, especially shorn of the context of the recall petition.
But at the same time, if swing is a phenomenal 20% at a by-election, it’s very hard to see how it’s not in double figures even at the General. A 10% uniform swing versus 2019 flips something like 16 seats from SNP to Labour; add in boundary changes, the fact the swing won’t be uniform, and wins for other parties, and right now I’d be of the opinion that even if Labour don’t win the most seats, the SNP could still find themselves only winning a minority of Scotland’s constituencies for the first time since before the referendum.
It’s worth in this section touching on turnout too, which was down significantly versus 2019. As a little niggle I do want to remind those pointing out “it’s not as low as Airdrie and Shotts” – it’s about 3% better – that if you’re going to make that comparison, it’s worth remembering Airdrie and Shotts also had a 4% worse turnout at the full election too. This isn’t particularly consequential, it’s just been bugging me!
Given the sheer collapse in the SNP’s actual votes, I think it’s clear a large portion of their support simply stayed home. It would be a huge mistake to assume that means none of their voters went to Labour – given the margins here a significant portion absolutely must have. Instead, I point this out because that was the SNP’s big issue when they lost a bunch of seats in 2017. They lost more votes to reduced turnout than to direct transfers to other parties. Even allowing for the fact the full election, in what will be a redrawn Rutherglen seat, is unlikely to be as emphatic a win for Labour, a couple of thousand voters staying home could be the difference between winning and losing in other seats.
The Squeezed Middle
Looking at the other three Holyrood parties and it’s paltry shares all round, to be frank. Most notably and punishingly, the Conservatives crashed down to their worst ever result in the constituency, so bad it cost them their deposit. I had pointed out in my preview I thought that was a possibility, but that I didn’t think it would happen, so I get a half mark for that one. I think there are three contributors to this dire showing; firstly, and most significantly, the clear incentive to tactically vote for Labour to get the SNP out; secondly, the party’s own political woes at present; and thirdly, the presence of other small right wing parties attractive as a by-election protest vote.
The Lib Dems also losing their deposit I was much more certain would happen, given they barely held it last time, and they are likewise polling worse (for Westminster) than 2019 and vulnerable to tactical incentives. And the Greens I gave zero prospect of holding theirs, so no surprise there. What I would say though is that in relative terms, although they place fifth the Greens have probably gotten off lightest here.
I know, I know, the most angry readers are immediately leaping to “well of COURSE the BIASED GREEN who runs Ballot Box Scotland would SPIN this!” but hear me out: we all know the Greens do abysmally at FPTP Westminster elections. It’s hands-down their worst election type, far worse even than the FPTP side of Holyrood (for those seats they did stand in). The Greens do far better in elections that are proportional, because their voters know their vote counts more then, but that it’s a waste for Westminster. No one has to like this, from either direction, but it’s unarguably true.
I’m not going to say this is a good result for the Greens; 2% is so low it doesn’t even hit the 3% I use as the threshold for my ideal proportional voting system. But in a by-election in which the two other non-competitive Holyrood parties, which do have track records of FPTP wins at Westminster, were also squeezed tight, and in a seat the Greens have never contested, placing close to the Lib Dems and winning just over half the Conservative vote isn’t actually terrible. It puts the three parties on roughly the same level, which outside of their strongest Glasgow and Edinburgh areas the Greens have never been anywhere close to that at Westminster. In that sense, it’s not a good result, but it’s the least bad of the three relative to past performance and expectations.
Turning to the non-parliamentary parties, I’m not going to make a comment on absolutely every single one of them given how many there are, but there are a few things to pick out. It’s also worth bearing in mind – and I’m sorry to candidates who make this personally, but it isn’t intended as such – the “crank vote”. If you’ve decided you’re going vote for a micro party, especially in the safety of a by-election, you’re going to do so regardless. If you’ve got a particular bone you want to pick, you are going to be less dissuaded by tactical incentives than voters who usually support a party that’s serious but unlikely to win. That’ll have helped pack some of these comparatively close to the three weaker Holyrood parties.
Reform UK ending up the best performing of this batch shouldn’t be a shock given their UK-wide polling at the moment, though it also emphasises they aren’t really in competitive shape up here. Similarly the Family Party have consistently been one of the most active non-Holyrood parties for the past couple of years, for example standing in nearly as many wards in 2022 as Alba did, so placing next makes sense.
