Over the past few months, there's been a part of me thinking "stay off the subject of a possible Rutherglen by-election, so as not to draw attention to a petition that won't necessarily succeed". However, due to the grotesque unity between the SNP and Labour in supporting the petition to oust Ferrier, it's probably all but guaranteed to succeed, so at this stage there may not be any great harm in looking ahead to the by-election and the scale of the challenge the SNP will now face - partly through their own fault. Incredibly, fourteen SNP MPs actively voted for Ferrier's suspension today, which is an act of self-destructive virtue-signalling that I have zero patience for. It's unknown whether Ferrier was responsible for any Covid infections at all, but even if she was, the harm caused by her actions will pale into insignificance compared to the countless ongoing personal tragedies directly brought about by the subsequent irresponsible actions of government leaders, including Humza Yousaf and Rishi Sunak, in dropping all mitigations against the virus. (I hardly ever blog about Covid anymore, but for the love of God, it's surely blindingly obvious that there should currently be an all-out campaign to clean up indoor air, especially in schools, and that people should at least be given non-binding encouragement to wear masks in the highest-risk indoor environments, for example hospitals or crowded trains. This stuff isn't rocket science, and nor would it constitute some kind of intolerable breach of personal liberty.)
Anyway, Rutherglen & Hamilton West unfortunately just happens to be one of the most Labour-friendly seats in Scotland, as can be seen from the fact that it was one of only seven Scottish seats Labour took during the Corbyn surge of 2017. Margaret Ferrier grabbed it back for the SNP in 2019 with a swing of 5%, but that was actually more modest than the national Labour-to-SNP swing of 8%, so if anything the SNP's underlying weakness in the seat worsened slightly (although perhaps that can be partly explained by a one-off incumbency bonus for the outgoing Labour MP Ged Killen). The SNP will go into this by-election defending a lead over Labour of just under ten points, which means on a uniform national swing you would expect them to hold the seat if their lead in Scotland-wide opinion polls exceeds around sixteen points. In every poll conducted since Humza Yousaf became leader, the SNP's Westminster lead has fallen well short of that, varying between three and twelve points. So there are strong objective reasons for Labour being regarded as favourites in this contest.
But in practice it could be a whole lot worse than the national opinion polls imply, partly because trends are often magnified in by-elections, and partly because the witch-hunt against Ferrier that the SNP have helped to whip up will bounce back on one party only, and that party will not be Labour. If Labour win, it'll really be the margin of victory that commentators will be looking at - because expectations are so low for the SNP, a narrow defeat could even help shore up Humza Yousaf's position somewhat, but a crushing defeat in the region of 20-30 points could genuinely call into question whether Yousaf can survive as leader until the general election.
And a possible wildcard question: will Alex Salmond seize the moment and stand as an Alba candidate? I have no inside information, so I'll just give you my own opinion, which is that if Alba are thinking of getting involved in this by-election, they should either do it properly or not at all. There's literally no point in putting up a candidate who nobody has ever heard of "for experience" if that person goes on to take only 1% or 2% or 3% of the vote - it would split the pro-indy vote in a crucial first-past-the-post by-election without shifting the dial one iota as far as Alba's credibility is concerned. Whereas if Alba puts up a big-name candidate and takes perhaps 15% or 20% of the vote, that could be a truly transformational moment after which voters across Scotland will for the first time regard the party as a serious option. Yes, an intervention of that significance could help Labour win the seat, and for the avoidance of doubt that would be a bad thing not a good thing, but the trade-off might just about be worth it if the SNP are shocked into realising that they can no longer keep kicking independence into ever longer grass without risking a major electoral cost. If Alex Salmond doesn't want to stand, though, Alba should sit it out altogether (as indeed should be their default position in the vast majority of first-past-the-post elections).
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