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The Great Forth Bridge Disaster


Where stands Labour after the Great Forth Bridge disaster? Last month, Tony Blair suffered the humiliation of his most embarrassing parliamentary defeat, on the anti-terrorism bill, when he failed to make it to the vote. This month the other architect of New Labour, Gordon Brown, has been humiliated in a by-election where he almost made himself the vote. Could it be the beginning of the end for both of them?
As the recriminations begin over the loss of Labour’s 11,500 vote majority in Dunfermline and West Fife, there must now be a real question about whether Labour is unravelling like the Tories in the 1990s. No vote in the Commons is safe; no vote in a by-election is safe, not even in the Chancellor’s turf. We have to think seriously about whether Labour could lose the next general election.
The Dunfermline and West Fife by-election was an extraordinary political event for a whole host of reasons: it was the first Liberal by election gain over Labour since 1918 ; the biggest by-election upset since Govan in 1988; the worst by election performance under Tony Blair’s premiership. Dunfermline held a stark message for the Scottish National Party who can’t afford to be allow the LibDems to steal mid-term protest votes, not least because the LibDems are in government in Holyrood.
It was a rebuff also for newbie leader David Cameron, whose self-evident charisma didn’t prevent the Tories coming fourth. And of course, it was a personal achievement for the ex-Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, whose much-acclaimed cameo role in Dunfermline showed that voters can be more tolerant and forgiving of human failings than party bosses.
Nor did the gay rent boy scandals of the Liberal Democrat leadership seem to ruffle any feathers in Fife, any more than Charlie’s battle with the bottle. Who says provincial Scots are homophobic? Even the socially conservative former mining villages of West Fife, where Labour’s vote has traditionally been weighed rather than counted, turned to the “Limp Dems” as the Sun styled the party. The politics of diversity has arrived in Scotland.
Fife voters ignored the lurid publicity and kept their attention fixed on the issues that mattered to them. They voted for the party which really, really wanted their support, and which worked hardest for their votes. And they warmed to the couthy candidate, Willie Rennie, who campaigned as “Our Wullie” complete with bucket.
This has been some comfort to Labour, who say that the Dunfermline debacle was a parish pump affair which has no real resonance nationally. People were voting about hospitals and post office closures, not about who runs the country.
Except that, in a very real sense they were voting about who runs the country, because Labour turned this campaign into a kind of referendum on the personality of Gordon Brown, the prime minister-in-waiting. The Chancellor’s image was everywhere; he appeared in every significant photo opportunity; hosted the press launch; and of course, took on the Scottish Executive over the Forth Bridge.
Tony Blair’s acknowledged successor has been given a severe battering in his own backyard by people who have been voting Labour for generations. These are supposed to be Brown’s people. He lives in the constituency, and now faces the humiliation of being represented in Westminster by a Liberal Democrat MP.
The Dunfermline debacle cannot be blamed on slick New Labour metropolitans abandoning Labour traditions, or being insensitive to the grass roots. Tony Blair didn’t set foot in the constituency through the entire campaign. This was the Thane of Fife’s very own peasants revolt.
On the hundredth anniversary of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Labour has been defeated in one of its own heartlands. It confirms the trend in English local elections, where the LibDems have been winning city councils in old Labour strongholds like Liverpool and puts the Liberal Democrats in very good shape for the English local elections in May. Labour had hoped that the leadership crisis in the Liberal Democrats meant they could be written off at the next election. But Dunfermline shows that the LibDems haven’t lost their capacity for down and dirty street-fighting.
So the Scotland Secretary, Alastair Darling’s, claim that Dunfermline and West Fife is a little local difficulty in a far off land, won’t wash. Strangely, it might have been better for Labour if the SNP had won, since the metropolitan press might than have been prepared to write Dunfermline off as just another sign that Scottish obduracy.
Instead it is being seen as a sign of the Chancellor’s fallibility. And just at the moment when it has become accepted by everyone that Brown will indeed be the next Labour leader. The UK press – fed up with Brown’s economic success story – will leap on this new, unexpected vulnerability. The Labour story now is not only that Tony Blair has outstayed his welcome, but that Gordon Brown may already have peaked.
Certainly, to mix metaphors, a spell has been broken. One of the reasons the press pundits – myself included – were so reluctant to contemplate a Labour defeat in Dunfermline was the very presence of the Chancellor. Only eight months ago, Gordon Brown had ridden to the rescue of the Labour general election campaign after Tony Blair’s unpopularity had been revealed by an opinion poll meltdown. They were famously “joined at the hip” in April. Brown hardly left the PM’s side for the entire camping, and it seemed to work.
It looked as if Brown’s solid Presbyterian values, his economic competence, his very Scottish respectability, had restored Labour’s political credibility. Given people a reason to stop thinking about the Iraq, spin, Cherie. Surely, we thought, the Chancellor could not now be rejected in his own home town; where he lives in a modest terraced house with his attractive wife expecting his third child?
Well, now we know. Labour’s strategy group, convened by Alastair Campbell to massage the Chancellor’s image, now has its work cut out. Brown isn’t one of nature’s losers. He doesn’t do humility, and he acks Tony Blair’s capacity to laugh off misfortune with a self-deprecating remark – such as his comment at Prime Minister’s Question Time a fortnight ago that he really ought to turn up for votes in future.
Brown’s formidable image has been bound up with his magisterial management of the economy. His personal awkwardness, Scottishness and relentless interviewing style, have been seen by Middle England as a small price to pay for eight years of economic growth. But for how much longer? Already the cartoonists are portraying Brown as a kind of Dr Hyde figure – a dark and threatening character with a lantern jaw. Someone you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night. He is now up against David Cameron, one of the smoothest political operators seen in British politics since, well, Tony Blair.