Speaking of Alba, their absence left the Independence for Scotland Party (ISP) the clear “Hardline Pro-Independence but Anti-Scottish Government” option on the ballot. Only the most Terminally Online of us may recall the ISP were founded first and had their balloon burst when Alba launched, and they are a much less prominent outfit. Nonetheless, given the simplicity and clarity of their name, we can take them as a little bit of an Alba proxy and say that despite the SNP’s current woes, there still isn’t a mass turn against them in favour of harder line Pro-Independence parties. Cynics may have suggested Alba’s decision had more to do with not wanting to show themselves up than their stated call for unity, and this kind of result may justify that cynicism.
Finally, two of the Independent candidates. The absolute clown calling himself the Emperor of India got a thorough drubbing, but presumably he picked up a few of the kind of votes that would in an English vote go to the Monster Raving Loony Party or Count Binface just for a laugh. He can at least pride himself on beating Garry Cooke, who with just 6 votes not only becomes the second least supported by-election candidate in Scottish history, but comes up 4 short of the 10 he needed to sign his nomination papers in the first place. At a cost of £83 per vote, deposits really did very little to discourage his participation.
Well, if there’s one thing we can say about Labour’s result in this by-election, is that it’s a massive W. Bad, Very Online gags aside, we can see that this was Labour’s second best share in the seat since it was created, which I’m sure they’ll feel is a nice high for the seat to disappear on. The Conservatives on the other hand will rather forget their record low, and the Lib Dems can at least console themselves it’s not quite their worst result ever. The SNP are more in the middle, with their worst result since the referendum, but still more than 10% better than before it. That, I think, reminds us that even if Labour’s share in this by-election appears to have returned to pre-referendum heights, Scottish politics overall very much hasn’t.
Constitutional Prioritisation, not Polarisation
Scotland being Scotland, you may very well then be asking what this means for the big constitutional question that has dominated the past decade of our lives. At this point I think we need to separate out comforting partisan stories from political realities, and I’m going to say I am not and have never been convinced that SNP voters are turning against the SNP because the party has been campaigning for Independence. Anyone voting for the SNP since the referendum knows fine well what the SNP stand for and how their vote is going to be counted and used. The idea that the scales are falling from the eyes of thousands of voters as they realise they’ve been voting for a Pro-Independence party all along is laughable.
Instead, what we may be seeing is a re-prioritisation of the constitutional issue for many voters, with weakening polarisation. With the Conservative UK government now in its 14th year, and Labour looking likely to beat them at next year’s General Election, otherwise Independence-supporting voters, who are much more likely to be on the left of the spectrum as is, may be more open to voting Labour to help ensure that happens. Similarly, with the SNP in their 17th year in the Scottish Government, you could forgive voters for thinking they look rather tired.
In short, voters aren’t necessarily changing their mind on the constitution, but they are re-evaluating whether or not it should be what drives their vote. That has implications not just for the SNP, it must be said, but for the Conservatives in particular as well. If Independence seems a distant prospect, both its backers and opponents may become less driven by it, and for the Conservatives that means their revival, rooted as it was in being the strongest Pro-Union option, withering away.
There’s clear polling evidence for this outside of this one by-election. The current BBS polling average for the Holyrood list vote has the sum of Pro-Independence parties (SNP, Green and Alba) at around 43%, down 7% from the roughly 50% they achieved in 2021. Support for Independence sits at about 44% versus 47% for the Union at present (or 48% vs 52% excluding Don’t Knows), but that’s statistically unchanged from the 45% vs 48% (again, 48% vs 52% exc DK) it was around the time of the 2021 election.
Support for Independence hasn’t gone anywhere, even though support for its leading proponent has slumped. That presents a challenge for both camps. Even if the issue is less of a priority, it’s hardly a permanently secure state of affairs for the Union to be less popular than in 2014, especially if demographic changes continue to favour Independence. On the other hand, if it remains de-prioritised for too long, support may dry up, and that’s perhaps why some in the SNP have been calling for this by-election to be used as a boot up the backside of the Independence campaign. Whether they can meaningfully make that the case is another matter entirely, and not for Ballot Box Scotland to weigh in on.
And that’s a wrap on Rutherglen and Hamilton West – and a very final one since it’s potentially not even got a year left as a constituency before boundary changes come in at the General Election. This has been one of the biggest moments in Scottish politics since I started this project, and I’m rather knackered. I have a week off my day job next week and will not have my laptop with me where I am, so I will be doing precisely zero BBS work. If any polls drop, I’m afraid they’ll just have to wait for me to get back! I know there’s the usual little donation spiel below, but if you’ve enjoyed my coverage or found it useful, please do consider chucking a few quid my way.
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