01 October 2006

There's no such thing as a 'safe' seat

I've started thinking about this, particularly after the Markinch and Woodside East seat on Fife Council underwent a 30% swing to the SNP on Thursday. Labour won the seat in 1999 with 43%, then increased their share (and poll) in 2003 to 58%. The SNP's John Beare this week took the seat with 56% of the vote. If that's not worth analysing in detail, I don't know what is.

I suppose the first point worth making is the background: Markinch & Woodside East (also known by the quasi-Stalinist name of Ward 52) is in the Holyrood Constituency of Central Fife. This is held by Labour: it was Henry McLeish's seat, and it's now occupied by Christine May. However, her position is far less secure than the late Cllr Rougvie's was: the SNP challenger is Regional MSP Tricia Marwick, who needs a swing of 5.4% to take the seat. With a high-profile candidate, and no doubt a lot of effort going into what is the SNP's top target in Mid Scotland and Fife, it's not hard to see why the SNP put in a strong performance. But it doesn't explain the 30% swing.

Perhaps it's disaffection with the administration, and Labour is almost a piñata for the voters of Fife here: you have a Labour government at Westminster, a Labour-led Executive at Holyrood, and a minority Labour administration in the Council. But the Executive can't take much of the blame as the junior coalition partner, the LibDems, managed to gain an extra 10% of the vote compared with 2003. Further, tactical voting doesn't explain the whopping shift to the SNP, who even if they are the By-Election specialists, will normally view half of that swing as an excellent result.

The Labour Conference can't have helped: most of the activists who you'd have expected on the doorsteps would instead have been in Manchester, and while Labour got plenty of publicity, most of it wasn't good. Cherie Blair's alleged outburst and Peter Mandelson's backhanded compliments towards Gordon Brown can't have put forward a positive image. But does that explain why more than half of previous Labour voters switched?

Maybe the late Councillor Rougvie had a large personal vote: he did win the seat from the former LibDem Councillor for Cadham/Markinch/Star, after all. Similarly, the SNP didn't stand in the old ward, so perhaps those LibDem voters would have backed the SNP candidate in such circumstances. But the 1995 LibDem vote was only 40%, and the winner had a majority of just 17 over the Labour candidate. Similarly, the combined SNP/LibDem vote in 1999 was 50%, over Labour's 43%, and more than half of that combined vote went to the LibDems, so it's not just a case of unwind. And how do we explain the collapse in the LibDem vote in 2003, to just 6%?

I think the trend is broader: since its creation in 1974, Central Fife has been Labour. Fife West, its predecessor, was Willie Hamilton's seat since 1950, after he won it from the Communist Party, whose candidate held the seat since 1935. Labour held the seat between 1910 and 1931. So with the exception of the 1931-35 Parliament (when the seat was Conservative-held), this part of the world has been unashamedly Left wing since 1910. And even before then, its MPs were Liberal. Of course, until recently, political allegiance has been comparable with supporting a football team: it's something you inherited rather than something you chose. But the Labour of 2006 isn't the Labour of 1950, and the people who wanted that now find that it's gone. Similarly, younger voters are more fluid with their allegiances. That means that the days of weighing Labour votes are surely over.

And this has been coming for a while: Northern England saw a number of formerly safe Labour seats go LibDem in 2005. Strathkelvin & Bearsden had been Labour's sixth safest seat before Jean Turner won it (something Elaine Smith, MSP for Coatbridge and Chryston, who will face an independent health campaigner should bear in mind). It happened to the Tories in 1997: Eastwood needed a 22% swing to be anything other than Tory, and the constituency (and its successor, East Renfrewshire) has had a Labour MP since that election.

I'm not saying that Labour are on course for a Tory-style wipeout, or that the SNP are heading for a 1997-style landslide: what I'm saying is that the last ten years are proof that no party can take its votes, or its seats, for granted. Every seat has to be defended robustly now, and other parties have to contest every seat with everything they've got. If that doesn't happen, then the losing side will have only themselves to blame, and turnout will stay low.

But if it does happen, then the voters will actually face a real contest next May. Of course, not everyone's a winner: a few MSPs may find that their blood pressure goes up, and a few more than we expected might have to visit a JobCentre after the election, but I think this By-Election has proven that every seat is worth fighting for. That makes the candidates worth voting for.

And that's how you drive turnout up, because if the candidates and activists aren't out there fighting for every vote, how do you prove to people that their vote counts?


Anonymous said...

All true enough. But it's even more relevant in the context of the simultaneous Council Elections, where the introduction of PR will see large numbers of 'untouchable' wards falling.

Will said...

Exactly: STV will pretty much abolish the concept of safe seats at Council level altogether, but perhaps more importantly, it'll blow our current understanding of tactical voting out of the water, with campaign literature declaring elections to be 'a two-horse race between X and Y' obsolete.

I'm looking forward to that happening most of all: if the best reason to vote for someone that campaigners can produce is, "Our candidate isn't the other guy" then maybe they need to field a better candidate!

Mark McDonald said...

what is interesting is that the Labour Party seems to have shrugged its shoulders and assumed that this by-election was some kind of one-off.

Their campaigning is virtually invisible and I suspect that has a lot to do with falling membership and mammoth debt.

2007 is going to be interesting alright.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of the above. If you take and area like Edinburgh where the SNP currently only has one coucnillor, due to deputy lord provost seeing sense and crossing the floor, after the 2007 election due to the crumbling of the Labour vote in many traditional areas and the STV system the SNP will have a substantial group for the first time in our history here.

With a more visable SNP presence I doubt that Labour would be able to stand up to the challenge in many areas as from campigning on the ground I know that the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens all have more activists on the ground than Labour does.