The Continued Struggle for Scotland’s Soul: Politics after Glasgow North East

Gerry Hassan

The Guardian Comment, November 13th 2009

The Glasgow North East campaign never really got started in the way some by-elections catch fire or one candidate creates a bandwagon. And yet, this result will send ripples through the political classes.

It is revealing that Labour held on with relative ease – achieving a 1.89% swing to Labour from the SNP – in one of the most battered and deprived constituencies in Scotland and the UK, while the Scottish Nationalists failed to make any headway despite the popularity of Alex Salmond’s devolved administration. This was the worst result for the SNP in a Labour-SNP contest since George Robertson won Hamilton in 1978.

Labour have learned some of the lessons from losing Glasgow East last year to the SNP. In the by-election immediately after – Glenrothes – Labour choose to fight as an opposition against an incumbent SNP Government and local council with success. This time they fine-tuned their new adversarial oppositional politics towards the SNP in terms of the Edinburgh based government doing down Glasgow with Labour leaflets claiming ‘SNP Ripping Off Glasgow’.

The Labour-SNP conflict was fought with a complete obliviousness to the big issues voters face both locally and nationally.  Glasgow North East has the highest unemployment claimant count in Scotland, the second highest incapacity levels and is rated the second unhealthiest place in the UK. Neither party touched on these issues in the campaign.

Instead they choose to characterise their campaigns by parochial and petty issues such as Labour charging that the SNP candidate David Kerr wasn’t as local as he claimed, while he choose as the defining moment of his campaign to throw a £2 coin at the Labour candidate Willie Bain in a TV debate to illustrate the lack of extra spending by the local Labour council.

Two former Big Brother contestants, two former BBC journalists, three independent socialist candidates, the first of an ‘out’ Tory candidate, and the anointed local hero who foiled the Glasgow Airport terrorist attack did not excite the electorate, who responded with a 33% turnout, the lowest ever in a Scottish parliamentary by-election.

The BNP’s fourth place is significant in Scottish politics in a place where they have history having won 3.2% in 2005 (in one of only two seats they stood in across Scotland) and 4.3% in the Euro elections. This is one of the poorest parts of Glasgow which has experienced hard times even through the good times pre-crash, and which has had anxieties and tensions over asylum seekers and refugees who have been here for nearly a decade.

This is a neglected part of Scotland where none of the four main Scottish political parties have spoken with a voice with much relevance or connection. None really succeeded in doing so in this campaign.

None of the parties, including the long dominant Labour Party have much local presence in terms of activists or organisation. Labour for years were represented pre-his role as Speaker by Michael Martin, hardly the most energetic of local campaigners. This then was a seat ripe for an anti-local establishment challenge which makes the SNP’s failure all the more galling for them.

This is a revealing result for the appeal of the Cameron Conservatives. Yes, the Tories will claim this is the most unfertile territory possible and brandish their third place (finishing 63 votes ahead of the BNP). However, there have now been four Scottish Westminster elections since David Cameron became Tory leader. In the first three the Tory vote has fallen and in none has there been any sign of a Tory revival.

All by-elections are special and yet they can provide pointers. Labour are still the biggest tribe in the West of Scotland which is still resistant to the charms of a relatively popular Alex Salmond Government. The SNP are despite the one-off victory of Glasgow East – a party that has never won two successive by-elections and won a mere six out of 75 since its first ever victory in Motherwell in 1945.

Scotland has also shown that in one way it is very different and one way it is not from the rest of the UK. It is the one part of Britain which has so far shown itself to be immune to the appeal of the New Conservatives, and this will have big consequences next year if the Tories are returned to power at a UK level with one or two seats north of the border. Groundhog Day will revisit Scotland as we enter a new version of ‘the democratic deficit’: Scotland not voting Tory, while getting a Tory Government.

In another respect, Scotland isn’t that different in relation to the BNP and how the Scots see themselves. For long the dominant wisdom has been that this is a welcoming, egalitarian nation less racist and xenophobia than England; so this line goes the BNP is an ‘English disease’, too virulent and too British to make much headroom here. Well that complacency now needs to end. A small, micro-slice of Scottish opinion is just as prone to vote for what was once seen as a pariah party as parts of England.

There were also local factors at play. Willie Bain, the successful Labour candidate was both popular and had local roots and recognition. The SNP candidate David Kerr was inept and failed to develop a convincing campaign line against Labour’s 74 year incumbency and the absentee landlordism of leaving the seat for months without representation.

What is also evident is that the old cycle of Parliaments and Governments the Westminster classes know and love is now much less clear cut in parts of the UK. There are now two Parliaments, two political cycles and cultures in Scotland. This implies the need for two very different styles of politics. Labour for now has learned how to play at being both government and opposition in by-elections north of the border. This is a balancing act which will not be open to Gordon Brown and Labour next year or in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.