The shock is not so much that Labour won. I had a feeling in my water as long as a month ago that Labour might win, even when the bookies and the pundits were saying otherwise. But the scale of Labour’s victory must have shocked everyone.
Yesterday, the BBC’s coverage began on the premise that it was “too close to call” or that, if anything, the SNP had squeaked it. Jim Murphy was making his excuses early (and doing a fairly good job of it, it has to be said). Coming towards midnight, it became clearer that Labour had won. The SNP were saying they hoped to have halved Labour’s majority.
Even with that knowledge, the scale of Labour’s victory when it was finally announced amazed me. The SNP hadn’t even halved Labour’s majority. In fact, Labour’s vote actually went up from the 2005 General Election result. The only real consolation the SNP can have is that the swing was 5% from Labour to the SNP. Even so, that looks minuscule compared to the swing of 22.5% achieved just a few months ago in Glasgow East.
There are all sorts of reasons why the SNP will be disappointed with this result. First of all, Glenrothes must have been a target seat for them anyway, even before this by-election was announced, with the SNP having won the similar Fife Central seat in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election. When Labour was in its trough of popularity, the SNP must have thought Christmas had come early.
Labour’s campaign had seemed like a total shambles. I do not live in the constituency so I haven’t seen any of the literature, but I have heard some bad things about it. Sarah Brown’s well-publicised visit to Cardenden was a complete botch job, and Gordon Brown’s visit to a cafeteria wasn’t much better.
Labour did not need a superstar candidate either. Lindsay Roy is a very nervy and uncomfortable performer on the television. However, it looks as though that actually played into his hands. Labour emphasised the fact that Lindsay Roy is not a career politician, and his track record of being out in the “real world” helping out Fife’s schoolchildren must have gained him a few votes.
As an aside, I doubt that Lindsay Roy actually wanted to become MP. He certainly didn’t look overjoyed at having won, and even after it was clear that Labour had won his body language seemed pretty negative to me. I have heard it said that Lindsay Roy wanted to retire from headteaching anyway and that he saw this as the ideal opportunity to get an early retirement. He probably thought he had no chance of winning.
There is also the fact that the SNP Scottish Government was still in its honeymoon period. Some people are reluctant to say that the honeymoon is over, but there is no doubt that this is at least a slap in the face.
Let us not forget that one of the SNP’s flagship policies was designed to please Fifers in particular. The SNP must have thought that the abolition of bridge tolls would have secured a few votes in Fife. Glenrothes in particular is within comfortable commuting distance of both Edinburgh and Dundee, meaning that many residents will be frequent users of both the Forth and Tay Road Bridges. The fact that the voters of Glenrothes in particular have given the SNP the cold shoulder is a major snub.
Nationalists may counter that Fife is fertile territory for Labour. Time and again I saw pundits on the television saying that Labour benefited from a “halo effect” spilling over into Glenrothes. Fifers, apparently, are proud that Gordon Brown is Prime Minister.
Let me just say, as someone who has lived in Fife all my life, that this is a complete load of tosh. Since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, I have never heard anyone say that they are proud that the PM is a Fifer. In fact, I have sometimes heard people wonder out aloud how it could possibly be that Kirkcaldy can have such high unemployment when the Prime Minister represents the constituency. (I once heard someone say, referring to the perceived unwillingness of Gordon Brown to help his local area, that Kirkcaldy has the highest rate of unemployment in the country, although I doubt that.)
Fife is not Labour loopy. Yesterday there was the opportunity for three of the four constituencies in Fife to be represented by a party other than Labour, leaving just Gordon Brown’s seat in tact. That didn’t happen. But the fact is that the Kingdom of Fife has the capacity to elect any one of three parties. As such, Glenrothes’s decision to vote for Labour should not simply be batted away because it was supposedly as “safe seat”. According to Alex Salmond, there is no such thing as a safe Labour seat these days, and Glenrothes certainly wasn’t one for the reasons outlined above.
The SNP may complain about the negativity of Labour’s campaign. But they should be alarmed that it worked. In retrospect, the decision of the SNP to select Fife Council leader Peter Grant as candidate must be seen as a major tactical error. The Labour Party was able to tap into some real dissatisfaction that people have with Fife Council at the moment.
Because of the complexities of this situation, it is not exactly clear what message the voters were sending out. There is no doubt that there was a message of some sort. But was it a verdict on the Labour government in Westminster? Was it a vote of confidence in Gordon Brown? Was it about sending a message to Holyrood? Or was it about punishing the leader of Fife Council?
Whichever, the SNP should take this seriously. I have no reason to doubt that they will, and the reaction from SNP members’ blogs is sober and reflective (see, for instance, Richard Thomson). There was some real evidence that the SNP were becoming complacent with their position. In the run-up to the election it was looking as though the SNP was giddy on power.
Alex Salmond’s supreme confidence was completely misplaced. And his attempt to attach himself to Barack Obama’s election as US President was crass in the extreme. Voters can smell this sort of thing a mile off, and I’d be amazed if it didn’t cost the SNP votes.
It is no longer enough to rely on the dissatisfaction with the Labour Party that many people have. With Labour’s vote having gone up, it’s pretty clear that they benefited from some serious tactical voting, with the Conservatives and the Lib Dems being squeezed. If this election shows anything, it is that while Labour are unpopular among many voters, the SNP are also loathed among many others.
A word on the Lib Dems, who must be very disappointed. For the second Scottish by-election in a row, they have come in fourth and lost their deposit. Glenrothes is practically sandwiched in between two Lib Dem constituencies — Dunfermline and West Fife and North East Fife. While there is no reason to automatically assume that the Lib Dems should therefore win Glenrothes, they must be disappointed by their complete inertia just now.
It is tough for smaller parties in by-elections anyway. But the current political climate cannot be doing them many favours. Despite PR, Scotland is beginning to look a bit like a two party system. In the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, one of the biggest changes was the almost complete disappearance of the small parties. Now it looks as though both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are wilting in a highly charged political atmosphere that pits the SNP versus Labour, leaving little room for much else.