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The Inverclyde by-election: business as usual for Scottish voters

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The Inverclyde by-election: business as usual for Scottish voters

Posted on 01 July 2011 by admin

Labour’s result in the Inverclyde by-election (30 June 2011) was an impressive electoral performance, particularly coming so soon after Scottish Labour’s humiliation at the hands of the SNP in the Scottish Parliament elections in May. The principal Scottish Parliament constituency in the area, Greenock & Inverclyde, saw Labour squeak to a 511-vote majority over the SNP in the election in May, while the SNP won the other local constituency (Renfrewshire North and West). The result in the area covered by the Inverclyde Westminster seat was probably nearly a tie between Labour and SNP.  For Labour to win by 5,838 votes (20.8 per cent) in June marks a considerable recovery.

Many observers, myself included, had expected a much closer result than this or perhaps an SNP victory, and Labour had been pessimistic during the campaign. This was as much because of the historical pattern than the timing of the by-election in the afterglow of the SNP’s sweeping Holyrood victory. By-elections in working class, hitherto ‘safe’ Labour seats in Scotland tend to become straight contests between Labour and the SNP, and the SNP enjoys a large swing. This has happened almost regardless of the political climate. Some huge swings have happened despite Labour generally riding high at the time (Monklands East, Hamilton South), as well as at low ebbs (Glasgow East). The very biggest in the last 30 years, Glasgow Govan in 1988, came when Labour was in a disheartened and divided condition a year after it did well in Scotland despite losing the election nationally. Inverclyde therefore should be particularly pleasing for Labour and Ed Miliband.

The Liberal Democrat vote in Inverclyde was humiliatingly low, but it was part of the general pattern of collapse where an election becomes a two-way contest between Labour and the SNP. With the exception of Paisley South in 1997 (and even more Dunfermline & West Fife in 2006 when the Lib Dems started a clear second to Labour), the party loses its deposit in these circumstances.  Inverclyde is worse than most of them for the party because it is the only place where the Lib Dems had much of a presence beforehand. They controlled the local authority before 2007, and Greenock was a very rare place with a working-class Liberal history. They ran Labour fairly close in 1970, despite Menzies Campbell withdrawing as candidate because the election clashed with his wedding. In 1983 a Liberal candidate (A.J. Blair) also polled well, with over 36 per cent of the vote.

Inverclyde illustrates two facts about Scottish voters. They favour left-of-centre government, and they are pragmatic and intelligent about how they achieve it. Apparently enormous electoral changes like Labour’s victory in 2010 and the SNP landslide in 2011 are reflections of these basic attitudes, and Inverclyde confirms that Scots’ voting choices are very dependent on the context. The Westminster village seems to have decided that Labour is doing badly in opposition, but voters in Inverclyde clearly do not think so – if they did, they would have delivered a shock to the system like the voters of Govan did in 1988. Labour, in Scotland and in Westminster, can take a great deal of comfort from the result – but would be foolish to conclude from it that the voters are having second thoughts about their emphatic support for the SNP’s Scottish government.

Link to original post at Democratic Audit Blog

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Beware hubris (7 November 2008)

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Beware hubris (7 November 2008)

Posted on 07 November 2008 by admin

Glenrothes was a triumph for Labour. But to call a general election now would be folly

Labour’s win in Glenrothes is astonishing, all the more so for being so unexpected. The Scottish National Party were confident and Labour nervous even as the polls closed.

There are several ways in which this election was extremely good for Labour. The party not only increased its share of the vote, a rare enough feat for a party in government, particularly in a seat it already holds. Labour’s share of the vote increased by 3.2 percentage points. But it actually polled a few hundred more votes in absolute terms than it did in 2005, because there was only a small fall in turnout. There is simply no way of spinning that into anything other than a triumph.

