21 July 2008

In Answer to Blagger1

Blagger1 left this (rather flattering!) comment on my last post and after giving it a lot of thought, I've opted to put my answer in a separate post as this could turn out to be a long one:

J, you're a political anorak par excellene. How much of a comparison is there here, with the Glasgow Garscadden by-election of 1978. Superficially there are similarities - doomed-looking Labour government, SNP on a roll, combative candidate parachuted in to defend rock-solid Labour seat - will we see Curran feted like Dewar in years to come for "holding the line", as Labour would put it?

In terms of the similarities: yes, Brown's Government is in trouble; yes, the SNP is in a strong position right now; yes, it does seem like Curran was parachuted in; yes, abortion has become an issue and yes, Labour appear to be on the opposite side of it to local voters if you assume that the largest faith community in the area is in agreement with Catholic Church bigwigs.

However, the differences are striking. The current weakness of the Brown Government is not the same as the weakness of the Callaghan Government of the time: its weakness at that point was mostly Parliamentary, and the event that killed it off for sure (the Winter of Discontent) was still a few months away, but it was some way short of a majority in the Commons and so had real trouble in Parliament. Brown, by contrast, has a Commons majority of 59 but is on the wrong end of political hit after political hit.

Nor was SNP strength quite what it appeared now, particularly when measured against the present. The SNP could have been seen as the principal challengers to Labour's first place in Scotland at a time of a Unitary parliament (albeit one with the prospect of devolution) where the Callaghan/Thatcher battle was all. Today, devolution has been established, adding a new dimension to the political landscape so that the Salmond/[insert Labour Leader's name here] dynamic is as important as the Brown/Cameron contest.

And at the most recent electoral test, the SNP overtook Labour both at Holyrood and in the local elections, taking the most votes, the most MSPs and the most Councillors, not to mention seeing Alex Salmond form the first SNP Government. The previous electoral test to Garscadden was the 1977 District Council elections, where the SNP did achieve a 9% swing from Labour, but were still third in terms of votes (behind Labour and the Tories), and fourth in terms of seats (behind Independents, Labour and the Conservatives).

Similarly, a recent YouGov opinion poll put the SNP on 33%, 4 points ahead of Labour in Westminster voting intention; a March 1978 System 3 poll had the SNP in third place on 27% - eleven points behind Labour and two points behind the Tories.

In terms of the constitutional issue, Labour were moving on the idea of a Scottish Assembly at the time of Garscadden, although this was a reluctant move and its primary objective was to spike the SNP's guns. Now, the Scottish Parliament is an established fact and far from neutralising the SNP, it's served to re-energise it, as last year's results plainly bear out.

And the parallels between Dewar and Curran aren't that great: Donald Dewar was born and raised in Glasgow, and worked as a lawyer in Glasgow. If anything, he was parachuted into Aberdeen South back in 1966 - and the suggestion that he benfitted from this again in 1978 isn't overly convincing. Margaret Curran is of Glasgow (though not necessarily of the East End) and has been a Glasgow MSP for nine years, though the very public farce that was the Labour selection process makes clear that it wasn't going to be her, and the reason her name is on the ballot paper is that no one else would do it. Conversely, the SNP candidate is stronger: Keith Bovey was an Edinburgh lawyer with very little political experience; John Mason has been a Glasgow SNP Councillor for a decade.

So it's my belief that Labour start from an even weaker position than they did in 1978, while the SNP start from a stronger one. And while there are the superficial similarities that Blagger1 considers, I believe that the underlying political landscape is radically different to what it was then, not least because Garscadden was a pre-devolution contest rather than a post-devolution one. That is why you can't talk about echoes of Garscadden in Glasgow East. Or indeed, why you can't hark back to Govan either, but that's another post for another day.

Finally, I want to question the legacy of the Garscadden By-Election. Dewar's win was symbolic - the outcome was always going to be symbolic - and the Glasgow East result may turn out to be as time progresses, but that will depend on future results. And while the SNP did collapse in 1979 (albeit from largely self-inflicted wounds), Jim Callghan was still voted out of office in favour of Margaret Thatcher, and Labour even came second to the Tories in the 1979 European Elections. Similary, while you can argue that Dewar did stop the rot, the actual direction of the parties was influenced by other factors - the devolution fiasco, the SNP MPs' disastrous decision to ignore their own party's NEC and vote to bring down the Government, even the 1978 World Cup! Dewar's significance was what he did as an MP, not how he became one for a second time. As for what this result will mean, that depends entirely on what the result is. And that until we know that (and all we seem to know today is that it will be close), we can't know what Margaret Curran and John Mason's respective places in the political history books will be.

