15 November 2009

Glasgow North East: The aftermath

Well, we've had a few days to ponder the result. Congratulations are due to Willie Bain; clearly Labour have a lot to celebrate, and the SNP a lot to be disappointed about. One thing I would suggest though is that despite it being nigh-on-impossible to talk about swings and trends given the particular nature of this By-Election, and the sheer number of candidates, this is probably broadly in line with what you might expect in a General Election for a seat with Glasgow North East's history, twelve years into a Labour Government, so I don't envisage the result here next year being overly divergent from the result we've just seen.

Of course, the turnout is nothing short of appalling: less than one third of voters bothered to show up, a record low in Scotland for a Westminster By-Election, and the largest dip in turnout in four years. But should we be overly surprised? Firstly, Glasgow North East is not an area in which voters head to the polls in their droves so it's a bit rich for politicians of all hues to muse about voter engagement in places like this now: this is a long-standing problem and it says volumes about how places like Glasgow North East are viewed if they've only just noticed it. Besides, recent By-Elections - Glasgow East and Glenrothes - saw massive levels of interest and only very small reductions in turnout. But By-Elections before that - Dunfermline & West Fife, Livingston and the Glasgow Cathcart By-Election for Holyrood - saw double-digit drops in turnout. What we're seeing, therefore, is a reversion to type. Sadly, it's come in a place where voter interest is already low.

Then there's Labour: clearly their campaign hit all the right buttons. Remember Dunfermline & West Fife, when Labour dismissed the loss as a reflection of local issues? They've learned from that, finally. It's always about local issues and after their success in Glenrothes, Labour have learned to tap into that. The campaign may have been somewhat unsavoury, but it was successful, and to obtain a majority of votes - however few votes may have been cast - does represent a good result. It shows that in places like this, Labour still have a core vote that they can motivate to get out. Predictions that they can use this as a way of turning back the blue tide next year and win a fourth term do seem wide of the mark, and I would expect Labour to be toast in many of their key marginals. Nevertheless, their core supporters are still happy to show up, so a Labour apocalypse is not necessarily on the cards - something that may well worry the LibDems, who are hoping to make gains from Labour in the North of England.

And what of the SNP? Clearly the post-mortem is ongoing but for now, that 20-seat hope is receding into the distance: turnout was low and it's clear that many people saw a reason not to vote Labour, but the SNP did not offer sufficient reasons for those disaffected voters to back them, or indeed, anyone. This is why I disagree fundamentally with Gordon Wilson's analysis: going nasty won't serve any purpose and won't attract anyone. People who live in areas that seem to have been let down by their politicians already know the problems. They know the stats, because they live them. They know that 74 years of representation hasn't turned Springburn into a land of milk and honey. What they want to hear is, "What are we going to do about it?" That didn't come through. Gordon Wilson's idea of street-fighting Labour won't work as people aren't daft: they'll see the world around them and if they're still willing to vote Labour, slagging them off to high heaven won't change their minds. Nor will it attract those who are not: they already know that Labour hasn't delivered, but telling them what they already know won't work. The opposite of his suggestion is the right path: the SNP need to be relentlessly positive. The message in Glasgow East was bright: "Your vote will count!", "When the SNP wins, you win!", "Winning for Glasgow!" and so on. Labour responded with venomous attack after attack. Who won, Gordon? The party with the bright, positive message. Draw your own conclusions.

Then there's the Tories. They can be relieved to keep their deposit, but the message coming from a party that aspires to govern the whole UK has been horrifying: Scottish Tories saying that there just aren't that many Conservatives. What happened to reaching out to other people? George Osborne saying that this contest - and this seat - isn't relevant. What a disgusting message! That throwaway comment is probably the biggest recruiting sergeant that Scottish Labour could have hoped for. Still, despite the Leadership once again showing itself to be the biggest bunch of tosspots in politics, Ruth Davidson came out of this election with a great deal of credit, and should, if she wishes, be destined for progress. Bill Aitken may well have one or two more terms in him, but in the short term, the neighbouring regions to Glasgow might make an attractive prospect for an upwardly mobile, young candidate such as her: with the redrawn Eastwood notionally Tory, and the party only just missing out on a third regional seat this time, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that a third Western Tory seat is still on the cards for 2011, and that she could pick it up. Nor is it overly fanciful to suggest that Davidson could feasibly displace Margaret Mitchell in East Central Scotland. She is the positive of their campaign.