The swing to the SNP was kept down to 5% in Glenrothes, even though in campaigning terms the party had thrown the kitchen sink at the constituency. A 5% swing might sound a reasonable result for the SNP until one looks at the party’s record in byelections. While the 22.6% swing in Glasgow East earlier this year was very high, 10% is usual. In contests between Labour and the SNP, there is a double-digit swing more or less whatever the political circumstances. This happened in Livingston in 2005, Paisley South in 1997, the two Paisley elections in 1990 and Falkirk West in 2000. The only previous occasion in recent years that the SNP has fallen short of a 10% swing in a two-party contest for a Labour seat was in Glasgow Anniesland, following the death of Donald Dewar in 2000. There are some similarities between that contest and this – it took place at almost exactly the same point in the parliament, during a Labour recovery from a low point (although 2000′s nadir around the fuel crisis was shallow and very short in comparison to the recent trough), and was prompted by the death of a well-respected local MP.

Another historical parallel reaches back a little further. The SNP dominated Scottish politics in the mid-1970s, surging in the two 1974 elections and scoring some impressive results in the 1977 district council elections, although the supply of byelections had dried up. When two Labour seats fell vacant in 1978, at Glasgow Garscadden and then at Hamilton, the SNP contested them vigorously but Labour easily fought off the competition, electing Donald Dewar and George Robertson to parliament.

While Glenrothes was an extremely good result for Labour, and for Gordon Brown, Labour should not be tempted by a quick general election. The campaign focused on the shortcomings of the SNP-run Fife council, which effectively put the SNP candidate and council leader Peter Grant on the defensive. A general election would focus discontent at the national level.

Fife also has a particular regard for Gordon Brown, a a local MP, and for people like Glenrothes’ new MP, Lindsay Roy. The result is extremely satisfying for him, and also for Sarah Brown – who seems to have decided after her turn at the party conference that she has a taste for political campaigning. However, it is fair to say that Fife’s warmth for the PM still runs ahead of the nation’s, even though Brown has recovered a lot of ground during the financial crisis.

While Fife council bore the brunt of the SNP’s new found and uncomfortable accountability, the Scottish government cannot escape some damage. While Alex Salmond’s government is not unpopular, exactly, the gloss has come off and the voters are in a more questioning mood about what it has delivered and where it is taking Scotland. For Salmond himself, there will be momentary embarrassment at having predicted an SNP victory and come a cropper, but confidence and swagger are part of his political persona and he can absorb being proved wrong every now and then.

The byelection, crucially, said nothing about how competitive the Conservatives are in their target seats in England and Wales, although it was more evidence that the Liberal Democrats’ strong vote in Scotland in 2005 will not be repeated next time. To call a general election now, when it is cold, dark and wet, the mood of the country is apprehensive, and the extent of Labour’s national recovery remains uncertain, would be folly. There is time to wait and see if the national polls improve further before the next feasible election date comes round in spring 2009. Labour should celebrate Glenrothes, and the palpable turning of the tide, but keep cool and not let election speculation run out of control, as they did in September 2007. Glenrothes reminded us that a Labour win at the election is possible (particularly if one counts being the largest party in a hung parliament as a win), but that is not to say it is probable.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/07/glenrothes-scotland

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A little local difficulty (3 November 2008)

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A little local difficulty (3 November 2008)

Posted on 03 November 2008 by admin

Labour could win Glenrothes. Even defeat won’t see a nail in Brown’s political coffin

Anyone with a retentive political memory will recall that the Glenrothes byelection is supposed to be the killing blow to Gordon Brown’s ailing premiership, following Labour’s humiliation at the hands of the SNP in Glasgow East and the leadership speculation in July. The financial crisis and the conference season have removed this possibility from the agenda. Even another defeat, in this more serious and less frothy political climate, will not lead to Brown’s departure, and in reality it is doubtful that anything short of a truly awful result like a five-figure SNP majority, or third place, would have done so. The constituency is peculiarly unsuitable for a role as a national barometer.

The Glenrothes constituency is on the edge of one of the sharpest social and political divides of any rural area in Britain. Just to the east lies the soft agricultural, almost southern English-looking countryside of North East Fife, and towns such as academic St Andrews and the attractive fishing harbour of Anstruther. Glenrothes is where the rough, scarred landscape of the ex-coalfield of Central/West Fife begins. In East Fife, Menzies Campbell’s constituency, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are the main parties, with the SNP and Labour hardly relevant to the outcome and weak even at local government level. In Glenrothes the positions are reversed, with Labour and SNP dominant and the Lib Dems and Conservatives irrelevant (although they are fighting their own Lilliputian battle for third place). The tough mining towns and villages of Fife have a fierce collective, class-conscious tradition, typified by the Communist MP for West Fife from 1935 to 1950, Willie Gallacher. This area is now divided between the Westminster seats of Glenrothes and the Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath seat of the prime minister.