But in summary, you can't compare either the background or the impact of the Garscadden By-Election with this one. They are two totally different animals, and in any case, as the cliché goes, "The past is a different country: they do things differently there."

Glasgow Garscadden might not be that far from Glasgow East, but the thirty years that have passed, and all the things that have happend in those thirty years, mean that they may as well be on different planets.


Blagger1 said...

Great blog post.

My own political awareness came during the early 80s, I was too young to recall even the 1979 election in any detail. Just wondered if the "vibe" was similar.

I'd agree that the SNP are in a stronger position now than then, I'd even say the strength is probably more enduring, too. It won't be a disaster for the SNP if Labour retains this seat, indeed even a near miss may serve to motivate activists in more winnable targets (which is pretty much any other Labour seat!)

Thanks for the analysis.

Ted Harvey said...

Will, your really good posting strengthens my interest in just what will the outcome of this by-election be? It just seems to me that the Scottish electorate (or what still remains of it) continues to be, just maybe, on the verge of some fundamental and epoch-making change and instability... or not??!!

I just don't see any of the usual tools of prediction or opinion-testing producing anything of substance. Hence, just what will the outcome be? This is really ridiculous - I mean at this rate, the decision that matters will be left to those people who vote... honestly! What is the word again to describe that situation?

Will said...

Well, I can't talk about the "vibe" all that much - my own existence didn't actually come until 1983 - but research pays off, including a BBC piece on the 1978 contest during the 2000 Glasgow Anniesland By-Elections, a page on David Boothroyd's website detailing the parliamentary strengths of poliitical parties from 1964 onwards, and details from Peter Lynch's History of the SNP.

It's worth noting that the YouGov poll, the ICM By-Election poll, even the PSO poll, show something along the lines of a 13% swing to the SNP. If that's borne out on Thursday, or if the swing is even greater, then it will show that 2007 wasn't a flash in the pan, but a harbinger of massive political change.

But Ted has a point, even if he does come dangerously close to describing democracy. Careful now! ;)

Anonymous said...


Just wanted to say that I thought this was an excellent piece. I don't think you should give away your sources thnough - just say you wrote it all off the top of your head!

I think the one thing you've only paid minimal attention to is the dynamic of the SNP now being in government, and last year's election results generally.

On the one hand this makes the SNP a very serious force, rather than the fringe group they were probably still seen as in 1978 (in spite of the 1974 elections success).

However now they are a serious and established party of government, bolstered by a huge increase in the number of councillors (read full-time activists) across the country, including Glasgow. This latter point simply gives them resources for elections beyond anything they've generally had in the past (I assume).

Of course the only negative element this creates is that as a government they are perhaps seen as less of a protest vote than may have been the case beforehand. That's vital to portray themselves as a serious party, and indeed one which could help make Scotland independent, but perhaps can cost them the votes of people who either feel aggrieved by some element of SNP policy, or just want to cast their vote for a 'rebel'.

Still it will make for an interesting Thursday. Well, that may be a slight overstatement. But it will be a Thursday at least!

James said...

Thoughtful analysis. Have a pat on the back.

Will said...

Thanks for the comment, IoC, though I fear that sooner or later, someone would have asked what I was basing my opinions on given that I was -5 at the time of Garscadden!

I think you're right to flag up the influence that the new influx of SNP Councillors has - you've got a new army of people with political experience on the ground, in the area. And indeed, John Mason benefits from this experience, having been a local Councillor since 1998.

You raise a fair question about the SNP's status as a party of protest rather than power. Having said that, the fact that this is a Westminster election could confuse things even more as even if the SNP were to win all 59 Scottish seats, there would have to be ten or more other parties in the Commons, all of roughly equal strength, for the SNP to be the largest party, let alone form a Government. While the SNP are in charge of the Scottish Government, and could even head some form of Coalition in Glasgow City Council in the medium-term future, Westminster power is always something different, and that puts the SNP in an odd position.

Plus, I would argue that if people want to protest, they'll vote for the Party best placed to give Gordon Brown a kicking. In this case, it's the SNP. Two years ago, in Dunfermline & West Fife, it was the Liberal Democrats, who were in Coalition with Labour at Holyrood when that By-Election took place.

Although, it goes to show the strange situation we're now in: when you take the two Parliaments together, Scotland's two largest parties are both in government and in opposition at the same time. That makes the political landscape far more baffling than it was thirty years ago. Hell, it makes it more baffling than it was eighteen months ago!

Will said...

Many thanks for the pat on the back, James. It's given me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Though that could be more to do with the ibuprofen kicking in...