As for the BNP, remember that they already had a base here, and a sense of grievance to play on, so there's a danger in talking them up, particularly those muttering about a BNP MSP. The swing in Glasgow North East, if replicated in Glasgow region, still has them falling well short of picking up a seat. Of course, that hasn't prevented the usual BNP-related hysteria from springing up - firstly, blame has been heaped on the BBC for inviting Nick Griffin onto Question Time. Again, I think that viewers saw Griffin in the light that they wanted to see him anyway so that's not it. Rather, the BNP came forward with an anti-politician diatribe at a time when politicians are held in low regard. And what we had was both Willie Bain and Ruth Davidson almost apologising for seeking office, and going to all sorts of lengths to say how they weren't politicians. That probably played into the BNP's hands: if politicians are bad, the BNP were the full-fat, red meat option. In any case, talk once again has gone onto how to 'defeat' the BNP. Sadly, I don't think it's that simple: the BNP's message plays well with the darker side of the human psyche and prejudice and discrimination aren't new ideas thought up by the BNP. They've been around with us forever and Nick Griffin's cronies merely exploit them. Trying to 'defeat' human nature will fail: rather, actually doing constructive things for the area is the answer. if people think they've got a bad lot, if they see others who they think are doing better, then obviously parties like the BNP will flourish. Better to, you know, take positive action in areas like Springburn to imporve everyone's lives. Then the whole reason for voting BNP vanishes.

Tommy Sheridan, meanwhile, did surprisingly well, when you consider that he's not quite had the same traction of late and the combined Solidarity/SSP vote was at more or less the same level as the unified SSP vote share in 2005 so the rot may have been stopped for now. Of the leftist parties, it's Socialist Labour who have the least to celebrate, as it hit home just how artificial their performance of 2005 was. Nevertheless, for Sheridan, this is quite a coup: you would have expected the SSP to run him far closer here as his stomping ground was the other side of the city and this was Rosie Kane country once upon a time. So perhaps, just perhaps, reports of Solidarity's demise are, as yet, exaggerated. It all depends on the outcome of his perjury trial.

And what of the LibDems? Well, this was nothing short of a humiliation, and it's telling that once again, they have to rely on SNP-focused Schadenfreude to get them through this one. Of course, I've been through why I find it odd that they'd happily cheer the success of such an illiberal party as Labour over one with which they have so much common ground, but then, it's hard to make sense of spite and after all the crowing we've heard from them I have absolutely no qualms in saying that they deserve to be humiliated for the third By-Election in a row, with the ignominy of not even reaching half the required vote to retain their deposit and coming behind a bunch of swivel-eyed fascists proof positive of how they have nothing relevant to offer anyone. They have kept blaming the media for portraying this as a two-horse race: that didn't stop Ruth Davidson keeping her deposit. They'll blame the attention lavished on the BNP, but Eileen Baxendale was a presence on every major By-Election programme. Doubtless they'll refer to their lack of a candidate in the last Westminster election, overlooking the fact that they fielded candidates in this area in 2007, who kept their deposit. They have no excuses, and when they crow about the SNP's result in Dunfermline & West Fife, where the SNP talked up its chances only to come third, it's worth remembering that in the SNP vote actually went up there, to around 20%, so saying that parties outwith the Top 2 are doomed to humiliation in By-Elections doesn't wash - the LibDems couldn't even manage 3%. Rather than being smug at the SNP's failure to win in that By-Election, they should reflect on the fact that the SNP succeeded in doing something that has eluded the LibDems in every Westminster By-Election after that one: keeping its vote, keeping third place, and keeping its deposit. Granted, Dunfermline & West Fife represents a zenith in LibDem fortunes - they'd better hope for their sake that this was the nadir.

The Greens, meanwhile, should probably be disappointed that they've not manged to make further inroads, particularly after such a strong performance in Glasgow in the European elections. But I've said before and I'll say again that the Greens thrive on middle-class guilt (which can be a powerful motivator for positive changes so that's far from a criticism) and this would appear to be in short supply in Glasgow North East.

