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Seeking Red Shoots

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Seeking Red Shoots

Posted on 01 April 2011 by admin

Making a comeback in previously Labour-free zones, rather than seizing back control of councils, could be the big story this May, says Lewis Baston

This year will see the fourth set of elections for the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly which Labour established in 1999. They will be seen as an important early test of Labour’s national recovery, despite the very different contexts of Welsh and Scottish politics. And, of course, this is also the big year of the four-year cycle for English local government elections. Nearly everywhere outside London will have elections, either for every council seat or ‘by thirds’.

In Scotland the aim is not for an overall majority, which is highly improbable because the electoral system is quite proportional, but for a clear lead in seats over the Scottish National party and a mandate to form a government either as a minority or as the clearly dominant force within a coalition. There have been extensive boundary changes for the Scottish parliament constituencies, making it harder to predict what might happen and where the crucial seats are. One is Glasgow Southside, where deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP faces Labour councillor Stephen Curran in a seat with an estimated Labour majority in 2007 of 27 votes. Clackmannanshire and Dunblane is also a key Labour-SNP contest. South of Glasgow, boundary changes have made Eastwood a likely Conservative seat, but Labour has made big progress here – Jim Murphy has been the MP since 1997 – and could spring a surprise. The mixed new seat of Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale should be SNP, but has elements of support for all four main parties.

Labour’s target in Wales is a majority in the assembly, which polls indicate is very possible. The party needs five gains on 2007, although more are required if Labour loses list seats in compensation for constituency successes. Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South is possibly the most interesting seat, a three-way marginal where the winning Conservative and third-placed Plaid Cymru were separated by only 250 votes. After Nick Smith’s triumph in the Westminster election, Blaenau Gwent‘s assembly seat should return to the fold. The ‘clear red water’ in Wales over tuition fees may help in Cardiff Central, despite a large Liberal Democrat majority in 2007 – it is an ambitious target.

The 2007 elections, when this year’s English local government seats were last fought, were – though pretty bad for Labour – not the humiliating drubbing that the local polls were in 2008 and 2009. It is not until May 2012, when the councillors elected in 2008 will be up for re-election, that Labour will make huge gains in terms of control of authorities that elect by thirds. The story of the 2011 elections in many areas, particularly southern urban councils such as Southampton, Plymouth and Harlow, will be more about putting in solid foundations to take control next year than outright wins this year.

Labour recovered ground in some cities in 2010 (recapturing Liverpool and Coventry, for example), and those gains left the party only just short of overall control in authorities such as Leeds and Warrington – these should fall easily in 2011, as should Nick Clegg’s disaffected home patch, Sheffield. If polling and by-election evidence of a big Liberal Democrat collapse in the northern cities is borne out, Labour should be in the business of taking out its rivals’ northern flagship of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, following a by-election win in March, seizing Burnley. It would take quite a sweep to win outright control of Hull, but Labour should at least deprive the Liberal Democrats of control there.

Against the Conservatives the potential pickings are slimmer, with the prize of Ipswich (a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition) being a hoped-for symbol of Labour recovery in eastern England; Lincoln should be a win as well.

In some ways the most interesting story for Labour will not be in terms of council control but in ‘red shoots’ popping up in areas where the party has been shut out of representation in recent years, an essential step to rebuilding Labour as a national party. Harriet Harman in particular has been tireless in urging Labour candidates to come forward even in difficult areas, and this should produce a scattering of surprising individual victories in hitherto barren territory. In 1996 Labour was running councils like St Edmundsbury and Cherwell. Re-establishing a presence would be a good start, and control is a realistic proposition in several of these councils – Waveney in Suffolk, Stockton-on-Tees and North Warwickshire all cover parliamentary marginals.

Labour should take several urban unitaries including Blackpool, although control in Brighton and Hove is very difficult because the Greens now win several formerly Labour wards. There are few areas where Labour is on the defensive in these elections, but among them is North Lincolnshire where the Conservatives are the main opposition. It would be an extremely good result if Labour were to bounce back from third in Northampton – but expect a few surprises once the polls close on 5 May.

Originally published 1 April 2011 Progress Online

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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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