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Remember Remember the 6th of November

Mike Small
8 October 2008

Mike Small (Fife, Bella Caledonia): Yesterday the date for the Glenrothes by-election was (finally) announced.As last week there was near unanimous approval amongst the commentariat that Brown was doomed, now, after a wee snog on stage he's (apparently) safe as houses.

Commentators huddle together in packs, and the swing is not contained to Westminster groupies.

BBC Scotland's own Brian Taylor writes: 'The prospect that defeat in Glenrothes might finish off the PM seems to have receded. Not because anything has changed in Glenrothes but because things have changed inside Labour. Few expect a challenge to Mr Brown, given the economic climate, whatever political triggers are made available by the electorate."

But few suggest Labour's chances have improved any since, what? A half-decent speech and economic meltdown. To my mind the jury's still out, as we've just witnessed the mood swing is volatile. Last week Cameron's party were exposed as a policy void. Next week, Brown's 'steady hand' in a crisis may be seen as gripping the tiller a little too tightly.

George Howarth MP, who recently said Gordon Brown was as unpopular as Neville Chamberlain, told the meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party in the House of Commons that any rebellion against the Prime Minister was effectively over, signalling that barring an accident he will lead Labour into the general election.

There are good reasons to believe this isn't so.

New Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy (the second-youngest Cabinet minister after 38-year-old climate and energy minister Ed Miliband), signalled he would pursue the SNP "relentlessly" over policies he disagreed with, including the local income tax proposals. He told press: "Mr Salmond was my fourth phone call after telling my mother, my wife Claire and the Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray about my appointment."

While Murphy's full-on approach will give hope to the beleaguered Scottish party, it's a confrontation Salmond is likely to relish. Similarly this week's announcement of free school meals for all 5 - 7 year olds undermines further Labours disingenuous attempts to paint the SNP as 'Tartan Tories'. It's an old jibe but one that just looks more and more ridiculous as they roll out social policy opposed by Labour and previously only backed by the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party, from which the policy originates.

Not everyone is hopeful that Brown has turned a corner. As Iain Macwhirter has written: 'So, what can Labour do to improve their chances in Glenrothes? Unfortunately, they can't get rid of Gordon Brown, who is probably their main electoral liability there. This was made patently clear as early as February 2006, when the Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie snatched nearby Dunfermline and West Fife at a by-election, overturning a similar Labour majority of around 12,000. Even when he was chancellor, and supposedly at the height of his powers, Gordon Brown was a vote-loser. Now, after Glasgow East, where Labour lost the third-safest seat inScotland on a 22% swing to the SNP, he is the electoral equivalent of toxicwaste.'

The split of media between Scotland and England continues to be a factor allowing London Labour and the media to fixate on 'Browns Bounce' while the rest of us focus on the next bus to come round the corner e.g. Glenrothes.

The Telegraph coverage of the Free School Meals Initiative as follows: "The SNP has been accused of taking advantage of the system to whip up English antagonism and increase support for Scottish independence by announcing the giveaways" would be unpublishable even in the pro-Union Scottish press.

It continues, citing Mark Wallace, campaign director of the Taxpayers' Alliance: "There's no such thing as a free lunch and taxpayers in England know that only too well. They will be offended but not surprised that yetagain their taxes are being used to provide freebies in Scotland that cannot be afforded for their own children in England."

Such sentiments may be mainstream currency in England, but they would be deemed offensive North of Coldstream. It's into such an environment that Brown must somehow emerge victorious in less than a month.

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