So to sum up: a good night for Labour, an OK night for Tommy Sheridan, a credible but not overly credible BNP result, something to hold onto for the Tories as long as they keep George Osborne away from any microphones in the future, nothing much to shout about for the Greens but solid under the circumstances, a disappointing night for the SNP and a humiliation for the LibDems.

One last thing, which I've been sitting on for weeks: John Smeaton was never going to give Labour a kicking. At no point were any Labour activists ablaze and jumping out of a burning jeep. Thank you very much, I'm here all week.


Andrew said...

No wonder Purcell suddenly went quiet after initiating the "SNP ripping off Glasgow" campaign.
Obviously his argument was null and void when he learned that Glasgow needed another £81 million for the Commonwealth Games and there was only one saviour!

Jeanne Tomlin said...

How embarrassing for Purcell, "You're ripping us off, but how about you save us--again."

All in all, a pretty good analysis.

I think you are SPOT ON that the SNP needs to be relentlessly positive and sell what the SNP CAN do. Being negative won't get them anywhere because it won't promise change. As you point out, people ALREADY know that things are bad.

The only place I disagree is that I think the SNP should be putting more emphasis on getting a majority in Holyrood. Once they have that (and the latest Herald poll showed a decent SNP increase there although little joy for a GE) it really changes everything.

Ted Harvey said...

I need to accept and support your point that the reality about local elections is that they are just that - local elections. Therefore local issues come first.

I did think at the start that the Party script handed to Labour candidate Willie Bain was flawed. On an early BBC Radio Scotland interview the interviewer repeatedly tripped him up on why was he going on and on about matters such as local transport and crime that were devolved matters (and did this mean that the sitting Labour MSPs for Glasgow were not up to the job?).

I couldn't figure out why the SNP and others did not get onto this big time. This failure allowed playing the local issues, as you say, to work for Labour. The nauseating amorality of Labour was demonstrated immediately post-result when Bain at once reverted to the Mandelson/Murphy script part 2, that this was a UK relevant result and a ‘vote for Gordon Brown’ etc.

A nauseating amorality that was also reflected in Jim Murphy’s just unacceptable and wilful ignoring of the true issue in this by-election result – the fact that the vast majority of the electorate (and potential electorate) just are not interested in supporting democracy through voting for any candidate on offer.
A worrying enough number of electors did, however, turn to the BNP – part of the fall-out from elements of an angry working class that finally gets it, and does not want to go on voting for a Labour Party of Michael Martin et al?

As for the SNP candidate; I really did not like the way the party behaved at the outset and I’m certain that they missed out (pushed aside?) at least one potential real ‘local’ contender. I have to say that whilst trying to avoid the pit of personality politics, I just could never see myself as either voting or actively supporting the eventual SNP candidate – again part of that worrying socially conservative cum religious strand in the SNP (as you have pointed out before, not unique to the SNP among Scottish parties).

On another tactical matter, just how did the SNP Administration get the GARL timing so badly, badly, wrong? And John Swinney needs to beware with his put downs of ‘well if Labour want GARL they must say what else is to be cancelled’. Maybe this was a play on the-then upcoming revelations about the Commonwealth Games funding shortfall - but it is starting to be read by some in the Central West belt as a dog-whistle to SNP heartlands elsewhere, and one that could represent the proverbial rubbing salt in a wound.

Jeanne Tomlin said...

Let me strongly suggest reading WarDog's blog post on this subject.

He asks the salient questions: WHY did no one mention that the Socialist LABOUR party got 4,000 votes in 2005 (when Martin rather than Labour was on the ballot).

Why did the Labour vote apparently go down in 2005 and, funnily enough, if you add those votes in to Martin's suddenly, it didn't. But if those votes were miscast by confused voters, that means that Labour's percentage SLIPPED by between 7 and 8 percent in this by-election.

Think that over a bit. And if you think he is wrong the votes are very easy to check.

I DO wonder why not a SINGLE news analyst mentioned the Socialist Labour Party losing some 4,000 votes from the last election--about 99% of their vote in fact.

Wouldn't you think that would be worth mentioning and discussing?

Wardog tends to be, shall we say, a bit crude at times but he's often worth reading.