07 November 2008

The Fallout

Firstly, it's only proper to congratulate Lindsay Roy on pulling out of the bag a result that no one predicted: even those who thought Labour might just do it probably never anticipated that margin of victory. It's also a lesson to campaigners of all parties - it's never over until the votes have been counted.

In terms of swing, it's just under a 5% swing to the SNP. My adjective of choice for this would be 'mediocre'. I'll come onto the other adjectives later. But in terms of Scottish seats for Westminster, the changes here would reverse Labour's By-Election losses: they would also gian East Dunbartonshire and Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey from the LibDems, but significantly, they would also gain Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale, once again making Scotland a Tory-free zone for Westminster purposes. For the SNP, the swing would be enough to gain Ochil & South Perthshire from Labour, and Argyll & Bute from the LibDems.

Let's take things a little further and apply this to the next major test of public opinion: the European elections. The swing would in fact be enough for the SNP to overtake Labour and come first, with three of Scotland's six seats. Labour would stay on two. The Tories would hold one. The LibDems would be fortunate to come fifth, behind UKIP. They might even end up behind the Greens as well. They'd come lower still were it not for the split in the Leftist parties.

In general terms, the notable part of this result was the extreme polarisation of the vote, which took place to an even stronger degree than in Glasgow East. Only Labour and the SNP kept their deposits, and between them, those two parties scored 91.6% of the vote. The question is, does this show that the next election in Scotland will be a Labour vs. SNP contest, or a Labour vs. A.N. Other contest? Have the other parties fallen away to create a new two-party structure in Scotland, or would voters happily support the Keep Clackmannanshire Smiling Party if it presented the best chance of beating them? Clearly, the SNP hope it's the former, while the others hope it's the latter. We'll find out the answer in 2010, when the Westminster election in Scotland will either be one contest, unique to Scotland but common to (nearly) all parts of it, or, in effect, 59 separate By-Elections.

Labour

Back when the SNP won the Moray By-Election, I said this:

A good night for them: to increase their poll... and share of the vote in a seat they're defending... is a stellar achievement. It's exactly the sort of momentum-building, morale-boosting victory that the party needed and hasn't had for so long...

That holds true for Labour in Glenrothes, but is enhanced: Labour have been in Government for 11 years, so to still do all those things, in the face of a far more credible challenge than anything that was thrown at Richard Lochhead in April 2006 and after having been in power since 1997? Well, you can't argue with that.

The campaign focused on two main issues: one global, one local.

The Credit Crunch concentrated minds. Perhaps a global economic crisis made people re-assess Gordon Brown and ask if this really is all that good a time to change horses. You could argue that the last people who you want to lead you out of a crisis are the same people who led you into it, but that's by the by. Labour have handled themselves well at this time and have, to a degree, stolen a march on the SNP. That was reflected in the result. But if they're seen as good hands in a crisis, does that means it's in Labour's interest for the downturn to be prolonged? Welcome to Paradoxville, population: us.

The local issue was the Homecare one. Now, it was personally sickening to see Anne McGuire, the Former Minister of State for the Destruction of Remploy, trying to re-invent herself as a champion for disabled people, but there you go. Also, while we learned that Labour opposed Fife Council on this issue, we learned nothing about a) what Labour would do if they were in charge in Fife or b) what Lindsay Roy would do about it. Nevertheless, the lamentation by Jim Sillars about the intrusion of local issues onto a By-Election campaign seemed unfair: the people of Glenrothes were electing a representative. MPs and MSPs represent their Constituents 24/7, not just in the Parliament to which they were elected, and the average Parliamentarian's caseload will include things that they need to lobby the Council about. Therefore, while the tone of Labour's campaign was wrong, the raising of local issues seems entirely legitimate.

But even if it weren't, Labour did enough to win. The night is theirs. Like it or not, that's the bottom line.

SNP

This need not have been quite so catastrophic as it appears in the press. The night did see a 13% increase in the SNP vote share and a 5% swing. But while the increase is decent, that swing is the smallest swing to the SNP in a Westminster By-Election since Coatbridge & Airdrie in 1982. As in Dunfermline & West Fife, somehow the distinction between "can" and "will" got blurred and people who should know better (step forward one Mr. A. Salmond) started using the latter, making this result look far worse than it actually is. So all the valid points Nicola Sturgeon made about the performance being credible were blown out of the water by the fact that hours earlier, Alex had been predicting victory.

