After Glenrothes: The Continuing Struggle for Scotland’s Soul

Gerry Hassan
8 November 2008

Labour's surprise victory in the Glenrothes by-election bespeaks a new fluidity in Scottish politics, argues Gerry Hassan.

The Glenrothes by-election has shown that Scottish and British politics are on the move. Gordon Brown is clearly back from the dead; David Cameron and George Osborne have been wrong-footed, while Alex Salmond, that other thorn in Labour’s flesh, has seemingly misjudged the economic and political moment, and the SNP honeymoon is over. Has ‘the Brown bounce’ led to ‘the Salmond trounce’?

This was a seat the SNP were expected to win. They expected to win it, Labour to lose it. The political classes expected a Nationalist victory, as did the bookies. A Labour majority of 10,664 over the SNP seemed easily within reach after Glasgow East. The Nationalists had won a 22% swing in late July, and only required a 14% swing three months later. They also hold the Central Fife seat for the Scottish Parliament which they had won in 2007, which covers most of the Glenrothes seat.

As the polling stations closed on November 6th, large parts of Labour were still resigned to defeat, while the SNP thought they had won, believing they had a large enough vote to secure victory. In fact, Labour’s Lindsay Roy won the seat by 6,737 votes over the Nationalists, seeing their majority only slightly reduced. 

While some may claim that the media and Labour politicians are making something out of ‘no change’, politics is all about momentum, expectation and perception, and Labour were expected to lose and the SNP win. In these respects, an impressive Labour hold is even more sensational and surprising than a SNP victory. Jim Murphy, Secretary of State for Scotland said of the result, ‘It’s a vindication of Gordon Brown, it’s a humiliation for Alex Salmond’.

This wasn’t just a Labour victory, but an emphatic one. Labour increased their actual number of votes by 551 compared to the last general election, and saw their percentage of the vote rise by 3.2%. This is a party which has been in UK government for eleven years and a few months ago was setting new records for unpopularity. 

The SNP saw their support rise by 4,500 votes and in percentage terms by 13.2%, but they only recorded a 4.96% swing from Labour to the SNP and came nowhere near winning.

Putting Glenrothes in Context of the Labour-SNP Long War

If we look at the seat in the context of the forty-year struggle between Labour and SNP a few historic facts stand out:

  • This was the best Labour showing in a Scottish by-election for thirteen years – since Perth and Kinross in 1995 (which the SNP won defeating the Tories);
  • It was even more strikingly the best Labour result in a Scottish Labour seat in a by-election for thirty years: since Berwick and East Lothian in 1978;
  • This was the smallest SNP swing at a Westminster by-election from Labour for twenty six years – since Coatbridge and Airdrie in 1982;
  • At a UK level this was the best result while Labour is in office, in one of its seats since the legendary Hull North by-election in 1966 – which gave Harold Wilson the confidence to go to the country in March 1966 and win an overall majority of 96.

Politics is shaped by myth and folklore. There is a story that the Nationalist are great at by-elections. This is a fiction. As a analyst of Scottish politics I have studied every Scottish by-election that has taken place since 1945 – and at Westminster and the Scottish Parliament there have been until Thursday 74 contests – of which the SNP have won a mere six. It just happens that until Glasgow East, many of us could name all of them: Motherwell, Hamilton, Govan (twice) and Perth and Kinross. It is not a very impressive record. 

Labour fought a relentlessly focused campaign homing in on the SNP dominated council (which they run with the Lib Dems) and in particular the controversy over increased home care charges. These issues caused obvious difficulty to the SNP during the by-election, and at points clearly threw the SNP candidate, Peter Grant, leader of the council. Some SNP people are now claiming Labour ran a nasty, negative campaign, but the anger on doorsteps was not invented, but real.

Labour played the role of the underdog and campaigned as an opposition running against the SNP, despite the fact that Labour are in power in Westminster and this was a Westminster by-election which seemed to be obsessed with local government and Scottish Parliament issues. This is what sometimes happened in political systems shaped by multi-layered governance.

Labour also learned from its mistakes in Glasgow East where the party banged away to no effect against the SNP on the issue of independence and ‘tearing Scotland out of the UK’. This had no traction in the previous contest, being trumpeted by the unpopularity of the UK Labour Government. Despite its addiction to anti-Nationalist rhetoric, Labour took this on board, and independence was the great-unsung issue of Glenrothes, unmentioned by the modern SNP, and left on the cutting room floor by Labour. 

The SNP fought a campaign drawing on the enthusiasm of their members – with 1,200 activists flooding the constituency in the last weekend before polling. Despite this they could not build the momentum or sure-footedness to defeat Labour.

Alex Salmond, who has not had a brilliant economic crisis, seemed to at points misjudge the mood and temper of the by-election. He campaigned incessantly in the seat, visiting it thirteen times during the campaign while also being First Minister. Brown who sits for the neighbouring Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath visited the seat twice, his wife Sarah seven times.

The day before polling Salmond appropriated Obama’s slogan and added to it: ‘Yes We Can, Yes We Will’. Obama had not shown such hubris before polling day, and Salmond in effect has been hoist by his own petard.

