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24 March 2021

Who’ll win the Airdrie and Shotts by-election?

The SNP have cleverly defused what could have been a dangerous by-election – and thrown Labour’s Hartlepool headache into sharp relief.

By Stephen Bush

There will be a by-election in Airdrie and Shotts: Neil Gray, the SNP MP, is standing down in order to run for the same constituency in the Scottish Parliament. Who’ll win?

The Airdrie and Shotts by-election would, at any other time, be a tricky one for the SNP to navigate: Labour came very close to taking the seat in 2017 and governing parties tend to underperform in by-elections, to both the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments.

In normal times, Labour ought to be able to win the constituency, not least because in a by-election, they ought to be able to corral a coalition of anti-SNP unionist votes, “give the boss a kicking because it is the middle of the parliamentary term” votes and their own core vote. At 13.1 per cent, the SNP majority is within the realm of what an opposition party ought to be able to win. 

The SNP leadership has been alive to this risk and with the 2021 Scottish election one featuring a high-number of retirements (many MSPs first elected in 1999 or 2003 are stepping down), the party’s ruling National Executive Committee has, sensibly, made politicians wishing to switch Westminster for Holyrood resign their seats before the election: allowing the party to hold the contest on the same day as the Scottish parliament election.

That means what could, and should, have been a very difficult by-election for the SNP ought to instead be a routine hold for the party. The better comparison is not the result in 2017 or even 2019 at a Westminster level, but the comfortable victory that the SNP’s Alex Neil enjoyed over Labour’s Richard Leonard in the same constituency at a Holyrood level in 2016.

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The SNP leadership have been accused of all sorts of dark motivations in enforcing this rule, not least because it helped to prevent Joanna Cherry, seen as the most prominent and effective of the Salmondite SNP MPs, from running for parliamentary selection in Edinburgh Central. (Unlike Gray’s Airdrie and Shotts constituency, Edinburgh Central is not a sure-fire win for the SNP at Holyrood.) It is undoubtedly to Nicola Sturgeon’s benefit to have Cherry at Westminster not in the Scottish Parliament, but you frankly cannot quibble with the logic of the rule. (Labour did the same in 2016, allowing the party to hold the Ogmore Westminster by-election on the same day as the Welsh parliamentary elections.)

As a result, the contest is unlikely to tell us much about anything. However, it underlines a further risk that Labour need to consider in the Hartlepool by-election, which is widely expected to take place on the same day as the local elections. If the parliamentary by-election does take place on 6 May, then voters in Hartlepool will have three votes that day: to elect the local council, to elect a new MP and to elect the Tees Valley mayor. It is widely expected by both the Conservatives and Labour that Ben Houchen will be comfortably re-elected as Tees Valley mayor: he can point to an impressive record of securing investment. Labour has done well to secure a good candidate in what will be a difficult race, but even so, it would be very surprising were the party to win the mayoral contest.

You can easily see how holding the Hartlepool by-election on the same day ends up in a triple disaster for Labour: Houchen is comfortably re-elected and a bunch of people just vote Tory in the other contests as an afterthought. Hartlepool was by far the weakest of Houchen’s boroughs, reflecting a long and fascinating history of Conservative underperformance in the area relative to similar seats. But he could well do better this time, and he doesn’t need to do that well in a low turnout election to tip the council and the parliamentary seat towards the Tories.

So on the one hand, Labour may reason that they are better off holding the Hartlepool by-election on a different day, to avoid letting the Conservatives do to them in Hartlepool what the SNP are sensibly doing in Airdrie and Shotts. On the other, Labour may think that going through two separate elections, and asking voters in Hartlepool to vote in three elections over two different dates is also a recipe for disaster. While the party can and should appreciate the SNP’s cleverness in Airdrie and Shotts, Labour’s headache is that there is no safe way to repeat the trick in Hartlepool.