Obviously, there does need to be a change in approach, but trying to copy Labour's negative tactics would be the wrong way forward. Here's how to solve it: the First Minister needs to delegate - Alex Salmond should let the candidate be the candidate. Now, having the Party Leader inseparable from a By-Election candidate isn't a bad thing, but it becomes a problem if the Leader does all the talking. On the stump, the television only reported on what Alex Salmond said, not what Peter Grant said.

That's the key to the next By-Election: let the candidate off the leash. Trust him or her to be on the campaign trail what they promise to be at Westmnister: an effective voice. If Alex Salmond cannot trust them to speak on their own then there have to be questions as to whether or not they should be the candidate at all. If, on the other hand, they're perfectly capable of presenting an effective campaign, then they need to do so. Yes, Alex is good, but if he's not the candidate, he shouldn't act like it. He needs to be active but a balance needs to be struck and it's overly weighted in favour of the FM's intervention.

Get a candidate we can trust, and trust them. That needs to be the SNP's approach.

Conservatives

Perhaps this seat isn't a fair test of the Tories, but it shows that beyond the Parliamentary Calculus of Holyrood, the Conservatives are having zero impact among real people in Scotland. Third place almost by default and a lost deposit are not causes for celebration and this By-Election highlights the complete lack of impact David Cameron is having North of the Border. Now, things might have been different had this By-Election been in, say, Dumfries & Galloway or East Renfrewshire, where the Tories actually have a shot of winning, but they still have much to do.

LibDems

The LibDems were in a creditable third place here in 2005. Now look: third place, sub-1000, a loss of 10% of the vote share (the biggest decrease in the LibDem vote share in a UK Parliamentary By-Election since Mid Staffordshire in 1990) and a lost deposit. There are no positives there. Again, if they were as strong, influential or as meaningful as they claim, they could have maintained their vote. That's the test of a strong third place: can they hold up their vote against a squeeze, as the SNP did in Dunfermine & West Fife? The LibDems didn't, so they are doomed. Nick Clegg has had no benefit. And if Tavish Scott is the answer, then what was the question?

SSCUP

Still active. Maybe a return to Holyrood is a very long shot, but the SSCUP may still have a role to play in the long term. Keep your eye on them.

SSP

A swing against them, but that's two consecutive Parliamentary By-Elections in which they have come in ahead of Solidarity. They may defy all forecasts and outlive Tommy Sheridan's party. Like the SSCUP, they may stiil find that Holyrood is a long shot, but make no mistake, we haven't heard the last of them. Though of course, without the split, they'd have come fifth.

UKIP

They saw a swing against them and they aren't strong in Scotland anyway. Maybe that's just a reflection of the fact that Scotland's relationship with London is more of a hot-button issue than the UK's relationship with Brussels. On that basis, Scotland is never going to be natural territory for UKIP.

Solidarity

Scotland's Socialist Movement? No. And on a performance like this - behind UKIP - they aren't even a decent vehicle for Tommy Sheridan's ego. With no Councillors, no MSPs, and seemingly no hope, it may be time for Solidarity to head quietly into the night. Certainly the voters of Glenrothes seem to think so.

1 comment:

Ideas of Civilisation said...

Will,

Interesting post but I think your 'small party' views are most worthy of further comment.

I've said before that the experience in Holyrood so far has been that small parties do better when the result is clear cut.

Therefore in 1999 it was hard to say what would happen, meaning only a small number of non-mainstream parties (Greens, SSP, independents) were elected. However in 2003 when the SNP had a fairly poor campaign - meaning the result was more or less assured before the vote - this changed.

I suspect this was because people felt there was less of an urgent need to give a second vote to 'their' party. Therefore in 2007 when the election was tight we again saw the near wipe out of smaller parties.

The last couple of by-elections (Glenrothes and Glasgow East) suggest that it may be hard for the smaller parties to make any inroads, if it's likely to be such a tight two-horse race between Labour and the SNP.

This leads to questions about whether the Tory and Lib Dem vote will be squeezed as much. I'm inclined to think not, partly because of the Holyrood voting system.

But the main thing that may decide this (and of course the fate of smaller parties too) is how the media play this. Both recent by-elections were portrayed in the media as two-horse races, or simply put, no point on voting for anyone else. If that happens in 2011 it could skew votes again.