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3 October 2023

Inside Labour’s battle for Scotland at the Rutherglen by-election

In central-belt suburbia, “austerity Labour” and the “sleazy SNP” fight for the future of Scottish politics.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Rutherglen, “red valley”, is a former industrial town in the southern suburbs of greater Glasgow. Once a fog of shipyards, steelworks and coalmines – with the motto ex fumo fama (“fame from smoke”) – it has since settled into a commuter-belt slumber.

The glow of Co-op teal and bus-board amber lit up the dusky high street, as workers from the city trickled down at teatime. Takeaways and discount chains are overlooked by the baronial town hall’s clock tower and gothic spires of a parish church. Streets of pebbledash semis and red-brick townhouses coil around its edges.

This was once a Labour heartland. Keir Hardie, the party’s founder, was born close by. But the SNP changed all that. In what was deemed an “earthquake”, the party loosened Labour’s Glaswegian grip by winning Glasgow East, a safe Labour seat, in a 2008 by-election. By 2015 it had won almost everywhere else, leaving Labour with just one MP in Scotland, down from 41.

Now these South Lanarkshire parts represent the SNP’s powerbase – home to the former first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her husband, the former party chief executive Peter Murrell, whose modest Clydeside red-brick was broadcast to the nation when searched by police. The couple were arrested as part of an ongoing investigation into alleged financial fraud in the SNP. (They deny wrongdoing, and were released without charge.)

Dee and Tim, 71 and 72, were watching the races over shandy halves in the Victoria, a street-corner local. They’d lived and worked in Rutherglen all their lives – Dee pulling pints and Tim as an electrician. For decades, they’d voted SNP, and they voted for Scottish independence.

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“Never again,” they said – they were switching to Labour. “The SNP are disgraceful, I’m really disappointed – it looks like they’ve been lining their own pockets,” said Dee. “They’re supposed to care about people, but kids cannot get houses, and old folks’ homes are full. Our grandchildren are leaving the country when they graduate.”

“Two of our hospitals have closed,” Tim added. “One’s turned into flats and the other’s so far away you’d be dead before you got there. The nurses and doctors are rushed off their feet.”

Rutherglen and Hamilton West, which the SNP won from Labour in 2015, has switched between the two in subsequent Westminster elections. Its former SNP MP, Margaret Ferrier, was ousted by a recall petition after breaking Covid-19 laws and refusing to resign for three years.

[See also: Who will win the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election?]

A sense of sleaze surrounds the once-slick operation that has dominated Scottish politics for 16 years. Labour politicians sense a new era. “I’ve been through the thick and thin – or rather the thin and thinner – of Scottish politics,” said Ian Murray, Scotland’s only Labour MP. “This feels like we’re on the verge of turning a corner. That corner has always been very far away. We don’t take anything for granted, but it feels different.”

While Rutherglen is a marginal seat (the SNP majority is 5,230), that Labour won under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, the party sees it as a litmus test for its prospects in Scotland.

“We have the opportunity to change the tectonic plates of Scottish politics in this by-election… [to show] Scotland is going to lead the way in delivering a UK Labour government,” the Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, told a rally at a community hall. A thicket of placards bearing Scottish Labour’s pinkish-red thistle logo offset the squeaky wooden floor and damp pooling in the ceiling tiles.

“This isn’t just about Rutherglen and Hamilton West,” added Keir Starmer, on his sixth visit to Scotland this year. “This will be a milestone if we win this election on the hard road back for Labour to power.”

While Sarwar was gregarious and self-assured – chatting to reporters and striding around the makeshift stage – Starmer appeared nervous. His gaze drifted into the middle distance and his hands rested stiffly on his belt. He ponderously thanked “all the rest of you around the room, in front of me, to the sides, and behind”. Labour sources both south and north of the border hope that winning around 20 seats in Scotland, as a new seat-by-seat analysis predicts, would take the pressure off their performance against the Tories in England.

There was no talk of fiscal discipline here. The rally focused on Labour’s anti-poverty record, and proposals to extend workers’ rights. Scottish Labour has been at odds with the national party on social justice issues including university tuition fees, trans rights and the two-child benefit cap (a Conservative welfare reform that Starmer won’t reverse).

Labour’s Rutherglen candidate, Michael Shanks, a teacher and volunteer at a disabled children’s charity, has said he wants the UK to rejoin the EU – and that he’d vote to scrap the two-child cap. When asked by the assembled press pack about the latter, Starmer clipped that we were “fishing for division”.

Daniel Johnson, the Labour MSP for Edinburgh Southern, admitted that the issue had “come up” during campaigning, but said voters recognise that Scottish and UK Labour are not “identikit parties”. Starmer’s recent warmth towards the EU has helped with anti-Brexit voters, he added.

“People here have the chance to put two governments on notice; that’s what’s on the ballot paper,” insisted Shanks. He wore the uniform of a Labour-moderate-going-places: grey shirt, belted jeans, smart glasses and cherry-red Doc Marten’s for pounding pavements.

In Burnbank, a former mining village in the town of Hamilton, blocks of council flats loomed over modern closes, bright under rain-fresh sunlight. Here, young mums and home-workers spoke of switching from SNP to Labour.

“Looking at the state of our schools, it’s time for a change,” said one mother of teenagers who had voted SNP all her life.

“I’ve voted SNP the last couple of times but this time I’m going Labour,” said her neighbour opposite, baby on her hip. She was concerned about rising bills and prices. “It’s the only way to get rid of the Tories.”

There was a feeling that the SNP had run out of ideas. It has reportedly struggled to persuade its own MSPs to campaign, and paid zero-hour contractors to leaflet.

“People like to paint us as a party in decline, but our SNP family have been fantastic,” Katy Loudon, the SNP’s candidate – also a local teacher – told me at her campaign office, where Celebrations chocolates were scattered across a table of leaflets and maps. She had spoken to so many voters she’d nearly lost her voice.

In tough circumstances (“I’m not going to say it [the police investigation] hasn’t been mentioned”), her tactic is to paint the SNP as the “only progressive choice”. She said Labour was “pursuing Brexit and austerity”, referring to Starmer’s “lurch to the right” and the two-child cap. The SNP, in contrast, introduced the Scottish child payment of £25-a-week for every child in a low-income family – labelled a “watershed moment” by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an anti-poverty charity.

Despite the SNP’s struggles, support for Scottish independence endures. Pro-union Labour has to transcend the issue. A Labour source calculates that while a “core 20 per cent” of Scottish voters are “indy or nothing”, most feel it’s not the right time to rerun the referendum. Sarwar admitted to me earlier this year, however, that the cause would “never go away”.

“Of course, if people ask me to talk about independence, I’m always going to advocate for it,” said Loudon. “But it’s not about independence for its own sake – Westminster is broken, and it’s about getting away from this broken system.”

Governed by a law-breaking MP, scandal-ridden SNP and tired Tory government, the people of Rutherglen and Hamilton West perhaps understandably have a “cynical, disengaged, anti-politician” attitude, according to a veteran campaigner here. Labour must convince them that their votes count – if it wants to convince the country of a nationwide Labour revival.

[See also: Rutherglen by-election: Labour’s key to unlocking Scotland?]

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