Labour wins Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election with low turnout

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How Michael Shanks became Scotland’s newest MP

Labour’s Michael Shanks has won the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, defeating the SNP’s Katy Loudon by 1,756 votes. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier, who breached Covid-19 rules by travelling while infected.

Shanks, a former teacher and trade unionist, secured 12,543 votes (41.1%), while Loudon, a primary school headteacher, received 10,787 votes (35.3%). The Conservative candidate Lynne Nailon came third with 4,075 votes (13.3%), followed by the Liberal Democrat candidate Mark McGeever with 1,287 votes (4.2%).

The other candidates were Laura Doherty for the Scottish Greens (1,012 votes, 3.3%), Martyn Greene for Reform UK (453 votes, 1.5%), Jonathan Stanley for the Scottish Unionist Party (211 votes, 0.7%), and David Mackay for the Social Democratic Party (163 votes, 0.5%).

The turnout was only 37.9%, much lower than the 66.5% in the 2019 general election.

Why Labour’s victory is significant

Labour’s victory in Rutherglen and Hamilton West is significant for several reasons. First, it is the party’s first by-election gain in Scotland since 2008, when it won Glasgow East from the SNP. Second, it is a rare example of Labour winning a seat from the SNP in Scotland, where the nationalists have dominated Westminster politics since 2015. Third, it is a boost for Labour leader Anas Sarwar, who took over the party in February and led it to a better-than-expected performance in the Scottish Parliament election in May.

labour michael shanks rutherglen and hamilton west

Labour’s win also shows that the party can appeal to both pro-union and pro-independence voters in Scotland, as Shanks campaigned on a platform of social justice and economic recovery rather than constitutional issues. He said he wanted to be “a voice for change” and “a champion for the people” of his constituency.

What this means for the SNP and independence

The SNP’s defeat in Rutherglen and Hamilton West is a setback for the party and its leader Nicola Sturgeon, who had hoped to regain the seat and maintain momentum for a second independence referendum. The SNP had held the seat since 2015, when Ferrier defeated then-shadow Scottish secretary Tom Greatrex with a swing of 30.6%. Ferrier was re-elected in 2019 with a reduced majority of 5,230 over Labour.

The SNP’s loss also suggests that the party may face challenges in retaining some of its Westminster seats in Scotland, especially those with narrow majorities or strong Labour or Conservative challengers. The SNP currently holds 45 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster, but some of them are vulnerable to swings or tactical voting by unionist parties.

The by-election result also indicates that the issue of independence may not be as salient or decisive as the SNP hopes, as many voters may be more concerned about other matters such as health, education, jobs and Covid-19 recovery. The SNP has argued that it has a mandate to hold another referendum after winning a historic fourth term in the Scottish Parliament election, but the UK government has rejected this claim and said it will not grant permission for another vote.

How the other parties fared

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties both saw their vote shares decline in Rutherglen and Hamilton West compared to the 2019 general election. The Conservatives dropped by 4.6 percentage points, while the Liberal Democrats fell by 2 percentage points.

The Conservative candidate Lynne Nailon said she was “disappointed” by the result but proud of her campaign. She said she had focused on issues such as crime, education and mental health, and criticised the SNP for being “obsessed” with independence.

The Liberal Democrat candidate Mark McGeever said he was “pleased” with his campaign but admitted that his party faced “a tough challenge” in Scotland. He said he had offered a “positive vision” for the constituency and Scotland, and called for more cooperation between parties to tackle the Covid-19 crisis.

The Scottish Green candidate Laura Doherty increased her party’s vote share by 1.8 percentage points compared to 2019, while Reform UK and two minor parties made their debut in the constituency.

What happens next

The result of the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election means that Labour now has two MPs in Scotland, joining Ian Murray who represents Edinburgh South. The SNP remains the largest party in Scotland at Westminster with 45 MPs, followed by the Conservatives with six MPs and the Liberal Democrats with four MPs.

The by-election also marks the end of a series of electoral contests in Scotland this year, following the Scottish Parliament election in May and the Airdrie and Shotts by-election in June. The next scheduled election in Scotland is the local government election in May 2024, unless there is an early general election or another by-election.

The question of whether there will be another independence referendum in Scotland remains unresolved, as the SNP and the UK government continue to clash over the issue. The SNP has said it will introduce a bill for a referendum in the current Scottish Parliament session, but the UK government has said it will not agree to it. The matter may end up in the courts, or depend on the outcome of the next general election.

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