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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

Rutherglen byelection: voters dismiss independence but want action on cost of living

Katy Loudon campaigning in Rutherglen
Katy Loudon, the SNP’s candidate for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, on the campaign trail with Neil Gray (left) and Ian Blackford. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Burnside, an affluent neighbourhood of Rutherglen, enjoys a “pleasant village feel”, according to the local estate agent, with a cluster of bustling cafes, dry-cleaners and independent retailers backing on to a grid of stone-fronted terraces with well-kept gardens.

It was here that the disgraced former MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Margaret Ferrier, visited in late September 2020 – the same day she took a Covid test that subsequently proved positive.

On a sunny morning three years later, with Ferrier finally ousted by her constituents and a byelection contest looming, the gift shop she visited and dragged unwillingly into the headlines is now run by Fiona Murray, who quit her job in finance to take over the business after the Ferrier furore.

Margaret Ferrier poses for a photo wearing a blue jacket
Margaret Ferrier resigned after breaking Covid rules by visiting her constituency in September 2020. Photograph: Roger Harris/UK Parliament/PA

“We had a lot of local support,” said Murray, “so shoppers have come back. But regardless of political opinion, you won’t find many who supported her staying on, given the impact that Covid had on businesses around here and her still getting paid.”

With the byelection confirmed for 5 October, it is striking how sharp the anger towards Ferrier’s behaviour has remained for some. And while both Scottish Labour and the Scottish National party consider the vote to be a crucial test in advance of the next general election, many residents exhibit a creeping disillusionment with all politicians.

Almost everyone refers to cost of living constraints. “Our customers are struggling all the time with the cost of things,” said Murray. “Their fixed rates are coming to an end and mortgages are going up. There are quite a few empty units along here because the rents are so high.”

Across the road at the local florist, Janet Freeman was more equivocal about the fate of the woman she remembers as friendly and approachable. “I understand she shouldn’t have done it but it’s jumping on one person, when the Conservatives were having parties. It was a witch-hunt”.

Even so, Freeman said she will not be voting SNP again, though the reason was nothing to do with Ferrier or Nicola Sturgeon (“digging up her back garden like there’s a body there”, she tutted, referencing the search of the former first minister’s home as part of the police investigation into SNP finances). “They’re losing the point. There’s nothing we can do about independence now, and there’s more needs done with cost of living.”

This is a refrain repeated across the country and one that the SNP is well aware of: younger and aspirational voters no longer regard independence as a priority, according to recent polling analysis signed off by their Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, and first reported in the Times.

Shoppers and residents walk down Rutherglen’s Main Street
Voters have said the hot topic in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West constituency is the cost of living. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Further into Rutherglen town centre is the beauty salon Ferrier visited that September weekend and whose owner later told the Guardian she was “gobsmacked” by her refusal to step down.

The salon is thriving once again and was unwilling to revisit those times. But across the junction on the high street, Tracy Clark explained that she signed the recall petition – “I couldn’t visit my own mum when she was dying” – but that she will still vote for Katy Loudon, the SNP candidate and local councillor, next month. “For me, it’s about independence. There’s a massive disparity in the way people live in the south of England compared with here, and that’s why we need different government.”

Chatting with a friend outside the barber shop, John McCarron said he was “a Labour man”. He took early retirement following a stroke and is struggling to find affordable ground-floor accommodation, but his wife has been handing out leaflets for the Labour candidate, Michael Shanks, a modern studies teacher at a nearby high school. “He’s local and he knows the area well. But it’s a big constituency with a lot of different views,” he cautioned.

Past the high street’s mercat cross – the traditional symbol of market trading rights granted to royal burghs like Rutherglen – those in the bus stop queue agreed that politicians needed to prioritise local services.

“You can see the decline all around you: there are a lot of empty shops, a lot of the same things, hairdressers, bookies and hot food places,” said Marie Maguire, a care worker. Petty crime is rife – “especially with the youngsters, and I worry about the influence on my own teenagers”.

John McCarron poses for a photo on Rutherglen Main Street
John McCarron said he was planning to vote for Labour’s Michael Shanks. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

This resignation was captured in recent Ipsos Scotland polling, which found that, while the public are unimpressed with the SNP’s record on public services, they do not appear to think a Labour Holyrood government would fare much better.

Further east in Cambuslang, where Ferrier based her constituency office, the high flats around the high street give way to elegant detached villas.

“It’s all about money,” said Iain Coin, “or the lack of it – it’s all folk can speak about, even the people in the nice houses up the hill.”

The business manager was “considering” voting Labour, but finds Keir Starmer “anaemic” and said there was not enough difference between Scottish Labour and their UK counterparts.

Sheila Cochrane, who was walking her retriever, has managed to avoid doorstep canvassers because she works night shifts, but said she can only “cross her fingers that things get better”.

“Should people who are working be going to food banks? Starving themselves to feed their kids? Whoever gets in will have to come up with something better than this.”

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