With a high turnout and a dramatic result, the byelection was a disaster for Labour, but what does it mean for the other parties?
Glasgow East was an astonishing result. The SNP win in this seat, however squeaky the majority, was remarkable not just for its high swing, but for the relatively good turnout, the strong Labour candidate, and the previously intractable nature of Labour support in Glasgow’s east end. It seemed a solid Labour firewall, but in east Glasgow it is far from unknown for solid-looking structures to “go on fire”.
Scottish byelections in apparently safe Labour seats have often seen large swings from Labour to the SNP – 22% in Hamilton South in 1999, 19% in John Smith’s old seat of Monklands East in 1994, and 11% in Paisley South in 1997. In each of these years, Labour had a comfortable lead in the national polls. The scale of the swing often reflects the first serious campaigning in such a seat, and this must surely be the case in a seat that was considered as safe as Glasgow East. While all of these near misses faded rapidly, so too did the victories in Hamilton and Govan.
The 42% turnout in the byelection is pretty impressive. A loss of only six points since the 2005 general election suggests that the first serious campaign for a seat in the east end of Glasgow in the last 50 years has motivated voters. The low turnout in byelections between 1997 and 2001 presaged the steep fall in 2001. Following the small drop in Crewe and Nantwich, it is clear that byelections have started to bring voters to the polls and this suggests that turnout will rise at the general election.
A previous rule of thumb in west of Scotland byelections was that the Catholic Labour vote was more solid than the party’s support in “Protestant” seats like Govan and Monklands East (ie Airdrie). But Glasgow East rather disproves this. Labour’s nightmare must be that the Catholic Labour vote is going the way of the Protestant working-class Tory vote that used to be so strong in the west of Scotland before it collapsed between about 1960 and 1980.
I never shared the view that John Mason was an unconvincing candidate – people in a large chunk of the constituency, Baillieston ward, knew him and obviously liked him as he obtained an enormous personal vote in the 2007 council elections. Glasgow East was quite blessed with some good candidates – Mason and Margaret Curran obviously, and the also-ran Conservative and Lib Dem candidates Davena Rankin and Ian Robertson were worthy of notice and perhaps something better in future.
The Conservatives’ relatively good result in Glasgow East, unlike their wins in Crewe and Henley, should not be taken too seriously. If you are a Tory in Glasgow East, you are accustomed to adversity and the vote, although small, is very solid and remained so (on the slightly lower turnout) in the byelection. But the result is mildly encouraging. The Lib Dem vote proved, in the absence of much local organisation, squeezable.
Among the effects of Glasgow East will be to achieve something scarcely possible in politics – to make Alex Salmond even more self-satisfied. He took something of a risk in predicting victory in this byelection, and while he has the admirable quality of being able to brazen out over-optimistic remarks, triumph is not good for his political style. First minister’s questions is a preening, posturing spectacle that even a hardened observer of Westminster may find difficult to take. Sooner or later, the elastic will snap, as it has in the past for confident Scottish heroes such as Ally McLeod, who found adulation turned rapidly into – equally overdone – rejection in 1978.
The obvious point is that Glasgow East was a truly shocking result for Labour, a sign that the party is very deep in the trough, like the Major government from 1992 to 1997 and the Wilson government in 1967-69. Perhaps, like severe government defeats such as Dudley (both in 1968 and 1994) and Staffordshire South East (1996) it is a sign that the some sort of realignment is happening. The Tories flirted with disaster between 1993 and 2003, in that even some of their southern English strongholds were crumbling. Now, in Glasgow East, a Labour fortress has fallen.