Beware hubris (7 November 2008)
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.