This week sees the return of MSPs and MPs to Holyrood and Westminster to begin a hugely significant political year which will either include a general election or culminate on the cusp of one.
Parties are wasting no time getting their ducks in a row, with both Labour and the SNP reshuffling their Westminster front benches as preparations for the election begin in earnest in what is likely to be a long and gruelling campaign.
Before we get to the general election, however, there is the small matter of a run of by-elections which will illustrate the public mood across different parts of the UK, the most intriguing of which is the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election which will take place on October 5th.
In our recent Edinburgh Festival event with the broadcaster and commentator Steve Richards, he described the impending vote as “the most important by-election in a generation” and it is not hard to see why.
The constituency is almost the definition of a bellwether seat, fluctuating between Labour and the SNP at each of the last four elections, reflecting the relative performance of those parties at those points in time.
Given the timing of the vote, the fluctuating fortunes of the parties and the impact that Scotland may have on the outcome of the upcoming general election, there is a huge amount at stake beyond electing Rutherglen’s new MP.
The context for the contest is that of surging Labour support at a UK-level, with an average poll lead of 15-20 percentage points, and a fall in support for the SNP amid a series of internal difficulties, albeit that the party remains marginally ahead of Labour in Scotland-wide polls.
That narrowing of the gap between Labour and the SNP has meant that, having until recently written Scotland off as an impenetrable yellow-wall, Labour now views Scotland as a vital battleground to help Keir Starmer into Downing Street.
Rutherglen and Hamilton West provides the first real indication of what voters are thinking; with a swing of under 5% needed to reclaim the seat from the SNP, the indications are that Labour should win the seat relatively easily and that what we should be focussed on is the margin of victory rather than the party of victory.
But with that expectation comes significant pressure for Labour; frankly if they can’t win a seat that they took under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in 2017 then there will be significant questions around Keir Starmer’s ability to change the political weather, at least in Scotland.
The vote is also a big moment for SNP leader and First Minister Humza Yousaf, his first electoral test after a tough baptism in the top job. Support for the SNP has fallen by around 8 percentage points since the turn of the year, with Labour the main beneficiary. A heavy defeat in Rutherglen will add to the sense of despondency in the party ahead of its annual conference and will cause concern about whether the SNP can retain its dominance in Westminster.
This is a huge by-election at the start of a huge political year. If you live in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, expect a procession of politicians knocking at your door. For the rest of us, this result will tell us a lot about the shape of our politics for years to come.
Written by Mark Diffley