Glasgow North East byelection: Labour victory but "not back on course"

Submitted by cathy n on 16 November, 2009 - 2:25 Author: Dale Street

Only 30% of the electorate felt sufficiently motivated to cast their vote in last Thursday's by-election in the Glasgow North East constituency. This was the lowest turnout ever in a Scottish by-election, and 13% lower than the turnout in the constituency in the 2005 general election.

Apart from demonstrating varying degrees of voter indifference to all the parties which stood candidates - despite the vast resources poured into the by-election by the four main parties - what, if anything, can be read into the results of the by-election?

Labour won 60% of the votes cast and secured an easy victory. According to Jim Murphy, the Scottish Secretary of State, this was a "thumping victory" for Labour. But 60% of votes casts translates into just 19% support from the electorate as a whole (because of the 70% abstention rate). This is anything but "thumping".

What is notable about Labour's victory is not so much the fact that it won the seat - the safest Labour seat in Scotland - but rather the fact that a repeat of last year's Glasgow East by-election, when the SNP secured a 22% swing to overturn a 13,000 Labour majority, was even initially considered to be a real possibility.

In the event, there was no repeat of Glasgow East.

Instead of rushing into a by-election, Labour allowed five months to elapse between the resignation of the incumbent scandal-stricken MP and the date of the by-election. Labour was also able to stand a local candidate who was born in the constituency and lived in the constituency (leaving aside the fact that he works as a part-time lecturer in London).

Although this was a by-election for a Westminster constituency, Labour ran its campaign as an attack on the SNP's record in Holyrood rather than as a defence of Labour's record in Westminster. It was a tactic that paid off. But it is not a tactic which Labour can repeat in a general election, and certainly not in English constituencies.

The SNP came second. Their share of the vote increased by just 0.6% compared to their performance in the 2005 general election. It was their worst by-election result in a straight contest against Labour since 1978.

The SNP's failure to make any inroads into the Labour vote reflects, to some degree, a creeping disenchantment with the SNP's record in Holyrood (as well as the effectiveness of Labour's campaign tactics). Having said that, the SNP's victory in Glasgow East last year set an unrealistic benchmark against which to measure the SNP's performance in this by-election.

And despite having now been in power for more than two years at Holyrood, the SNP's share of the vote at an all-Scottish level remains relatively stable. It would therefore be a mistake to read too much into the SNP's poor performance in this by-election.

The Tories won third place, having managed to double the number of votes they picked up. Put another way, the Tories won just 1,075 votes, only just managed to save their deposit, and secured the votes of just 2% of the electorate. In other words, they were also-rans in this by-election.

Given the levels of poverty in the constituency, it could not have been otherwise. But the improved vote improved by the Tories probably does a reflect a slight increase in support for them at a Scottish level, albeit one that still leaves them trailing well behind their English counterparts in the opinion polls.

Fourth place went to the BNP. That is bad, but not as bad as it might appear at first sight. The BNP lost their deposit and won 'only' 1,013 votes. The result did not represent a major jump in support for the BNP but part of a longer-term pattern of gradually increasing support: 1.3% (2003 Scottish elections), 3.2% (2005 UK elections), 4.3% (2009 Euro-elections), and now 4.9%.

But none of this, of course, represents any cause for complacency. The BNP, as one would expect, ran a nasty racist anti-asylum-seeker campaign - the Springburn district in the constituency is home to many asylum-seekers and refugees - and picked up just over a thousand votes in the process.

The steady growth in support for the BNP underlines the need for an affective anti-fascist campaign which goes beyond simply calling the BNP Nazis.

Solidarity - the 2006 breakaway from the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) led by Tommy Sheridan - came fifth, with 794 votes (3.86% of votes cast). Their election campaign was very much a personality-based one. It focused on their candidate (Sheridan), backed up by George Galloway, who performed a double-act with Sheridan at Solidarity public meetings.

The residual celebrity status of the Sheridan-Galloway duo secured a profile and level of publicity for Solidarity which resulted in a deceptively high (very relatively speaking) vote, especially when measured against the limited number of people Solidarity were able to mobilise for their by-election campaign.

But if Solidarity supporters think that the by-election result marks the start of a long-term revival of their political fortunes, they are very much mistaken.

As one political commentator pointed out on election night, even just four years ago a Sheridan candidacy for a united SSP could have attracted up to 20% of the vote in a constituency like Glasgow North East. The Solidarity tally of votes was a reflection of their weakness, not their strength.

The Liberal Democrats came sixth, the Greens seventh, John Smeaton eighth, and the SSP ninth.

The SSP picked up 152 votes - 0.74% of votes cast, and 0.25% of the total electorate. By any standards, this was a particularly bad, if not disastrous, result. To make matters worse, the SSP could muster only that number of votes despite having kicked off its election campaign in the constituency in July.

Of course, SSP members in denial can try and paint up the result - we didn't stand to win votes, we were never going to win a lot of votes, we recruited some new members, we were fighting in adverse conditions (the middle of an international capitalist recession?), we kept the flag flying, etc., etc.

In fact, the SSP's poor performance puts a question mark against its whole strategy of automatically contesting one parliamentary or council by-election after another, and its refusal to engage in discussions about any form of left unity (even in the limited sense of joint campaigning or single left candidates at election times).

The SSP's by-election result also makes a mockery of its slogan of "Make the Break", i.e. that unions should disaffiliate from the Labour Party and, in Scotland, affiliate to the SSP. What union is going to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and affiliate to a party which can secure votes from just 0.25% of the electorate?

All in all, therefore, the Glasgow North East by-election result does not provide a reliable basis from which to read off broader political trends.

It is not evidence that Labour is 'back on course' for a general election victory, any more than it is evidence that the wheels have come off the SNP bandwagon. It does not signal a meaningful revival of the Tories' fortunes in Scotland, and even less so a revival of Solidarity's fortunes.

In fact, probably the only party which found in the by-election result a realistic reflection of its current state was the SSP.

The SSP’s line is that there can be no discussions about left unity until after Tommy Sheridan’s trial for perjury some time next year. Judging by their tally of votes in this by-election, they certainly won’t be negotiating from a position of strength.

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