Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election offers hope that voters have finally had enough of empty populism – Scotsman comment

All parties should be concerned about the low by-election turnout – and take note of a defeat for populism as well as the SNP

Labour’s victory in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election was an important one for the party, given it suggests Scotland could supply the MPs it needs to form the next government. If it had failed to take the seat, despite the SNP’s current disarray, the promise of the polls may well have turned to dust.

However, while Keir Starmer and co should celebrate, there are also reasons to worry. Michael Shanks received more than 17,800 votes, well ahead of the SNP’s Katy Loudon in second on nearly 8,400. But Labour’s total was actually lower than 2019 candidate Gerard Killen’s 18,500-odd, which secured him second place. The turnout fell from 67 to 37 per cent, perhaps to be expected in a by-election. However, it hardly demonstrates a tidal wave of public enthusiasm for Labour.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The sense of voter apathy was compounded by the SNP having to employ people to hand out leaflets because of a shortage of volunteers. But many nationalist voters who stayed at home might well return to the fold in a general election. A new poll by Opinium puts support for independence at 45 per cent, with 41 per cent opposed. If that's the case when the SNP are in turmoil, what happens if they get their act together?

That said, the SNP and Tories both have more reasons for concern. A resurgent Scottish Labour party could help depose Rishi Sunak’s Tories, while also dealing a potentially decisive blow to the nationalists. Rutherglen could be a turning point – and not just for Labour but politics as a whole.

Both the SNP and the Conservatives have been cushioned from criticism by their competing populist causes of independence and Brexit. The state of the NHS or even the economy doesn’t matter quite as much when votes can be secured by simple appeals to either type of nationalism.

After years of governments obsessed by constitutional arrangements, Rutherglen could be a sign that voters are growing weary of all the empty rhetoric and squabbling as vital infrastructure and public services crumble, sometimes quite literally. For the sake of the country, we certainly hope so.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.