Andrew Liddle

The by-election that could shape Scotland’s political landscape

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

By-election wins rarely presage great victories at a general election. If they did, the Liberal Democrats would enjoy perpetual government. But the fact they are not a forecast for national contests does not mean by-elections are always insignificant. In fact, they provide a good reflection of public mood at a given time and, particularly, sentiment towards the governing party. This has been true throughout recent history and remains true today – despite the excitement that will be generated by a Scottish Labour victory over the SNP at the coming by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West.

The current MP, Margaret Ferrier, faces being removed by her constituents. She has been sentenced to 270 hours community service and suspended from the House of Commons after admitting travelling home despite knowing she had Covid. Meanwhile, the SNP itself is increasingly troubled nationally. A fractious leadership contest to succeed Nicola Sturgeon exposed serious divisions within the party, while the new leader, Humza Yousaf, has struggled to make his mark amid the ongoing and dramatic police investigation into the SNP’s finances. 

Scotland’s most prominent by-elections over the previous century are a good indicator of the impact electoral contests, such as the looming one in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, can have. In one of the most famous contests, the SNP’s Winnie Ewing won the 1967 Hamilton by-election from the governing Labour party. This was a seismic moment in Scottish politics that helped to legitimise the nationalist cause, but it did not signal a significant shift in the political landscape. Ewing would lose her seat at the general election three years later and the SNP would struggle to gain a consistent foothold at Westminster for decades. 

The same is also true of Roy Jenkins, who won the Glasgow Hillhead constituency for the nascent SDP in a by-election in 1982. Again, the by-election saw defeat for the (in this case, Conservative) government and helped to legitimise Jenkins’ breakaway movement, as well as entrench his claim to leadership of it.

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Written by
Andrew Liddle

Andrew Liddle is a political writer and former adviser to Scottish Labour. He is author of Cheers, Mr Churchill! and Ruth Davidson and the Resurgence of the Scottish Tories.

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