Brown has undoubtedly earned the right to lead Labour; the question is whether the voters will keep their side of the bargain. As Winston Churchill discovered in 1945, when he lost the general election after winning the Second World War, there is no gratitude in politics. It just doesn’t apply. When Brown finally wins the keys to Number Ten he may find that the voters have gone elsewhere. They certainly have in Dunfermline.
Any government which has been in power as long as Labour ends up with a litany of failures. The public have notoriously short memories for government achievements. Britain’s middle classes may never have had it so good, thanks to Brown’s ability to avoid recession. Workers on low incomes may owe the Chancellor a debt for things like tax credits, the minimum wage and increased child benefits. But don’t expect any thanks at the ballot box.
Bored with Labour, and made complacent by prosperity, they may turn equally to the Liberal Democrats and the rejuvenated Tories and steal away Labour’s majority in 2009 or thereabouts. A punishment for the folly of the Iraq war, for the pensions debacle, the CSA…you name it. It would be a personal tragedy for Brown if he were to win the Labour leadership and then lose the election. But now, anything is possible.
The words of ex Labour voters in Fife must be ringing in his ears: “Labour has taken this place for granted too long”, they say, ignoring the fact that the Chancellor has been so not taking it for granted that he was micromanaging the election campaign when he should have been preparing for the world economic summit in Davos. “Labour don’t deserve to win”, said another ex Labour switcher – as if the booming house prices in Dunfermline and the highest employment rate in history were somehow signs of government failure.
The ultimate humiliation is that Labour voters turned to the Liberal Democrats to express their synthetic distress about road tolls and hospital cuts. It is the Liberal Democrats, in the Scottish Executive, who have been collectively responsible for the very transport and health policies Fifers resent. Dunfermline voters were expressing their protest by voting for the government. The LibDems have managed to become government and opposition at the same time – a neat trick.
Not surprisingly, there is fury from the Thane’s inner circle and many are blaming the Scottish Parliament, Jack McConnell and his “numpty” MSPs for not doing their bit to expose the Liberal Democrat double dealers. For forcing Labour to fight “with one hand tied behind its back”. The First Minister’s people reply that this was all Brown’s own work and that they played no part in the campaign. That the Chancellor chose to make an issue of the Forth Bridge, not them.
Even before the campaign proper had begun, Brown trampled over the constitution by ordering the Scottish Executive abandon the Forth Estuary Transport Authority’s recommendations on variable tolls on the Forth Bridge, even before they had been properly considered. “Dead in the water” said Brown. He even demanded a new bridge should be built before FETA had reported on the structural integrity of the existing one.
Now if, as some suspect, Brown’s people were trying here to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Scottish Parliament, and the Liberal influenced coalition, then it backfired badly. It looked as if Brown was treating the Scottish Parliament with contempt – an irony since he was one of the leading advocates of devolution. But this wasn’t about the constitution; voters were looking for any excuse to kick Labour.
Party insiders realise just how serious this is. It is beginning to look as if Labour has become electoral anathema – that voters are fed up with the sight of them, and will vote for whatever party is best placed to give them a boot up the backside. This is exactly what happened to the Tories in the 1990s, when seats fell to whomsoever happened to be second on the list.
Labour has been citing the professionalism of the Liberal Democrat campaign as another excuse for failure in Dunfermline – rather as if that gave them an unfair advantage. But the real question is why Labour has lost its capacity to fight campaigns in safe seats. They don’t have the troops for a start.
Dunfermline revealed the extent to which Labour has ceased to be a mass party, with a strong activist base. The moral backbone of the party has been broken by a decade of Blarite modernisation. Even in the Chancellor’s patch, Labour has lost the plot.
Their consolation is that the SNP didn’t do particularly well on Thursday. Alex Salmond didn’t get a bloody nose, but it was a slap in the face, nevertheless, for the Scottish by-election party par excellence to be relegated in a seat like Dunfermline. The Liberal Democrats haven’t won a seat from Labour in living memory; the nationalists did in Govan in 1988.
Has SNP lost it? Is nationalism finished? Is Alex Salmond history? It’s too early to say, of course. But his detractors in and out of the party are already grumbling about absentee landlords and losing focus. Not that the leader of the SNP was absent from Dunfermline – he was everywhere. But the heather did not ignite, and the prospect of those 20 promised gains in the Scottish Elections next year looks, well, ambitious.
And are the Tories becoming respectable again Scotland? Answer: ‘No’. They may have asked for David Cameron’s autograph, but Fifers aren’t going to start voting Tory in the near future – at least not in any significant numbers. . This wasn’t a bad result for the Conservatives, but nor does it suggest any breakthrough.
Becoming prosperous no longer means turning Tory. There have been huge social and economic transformations in Scotland in the two decades since Jim Sillars won Govan. We have a new political landscape where old tribal and class loyalties are breaking up. Dunfermline is a dramatic illustration of this, showing that middle class radicals can now win safe old Labour votes without being nationalists.
The old certainties in the media need to be challenged also. This has not been a good result for the Scottish press, myself included, who universally failed to call it. The Scottish voters are becoming much more sophisticated, and tactical voting has made forecasting elections a lot harder than in the old days of party tribalism. People simply won’t be taken for granted, either by the press or the political parties.
This is all to the good. Our embarrassment, along with the relatively good turnout, is a sign that electoral politics still has the capacity to surprise. And that there are votes out there if anyone cares to look for them. The Liberal Democrat MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, Willie Rennie, has shown that people will come out to vote if you work hard and show that you care. Just as long as you aren’t the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that is.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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