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‘For the first time ever I might not vote’: East Renfrewshire’s voters are switching off 

SNP Leader John Swinney (Credit: Getty images)

The SNP has dominated Scotland since 2015. In an election held just months after the independence referendum, the country turned almost entirely yellow – with the exception of just three seats. Subsequent national polls have resulted in nothing more than modest change. The question this time is whether the SNP’s hold over Scotland is about to break – and nowhere is this issue more pressing than in Scotland’s central belt. The bellwether constituency of East Renfrewshire is facing a unique three-horse race between Scotland’s main parties. But despite the abundance of choice on offer to constituents this time, there’s just one problem: they’ve fallen out of love with politics.

‘I used to be really engaged with politics,’ Craig, a 32-year-old ‘Yes’ man, says remorsefully, when I spend a day speaking to voters on the area’s high streets. ‘I used to watch Newsnight every night, I used to love The Week when it was on. But then I got very depressed. I just became a wee bit disillusioned with politics in general. Add to the mix the kind of fallout from the recent issues with the SNP and I think a lot of trust has been lost.’ 

‘For the first time in my life, I might not vote,’ Craig confessed.

This sums up the dilemma facing many in this seat and beyond. East Renfrewshire was once a hotspot of the politically engaged and the socially conservative area is home to some of Scotland’s best state schools, attracting high-earning professionals with young families. Voter turnout is usually ten points higher than the UK average, while constituents are firmly anti-Brexit: East Renfrewshire is ranked the 53rd most ‘Bregretful’ place in Britain with 75 per cent of the area’s voters backing Remain. In the last 20 years, all three main parties have seen success here, from Blairite Jim Murphy of Labour to the Conservative’s Paul Masterton and the SNP’s Kirsten Oswald, elected twice. Fighting it out this time is Dr Sandesh Gulhane for the Scottish Conservatives, a former orthopaedic surgeon-turned-GP; Labour’s Blair McDougall, once campaign director for Better Together in 2014; and the incumbent SNP MP Kirsten Oswald.

The SNP is defending – and the party has reason to be concerned. Would Craig vote for the nationalists this time? ‘For the first time in my life, I might not vote,’ he confessed. ‘I had conversations with friends years ago where they would tell me that they weren’t voting and it actually angered me. So the possibility of me thinking that, and considering I was really engaged… It became for me a bit of a soap opera that we tune into every single night when nothing really ever changes.’

While the Scottish Tories have been pavement pounding since September, with Labour claiming to have been at it for over a year, locals are finding it hard to muster up much enthusiasm for any of their candidates. A reluctant voter said she was going with the Greens so as not to waste her vote – citing the struggles of the Suffragettes rather than any real hope for party policies, adding: ‘I wish there was someone in politics who was honest.’ Eileen, a pro-independence voter now leaning towards Labour, was visibly exasperated: ‘You’ve got people here that want a bit of change, but I don’t know if I’d trust Labour properly yet,’ the 50-year-old admitted. ‘Politicians are roundabout with their answers. I feel like it’s making it so much harder for the voters. People are just not going to vote as much.’ 

Pollster Mark Diffley agrees, telling me: ‘This election will most probably see a lower turnout than normal.’ Techne’s recent country-wide polling has found that 20 per cent of voters aged 18-34 haven’t bothered to register yet. Of those not voting at all, a third said it was because they didn’t like any of their options, while a quarter didn’t think their vote counted and ‘whatever party is elected, they will act as before’. Meanwhile, new Scottish polling from Ipsos finds that just under half of all Scottish voters may still change their minds.

East Renfrewshire’s SNP voters are looking elsewhere and while many are reluctantly leaning towards Labour, some would rather stay at home on polling day. A few criticise their most recent MP but most prefer to point to her party’s record in the Scottish parliament. Although this election is not a Holyrood one there is a growing anti-SNP sentiment of which the Westminster group will bear the brunt. Katie, who owns her own boutique, blamed the lack of support Scotland’s small businesses had received post-Covid for the wipeout of independent stores in the constituency, while a charity shop manager remarked on the changes she’d seen in her clientele over the last two years. ‘We’re getting people from all walks of life. I remember when it was just people on a low income, but not now. Everyone’s keeping money for the essentials.’

Tactical voting will play a prominent role in East Renfrewshire’s election, as those that are voting are driven more by who they don’t want in than who they do. ‘I’ll be voting for anything that’s anti-SNP,’ a business owner in her late forties stated without hesitation. ‘I think they are a bunch of charlatans.’ Her friend was more direct. ‘Don’t even talk to me about politicians. They’re all arseholes.’ 

Tactical voting will play a prominent role in East Renfrewshire, as those that are voting are driven more by who they don’t want in than who they do.

Unionist parties are eager to use ‘SNP out’ messaging to their advantage. Gulhane’s campaigners say a vote for the Tories will ‘deal a hammer blow’ to the SNP, with leaflets that rely on the 2019 result – where the Conservatives came second to the SNP – to back them up. Meanwhile Labour’s candidate takes two sets of flyers around with him. For ex-SNP voters that are undecided but leaning towards Labour, the Better Together campaigner hands over the classic rose-coloured leaflet and reiterates Labour’s ‘change’ message. But for those Conservatives in East Renfrewshire, MacDougall has a white pamphlet filled with arguments iterated by right-leaning media like the Daily Express that paint Labour favourably. The hope is excerpts from the Tory press will persuade conflicted Tory voters. It may well work. ‘It’s still very, very open here,’ MacDougall tells me. ‘We are benefiting from people’s disappointment in both of Scotland’s governments — but it’s clear that the Conservative vote has utterly collapsed this time, even before their troubled general election campaign.’

But there remains a lot of convincing to be done yet. Sir Keir Starmer isn’t a favourite on the doorsteps, with constituents critical of his flip-flopping on Gaza, concerned about reports of rising anti-Semitism – Newton Mearns is the most Jewish area in Scotland – and voters in the second-most pro-green area in the UK still a bit confused about what GB Energy actually is. Pollsters can’t quite agree on what will happen in the area, either: YouGov’s latest survey predicts MacDougall will win the Labour seat by a margin of 11 per cent, while MoreInCommon has Oswald on top by 3 per cent. While most accept the race is likely to see a Labour or SNP victory, there remains interest in the Scottish Tories who are projected to come away with a respectable chunk of the vote – which could jeopardise a Labour win. Defending her 5,000 majority, Oswald remains upbeat. ‘It’s been great to get out across all the communities,’ she told me. ‘I’m looking forward to the rest of the campaign.’

Yet the picture in East Renfrewshire remains one of a growing rift between politicians and their electorate, and the apathy seen here is widespread across the rest of Scotland. The Labour target will be one to watch on the morning of 5 July. The result will signify what will happen across the rest of the country.