Glenrothes itself is a new town, designed around a short-lived coal mine but reinvented as a centre for communities that would otherwise have died with the exhaustion of the Fife coal seams, a replacement source of employment (in manufacturing and the council’s headquarters) and better housing. In recent years some of the pit villages and new housing around Markinch have attracted Edinburgh commuters, rather as the English new towns have grown into new upmarket suburbs.

New town politics can be volatile and peculiar. Places like Basildon, Stevenage and Harlow started off as Labour, swung wildly to the Tories in Thatcher’s elections (home ownership and tax cuts were a potent appeal for predominantly skilled white working class communities) and then to Blair in 1997. Since then they have drifted back to the Tories, thanks in part to the new commuter estates, and in part to the long term trend Blair interrupted. In Scotland it is different, because no matter how enthusiastically the tenants bought their houses, the Conservative party was simply beyond the pale.

The Scottish new towns like Cumbernauld and Glenrothes have been fertile ground for the SNP when the party has been on an upward trend, although that vote slumps rapidly when the tide ebbs. There seems to be something about moving to a new town that encourages people to reassess traditional loyalties and think about politics in terms of consumer options and aspiration, although in Glenrothes this exists alongside a continuing broad attachment to socialism absent in England, except for Peterlee in the former Durham coalfield.

Constituencies like Glenrothes produce two sorts of result. One is typified by the 2005 Westminster election, a low point in the recent history of the SNP, in which Labour held Glenrothes with an apparently mountainous majority. The other sort happens when the SNP is surging: the Nationalists won the corresponding Fife Central seat in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election. Given that Labour, even though some ground has been made up since summer, are still not exactly popular, one should probably expect Glenrothes to be in one of its SNP moods. The SNP, in any case, are good at campaigning in by-elections, and their activists have flooded into Glenrothes fuelled by confidence and optimism. In the past, the SNP has achieved high swings against Labour even when Labour has been popular, as in Monklands East in 1994 and Hamilton South in 1999, and of course only a few months ago they won their triumph in Glasgow East.

Even so, nobody is quite taking an SNP victory for granted in Glenrothes. Unlike Glasgow East, the area is used to electoral competition and the local Labour party has not grown complacent on a monopoly of representation. The electors are more familiar with the good and bad points of both main parties and their arguments, and probably more resistant to the sort of collapse that took place in Glasgow. For the first time, the SNP has to defend a record in power. While at Holyrood where they are still fairly popular, the collapse of HBOS has left the party looking less relevant to the big issues. While the UK government could organise a massive bailout that (somewhat) stabilised the markets, the nagging thought that an independent Scotland could have been next behind Iceland in the queue at the door of the IMF must have occurred to voters.

However, Alex Salmond’s government is not the main focus for those looking for criticisms of the SNP, this honour instead goes to Fife council whose leader Peter Grant is the candidate. Council leaders have their strengths and weaknesses as by-election candidates. While they are often experienced local politicians who can avoid campaign blunders, they are also responsible for what the council does, a lot of which is inherently unpopular. If electors are looking to cast a protest vote, they have a choice of whom to protest against. Labour’s candidate, Lindsay Roy, is far from a professional politician, coming to the contest from his position as head of Kirkcaldy High School. In Fife, educators and education are traditionally treated with a respect that exceeds that given by most other communities. As in Glasgow East, it is a contest between two strong candidates.

There will be a large swing to the SNP compared with the baseline of 2005, of that there is no doubt. Until the financial crisis broke, it looked as if it was going to be easily big enough to swamp Labour, and informed comment suggested that if Glenrothes got close enough for a recount, that would be a pretty good showing for Labour. Now it does not seem impossible that Labour could cling on. If you had asked people at the start of 2008 which Scottish seats Labour would hate to defend in a by-election, Glenrothes would rank high on the list, while any assessment of the irreducible hard core of Labour constituencies would have included Glasgow East. As the American maxim goes, “All politics is local”, and one does not have to look much further than Fife to prove that.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/03/glenrothes-labour

