17 June 2009

Devine Retribution?

It looks like the Sunday Herald's penchant for political hatchet jobs has rather neatly combined with the Telegraph's political reporting being sub-contracted to the Witchfinder General, and Jim Devine, MP for Livingston, has been ditched by the Labour Party's NEC.

Devine's deviation was two-fold: firstly, he claimed two grand in expenses for re-wiring work done to his flat. The problem was, the company that billed him didn't exist. Devine claims that the electrician was to blame for this. It might have been possible to give him the benefit of the doubt were it not for another £2000 claim relating to 66 metres of shelving, bought from a local pub landlord. The shelving turned up not in Devine's office or home, but in the cellar of the aforementioned pub, and didn't resemble the specifications given for it. As Karen Dunbar used to say, "I smell shite!", and so did the NEC. Despite the support of his local party, Devine will now no longer be considered a Labour candidate for the next election.

It's fair to say that Robin Cook's successor, elected in the September 2005 By-Election, has taken this badly. He protests his innocence and asserts that he has been hung out to dry. He is therefore tempted to exact revenge on his party, and follow Ian Gibson by quitting, and forcing an early By-Election.

So, Labour faces contests in Glasgow North East, Norwich North, and potentially Livingston as well: the latter would be significant for the second By-Election in one Parliament. The last time this happened was Bootle, which saw By-Elections in May and November of 1990, when the winner of the first poll, Michael Carr, died just 57 days after his victory.

This might not be as bad for Labour as they think: I'd wager that Norwich North will go blue, if the Council elections this year are any indicator; Glasgow North East looks guaranteed Labour on paper, especially given the European election results showing Labour on top here, but still, with momentum behind the SNP (and against Labour), bearing the current mood in mind, and remembering that Glasgow East looked guaranteed Labour on paper, I wouldn't put any money anywhere near that By-Election.

Livingston, however, is a different kettle of fish. Angela Constance slashed the Labour majority in the 2005 Election, and now represents the Scottish Parliamentary constituency of the same name. On paper, given the present state of the parties, this looks to be a hotter prospect for the SNP, and if the two Scottish seats are ranked in priority order, Livingston surely comes first. Indeed, the SNP had a more successful result in that By-Election than in the Glasgow Cathcart By-Election for Holyrood which was held on the same day, and where it looed like victory was being handed to the SNP on a silver platter. That didn't happen, but the strong result at the other end of the M8 deflected concerned eyes from that outcome. Again, the two battlegrounds would be Glasgow and West Lothian, but a smart strategy would see the SNP aiming at the seat that gave them a better return the last time that happened.

So with progress in Livingston begetting further effort begetting further progress (and perhaps victory) for the SNP in Livingston, the Party would be looking East. That would allow Labour to look West, and avoid the humiliation of another possible political earthquake in Glasgow.

It would, therefore, be in Labour's interest for Devine to go now, and get all three By-Elections out of the way on the same day. Norwich North, and the likely Tory gain, would take the headlines, but Labour could spin this easily - anger at Ian Gibson, 'local' issues (these always gets mentioned even if they're not defined), the recent election results showing us that this isn't anything new. The SNP could well take Livingston (especially if, as is rumoured, Devine were to stand for re-election as an Independent), giving them their moment of glory but again, spinnable for Labour - the end of the late Robin Cook's personal vote, anger at Devine, 'local' issues, recent election results showing us that this isn't anything new. But Labour could also win Glasgow North East, giving them something to crow about there. All three parties can come away with something, and would be able to dismiss the other results. If I've called this correctly, everyone wins, except the LibDems.

So for Labour, the worst political aspect of this isn't necessarily the possible By-Election, merely the morass of sleaze that accompanies the expenses row, which has triggered this wave of votes. And strangely, if they fight on three fronts, they might have a better chance of victory on one of them than if they fight on only two.

If I were in Labour now, I'd be goading Devine into Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds, and timing every By-Election for the same day. It's their way out of this stramash.

Yes, I know, I'm a cynical bastard, but when an MP claims £2000 for seemingly non-existent shelves, and £2000 for a payment to a non-existent contractor, can you blame me?

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