Glasgow belongs to Labour no more. Alex Salmond promised a political “earthquake” in Glasgow East, and once again he has delivered, on a 22% swing. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/7522153.stm This is an astonishing result, tearing the heart out of Labour in Scotland and sending shock waves through Downing Street. Glasgow East was Labour’s third safest seat in Scotland, its twenty-fifth safest in the UK. It is the constituency of the great John Wheatley, leading figure in the first Labour government in the 1920s. If they can’t hold the line here, then Labour cannot hold the line anywhere.
Glasgow East is the SNP’s most stunning by-election victory since Jim Sillars took Glasgow Govan in 1988, overturning a similar 19000 majority, and kick-starting the constitutional process that ultimately led to the creation of the Scottish parliament. John Mason, the victor of Glasgow East, was a capable candidate but he has none of the flair and charisma of Jim Sillars – which makes this victory even more resounding.
It was an unvarnished triumph for the SNP – the party of government in Scotland – rather than for an individual candidate. And it is a person vindication for Alex Salmond. Many commentators believed that the SNP leader had been altogether too prominent in the campaign – he visited the constituency 12 times – and was in line for a personal rebuff. But, clearly, not even Glasgow is immune to the Salmond’s populist magic. Who dares, swings.
Of course, it also represents a massive protest against Labour in a constituency which has every reason to be disenchanted with this government. The dismal health and life-expectancy figures tell their own story. Glasgow East was also a protest at rising food and fuel prices and the abolition of the 10p tax band. In truth it was hard to think of any positive reason for voting Labour in this corner of post-industrial Scotland at this particular moment in the political cycle. But it is still a remarkable achievement for the nationalists to have successfully harvest the votes of the disenchanted and to have boosted the turnout to a respectable 42%, not far short of the general election. The Tories and the Liberal Democrats were nowhere in Glasgow East with 1,639 and 915 votes respectively.
Labour’s policy forum in Warwick today http://www.tribunemagazine.co.uk/2008/07/11/tribune-comment-warwick-ii-must-rescue-labour/has been turned into a wake, mourning not just the loss of Labour hegemony of Scottish politics, but also of its core vote. There can no longer be any doubt that Labour is facing electoral oblivion under Gordon Brown. Of course, the Prime Minister is not going to resign immediately, and Number Ten is clearly hoping that Glasgow East will be forgotten by the time the party gathers for the annual conference in the autumn. But following the worst local election results in England since the 1960s, the humiliation of losing Crewe and Nantwich and being beaten into fifth place by the BNP in Henley, Glasgow East must surely be a wake up call to even the most complacent Labourites. Change, or die.
It is also a wake up call for the Union. If no Scottish seat is safe from the seduction of nationalism, then we must begin to take seriously the possibility that the United Kingdom may be finished, at least in its present form. The SNP minority administration in Holyrood, elected so narrowly in May 2007, has been immensely popular. Labour has been plunged into a terminal crisis in Scotland, having lost two leaders, half its councillors and now a crucial by-election. The other unionist parties are failing to provide any significant challenge to the SNP, which has grown in authority since it took over the reins of power in Holyrood.
While Westminster tinkers with Barnett formulas and the voting rights of Scottish MPs in the House of Commons, Scotland is already going its own way. It may still be possible to prevent complete separation by moving to a form of federalism, with Scotland given greater economic autonomy. But the way things are going, Scotland could be an independent nation within ten years. The entire UK will be shaken by the earthquake in Glasgow.