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A broken rule of thumb in Glasgow (25 July 2008)

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A broken rule of thumb in Glasgow (25 July 2008)

Posted on 25 July 2008 by admin

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.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/25/glasgoweast.snp

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Class v nationalism in Glasgow East (24 July 2008)

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Class v nationalism in Glasgow East (24 July 2008)

Posted on 24 July 2008 by admin

If turnout is up today after years of decline, it may not necessarily be good news for Labour

Unlike most of my tribe, namely the London-based commentariat, I had been to Glasgow East before the by-election. I spent an afternoon in April 2007 leafleting in Shettleston, promoting the new voting system. People took the cards politely, but when we left the supermarket the pavement outside was littered with them despite Glasgow council’s generous provision of bins. It was a small illustration of how people feel politics of any sort can do little for them.

Some visiting journalists, with more than a measure of patronising contempt for the people of his constituency, have painted a picture of unrelieved degradation, to which I do not intend to add. There is a lot of variety within Glasgow East. The inner east end area and parts of Shettleston are indeed old fashioned slums, but most of the constituency consists of different vintages of council housing. Easterhouse, on the further outskirts of the city by the M8, was a notoriously unpleasant 1950s/60s council scheme. Much of it has now been levelled and rebuilt, mostly since 1997, with people re-housed in single family homes run by housing co-operatives, and a rebirth of some measure of community spirit. There are still, however, plenty of squalid, cheaply built tower blocks and concrete jungles in Glasgow East. Rather better are some 1940s council housing areas around Shettleston, and there is a small, relatively up-market, patch around Mount Vernon.

Turnout in 2005 in Glasgow East was 48 per cent, compared to 61 per cent nationally. Not only voting, but all other types of participation and organisation, seem to be weak in Glasgow East. Community councils and local civil society institutions are hard to organise in many areas, and the Catholic Church (traditionally linked to Labour, but now being wooed by the SNP) stands nearly alone as a strong local institution.

Once upon a time, however, turnout in Glasgow East was not too far from the national average. In 1951 it topped 80 per cent in both predecessor constituencies (Shettleston and Camlachie), and until 1966 it remained not far below the national average. In 1987 turnout in the area was a relatively healthy 70 per cent. Since then, and particularly since 1992, it has fallen even faster than turnout in the UK as a whole. It may come as a surprise to note that huge differences in turnout between different social classes are a relatively recent phenomenon in Britain.

Much of the explanation for Glasgow East’s low turnout is simply the enormous social dislocation caused by the collapse of manufacturing industry in the 1980s. Large factories and the trade unions were the glue that bound together these communities, particularly the men, even when residential areas were demolished wholesale and rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s. Now it is all gone. Thatcherism (or inevitable industrial change, you’re your pick) destroyed what failed social engineering did not.

The change has been (literally) heart-breaking for many. In what is supposed to be a post-industrial society, what are industrial people to do? It is not surprising that there is an undercurrent of despair about the place. Back when Labour could promise “a fundamental and irreversible shift of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families” there was more to appeal to voters in Glasgow East. Voting in places like Glasgow East now seems more like a choice of care worker than a real statement of political power. There is something basically wrong about a political system that compounds inequalities of power rather than levelling them.

The by-election is unusual, in that for once the political establishment in Scotland and Westminster think that Glasgow East matters. Although constituency polls show a sizeable Labour lead, there is a highly competitive battle between Labour and SNP fought out by two strong candidates, Margaret Curran and John Mason, both of whom are proven vote-getters in the area. It is for this reason that I do not expect turnout to fall too much (although one should allow for this being a holiday week in the city). At the moment, the betting seems to be favouring a Labour hold – nationally and more importantly in Ladbroke’s in Baillieston. Certainly, the traditional wisdom is that a high turnout benefits Labour because that is the core loyalty of most Glaswegians, and while there may not be much enthusiasm there is recognition that Labour has tried and in part succeeded in improving housing, education and opportunities.

The traditional wisdom is probably right. But there is another possibility. When east Glasgow voted en masse, it was because its working class people felt a collective sense of power, and had a distant vision of a better society. If voting comes back into fashion on Thursday, it might just be that people dare to dream again of a better society, and put their faith in nationalist rather than class politics.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/24/glasgoweast.scotland1

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