Winner in 2019 – Neil Gray (SNP)

Winner of 2021 by-election –Anum Qaisar (SNP)

THE 2017 General Election is well remembered for the late Corbyn surge and the SNP’s consequent loss to Labour of seven seats that they assumed to be rock solid.

But what tends to be forgotten is the larger number of seats where Labour came extraordinarily close in 2017 and where the SNP seemed to live a charmed life by coming out on top in what practically amounted to coin-toss results. Airdrie and Shotts was a prime example of that phenomenon.

Neil Gray (below) of the SNP went into the 2017 election defending the constituency with a cushion of almost 9000 votes but came out of it with a barely-there majority of fewer than 200.

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He subsequently managed to re-establish a proper lead in the 2019 SNP landslide but resigned the seat two years later in order to stand for the Scottish Parliament.

Voters often punish parties that trigger “unnecessary” by-elections but on that occasion the SNP got away with it, perhaps because they held the vote only a week after the 2021 Holyrood election and it effectively merged into that wider campaign.

Their margin of victory over Labour was significantly reduced, but their new candidate, Anum Qaisar, held the seat comfortably by around eight percentage points.

Nevertheless, Labour’s ultra-near-miss in 2017, and the progress they made in the 2021 by-election, left little room for doubt that Airdrie and Shotts would be one of the SNP’s most vulnerable seats if Labour ever made a major Scotland-wide comeback. That is the precisely the scenario the SNP are now faced with.

Taking into account a boundary revision which brings a portion of the old Motherwell and Wishaw seat into the constituency, the notional results from 2019 suggest Airdrie and Shotts would fall to Labour on only a 6.5% swing.

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To put that in perspective, it means Labour can expect to win the seat even if they are as much as 13 percentage points behind the SNP nationally. The polls so far in the campaign have actually shown Labour with an outright national lead over the SNP.

An SNP hold would therefore probably require both a national recovery and also a local performance that outperforms the national trend. It’s not a lost cause but a Herculean campaigning and get-out-the-vote effort by SNP supporters will be essential if Qaisar is to have a chance of nudging over the line for a second term.

It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that the SNP face a particularly stern test in a constituency that, under its previous guise of Monklands East, was held for many years by the former Labour leader John Smith.

He was untroubled by any challenge from other parties on the three occasions he was elected in the seat, with his majority never dipping below 9000 votes. But there was a sting in the tail for Labour at the end of his tenure.

In spite of the outpouring of grief that followed his death in 1994, the constituency’s voters put sentiment entirely to one side in the by-election to select his replacement and came close to rocking the Westminster establishment to its core by nearly electing an SNP MP in the shape of Kay Ullrich. Never before had they voted for the SNP in anything like such numbers.

The reason for that remarkable result was the scandal surrounding the Labour-run Monklands District Council, which stood accused of favouring “Catholic” Coatbridge over “Protestant” Airdrie. In truth, the demographic differences between Coatbridge and Airdrie have always been wildly exaggerated, and indeed Airdrie currently hosts no fewer than four Catholic churches.

But the by-election was as an early indication that the people of west-central Scotland, contrary to popular belief, did not have inexhaustible patience with ugly Labour machine politics. That was one of the factors that paved the way for Labour’s eventual defeats more than a decade later.

The task before the independence movement in Airdrie and Shotts in July – and it’s a worthy one – is to ensure that the 2024 election doesn’t mark the strange rebirth of Labour machine politics in Lanarkshire.