There are lessons for all the parties in the Glenrothes result. The Conservatives have now shown in every Scottish by-election since 2005 that there is no ‘Cameron bounce’, losing their deposit in Glenrothes. While Cameron can dismiss one or two Scottish results as not being in natural Tory territory, they cannot continually trundle this excuse out as they have done on three occasions. 

The Lib Dems are struggling north of the border post-coalition with Labour. And an interesting sidestory is what has happened to the Scottish Socialist Party/Solidarity forces which as one party polled nearly seven percent of the vote in the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections. Since their implosion, they have drifted to irrelevance and in Glenrothes the endstory of Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity was witnessed with a mere 87 votes gained: support of Monster Raving Loony Party levels!

An Election of Change and Transition: Hope and Fear

This was an election which showed significant transition and change in the competing fortunes of Labour and SNP and the struggle for the soul of Scotland. The similarity of the two parties philosophically and in values is consistently misunderstood and misrepresented by the two parties. 

Labour opinion views Scottish nationalism as somehow ‘illegitimate’ and ‘divisive’, seeing ‘nationalism as an ideology of myths’. This misses that Labour is a British nationalist entity, and that all ideologies are in part made up of myths.

On the other hand, many in the SNP have a distorted view of Labour, insisting that ‘Scottish Labour’ does not exist, or is merely the mouthpiece of British Labour. Many in the Nationalists were shocked by Labour’s focused campaign in Glenrothes, and cried wolf complaining that it was negative and somehow the Scottish equivalent of Karl Rove comes to Fife! In this fantasy world, Labour propagated the politics of fear, while the SNP Obama-like advanced the potential of hope!

Alex Salmond, the morning after the result commented of Labour, ‘I didn’t like their campaigning style – I think it was fearmongering and scaremongering’. Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s new leader in the Scottish Parliament retorted, ‘With power comes responsibility. It wasn’t negative campaigning. What we have done is hold the SNP up to scrutiny’.

The immediate future of Scottish politics is going to be more interesting and competitive as a result of Glenrothes. The by-election was a contest between two Governments – one Scottish (SNP), and one UK (Labour), two Parliaments and two visions of Scotland. It is the tale of one political establishment – Labour, centred on Westminster and the West of Scotland, and another, partly emerging – the SNP, focused on the Scottish Parliament and with an expanding council base. These two establishments were apparent in the two by-elections north of the border: Glasgow East and Glenrothes. In the former, Labour’s dominance at a local government level was one of the main issues; in the later, the decisions of the SNP in Fife council blunted the party’s charge.

What we are seeing is the transition of the SNP to being an incumbent party, which by necessity partly diminishes their populist, outsider status. At the same time, Scottish Labour are slowly learning how to challenge the SNP and be a party of opposition. The groupthink media view that the SNP honeymoon could go on and on, and the party’s fortunes onward and upward, has been questioned. The related view that we were witnessing the slow, remorseless death of Scottish Labour, has at least to be re-examined. Politics are never as linear as pundits like to imagine they are.

The result shows a Scotland of different political systems and cultures: of a Westminster politics dominated by the UK battle between Labour and the Conservatives and Scottish Labour returning a healthy number of MPs; and of a multi-party politics of the Scottish Parliament primarily shaped by Labour and SNP. 

The foreseeable horizon will see a host of elections, which all the Scottish parties are going to have to navigate with more care: the Euro elections of 2009, the Westminster election which has to be called by May 2010, and the Scottish Parliament elections of May 2011. 

The SNP administration is going to have to concentrate more on how it governs Scotland and delivers on a range of policy issues, rather than as it has done so far, engaging in grandstanding and perpetual campaigning. It still has a fair degree of goodwill behind it, while Salmond has transformed the role and nature of the office of First Minister. And yet, in a mere eighteen months he has reached a point of over-reach and hubris. Can the SNP learn from this and develop a more collective style of leadership, allowing some of its rising stars, such as Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, more of a role?

Glenrothes confirms that Gordon Brown has been granted a second chance and has a window of opportunity at least until the recession really bites. He has so far proven he is not a later day John Major; it is still to be seen to what extent he is really ‘a comeback kid’. Already after Labour’s sensational result, Labour voices such as Ian Davidson, MP for Govan, are calling on Brown to dash to the polls. Whether Brown’s second bounce is a Hull North moment in 1966 where Wilson had the courage to go to the country and win, or a Labour in 1970 moment, when they went to the country and lost after moving ahead in the polls, or neither, is unclear. 

Scottish Labour has shown it still has some life in its bones and political acumen, and is capable of beginning to adapt to the politics of a SNP administration and challenge of opposition. In the longer run, it will have to answer questions about its direction and moral compass.

The current economic and political crisis poses a challenge to all the mainstream political parties. All of them – Labour, Conservatives, Lib Dems, SNP have in the past decade plus engaged in a politics of deception and hypocrisy refusing to talk about the economy while siding up to big business. This was the politics of the ‘big tent’ of New Labour and Salmond’s SNP at their peak. The days of such a politics have passed; Glenrothes has shown there is a new fluidity, uncertainty and opportunity, about who can best capture and explain the new environment we inhabit. 

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and the author of numerous books on Scottish and UK politics including The Political Guide to Modern Scotland, The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas and After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade. 

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