27 July 2008

The Treble

Well, By-Election season looks to be over for now. The Baillieston By-Election for Glasgow City Council is just on the edge of the horizon, and the Motherwell & Wishaw By-Election for Holyrood is just over it. So what better time to take stock?

Crewe & Nantwich was the spark that lit the bonfire. Of course, opinion polls had been showing clear Conservative leads for some time, but ultimately, they're just opinion polls. And Labour had taken a drubbing in the local elections, but things weren't quite as apocalyptic as they looked when you measured them against the last comparable set of local elections in 2004. And Boris Johnson had been elected Mayor of London, but this could be explained away for two reasons: firstly, the Tory candidate was Boris (nuff said), and secondly, part of his team's strategy was to get the outer, bluer suburbs to actually get out and vote in a way that they hadn't done in 2000 and 2004.

But in Crewe, there was no hiding place. Gwyneth Dunwoody was a popular figure, and the Labour candidate was her daughter. But her campaign was based on the premise that her Conservative opponent was a toff (so what?) and that she was an unemployed single mum trying to make it on her own. Of course, most unemployed single mums aren't the former Welsh Assembly Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, and rendered unemployed after voters there decided that they'd rather support a Tory (a sign of things to come, perhaps). They certainly aren't usually former Deputy Ministers in the Welsh Assembly Government, they aren't the MP's daughter and they don't usually have the resources needed to stand for a seat in Parliament. So the basic premise of the campaign looked a bit ropey.

This meant that Labour weren't actually offering the voters, well, anything. The relative poshness of the candidates wasn't going to impact on people's food bills, or energy costs, or how much they have to pay in tax. So there was no reason to vote Labour. So people didn't. Dunwoody's personal vote did not transfer to her daughter and Crewe and Nantwich turned blue on the electoral map.

That should have been the wake-up call to Labour. "We feel your pain," came the message. Well, that's fine and dandy, but when I feel pain, I head for the medicine cabinet and dig out the ibuprofen. Why? Because pain is bad, I want it to end, and ibuprofen at least fends it off for the time being. The UK Government's method of easing the pain? Offer nothing, do nothing.

Then came Henley. Now, there's no dressing up fifth place and a lost deposit as anything other than humiliation for a party that happens to be in charge, but it's surprisingly easy to be sympathetic. Remeber the Moray By-Election, where Labour fell to fourth place and lost half of their vote? It wasn't just Labour's unpopularity that caused that - it was Labour's irrelevance to the By-Election. The SNP were defending the seat, the Tories were in second and the LibDems were trying to find ways of making it look like they were in contention. Labour didn't bother, and the result reflected that - why vote for a party who isn't going to win?

The same thing happened two years later in Oxfordshire. Yes, Labour unpopularity had something to do with it - and the voters who went to Labour in 1997 now feel able to go back to the Tories - but Labour were never at the races here. So aside from basic Lab-Con defections, if you were a Labour backer it made more sense to vote LibDem, as they represented a better chance of upsetting the Tories. It didn't happen, of course, but that's by the by. The fact remains that if you were became a Labour supporter in 1997, the Tories were now a viable option again; if you were a more long-term Labour supporter, the LibDems represented a better draw in Henley and you could lend them your vote. So not only were there no policies that people could rally to, but there was no reason to vote Labour anyway. Hence the lost deposit - and it's that, incidentally, that did for the LibDems in Glasgow East: no distinctive policies, no Scottish leader, no impact from Nick Clegg but more importantly, no prospect of winning so no point in voting for them.

Anyway, back to Labour in Henley. Does their collapse alone explain their fifth place? No. This is derived from the fact that unlike Labour, the Greens and BNP did have veins of support they could tap into. For the Greens, it was disaffected LibDems, hacked off that Nick Clegg appears to be joining the great big grey ideological splodge provided by Messrs Brown and Cameron. For the BNP, it was the members of the "Lock 'em up. hang 'em high" brigade, who found the Tories not just acceptable but admirable in 2001 under Hague and 2005 under Howard. Under Cameron, they're not so sure. So there was actually more on offer from the Greens and BNP than there was from Labour and the result reflected that.

Then comes Glasgow East. In many ways, this is the sequel to Crewe and Nantwich - Henley was just a sideshow - and it picks up where Crewe left off, with the UK Government feeling our pain but doing nothing to sort it. And it's because they did nothing to sort it that tipped the balance and caused them to lose.

The fact that Labour had sat on their laurels for eighty years hadn't helped, and the fact that no canvassing had been done during David Marshall's time in office, and that he didn't even have an office worthy of the name in the Constituency, meant that despite the huge Labour majority, there was a vacuum at the heart of East End politics. The SNP's organisation quickly moved to fill that vacuum and was boosted by the lack of a Labour candidate.

That again showed the organisational vacuum: they assumed George Ryan would stand and when he didn't turn up, panic ensued. The two other candidates on the short list were exposed as paper candidates there to give the appearance of a contest - that has to be the case or one of them would have been selected. After ringing around, well, everyone, it was Margaret Curran who picked up the phone. This was also going to be interesting as the SSP had already selected Frances Curran.

And her campaign was as pointless as Dunwoody's. The basic premise of it was two-fold: the first was that John Mason was a Nationalist (not really worth pointing out as that's routine for SNP candidates), and the second was that all those nasty people saying mean things about the East End are horrible meanies and Margaret Curran would say good things about them. The problem with that line is that life isn't exactly a rose garden in the East End and campaigning on a ticket of not talking about the problems doesn't exactly get them solved. Oh, and there were the lies.

So whereas you had SNP leaflets talking about "Winning for Glasgow", referring to possible oil windfalls, tackling gangs, and pointing out that SNP victories offer the chance to force a Government into action as they're scared of losing support in the area permanently, Labour had "We're not Nationalists" and "Let's not mention bad things". So again, no real reason to actually vote for them, where there were reasons to vote SNP - coupled with an ambitious campaign that gave people the message that there was a point in voting SNP as well. Well, there certainly was.

But unlike Crewe & Nantwich - where pundits pointed to Brown and blamed him (and also his Scottishness, which is tantamount to accusing the people of Crewe of racism when you think about it) - it's harder to do that in Glasgow East. Firstly, Glasgow is not going to punish a politician for being Scottish - though Brown has been trying to downplay that small fact for years now and that can't help him - and secondly, this is part of a wider trend in Scotland, that goes back to before Brown. Think Dunfermline & West Fife. Think the slashing of the vote in Moray. Think the defeat in the Holyrood Elections. Bear in mind that Brown's name was rarely mentioned by Labour. No, in Scotland, the problem isn't Brown. It's Labour itself. And Brown is being assigned the blame. The fact that the seeds for this defeat were sown before Brown was even in Government is ignored; that Labour were never at the races in Henley is forgotten; that Labour's strength was based on Gwyneth Dunwoody and not the rest of her party was disregarded.

And the Government's reaction? "We feel your pain". But they still haven't got the ibuprofen out.

Which is why, if this weren't the end of the By-Election season, they'd lose the next one. And the one after that.


Stephen Glenn said...

Wow you managed to overlook thge SNP declaration on polling day in Dunfermline. "There will be a shock result here today." Now admittedly there was and thanks for the Nats for pointing it out, but claiming that they were going to go seismic then when they didn't. Now come on who was looking to be relevant there.

Will said...

Now, Stephen, I said immediately after D&WF, and will re-state today, that the declaration backfired - primarily on account of our being in third place, I would assume - and that the claims of the result being a good one for the party would have been valid but looked a little weak following the campaign.

Nevertheless, I remind you that in that By-Election, the SNP increased its share of the vote, was quite secure in third place and comfortably kept on to its deposit, so clearly voters still felt we had something to offer.

Perhaps, had the LibDems been in a position to be a bit more bullish - let's face it, Ian Robertson was and is a strong enough candidate to work well given the right material - Thursday night might not have been so ghastly for them.