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Glasgow North East by election, SNP.

Glasgow North East was a disaster for the SNP.

With twenty twenty hindsight, everyone seems to be saying that Labour were always going to win in Glasgow North East: 74 years, in the blood, a monkey with a red rosette etc.. That the result tells us nothing about the political condition of Scotland on the eve of the most important general election in a generation. Well, I disagree. It was certainly a bad night for nationalism – the SNP got off relatively lightly because the echo chamber of Scottish politics, the UK media, is really only interested when the SNP are winning. But they should be in no doubt about the significance of the defeat.

Every generation or so, the SNP persuades itself that it has found the key to electoral success in West CentralScotland. After Glasgow East – won by the Nationalists on a 22% swing – they finally thought they’d arrived. Now in Glasgow North East they’re back where they started. By rights Labour should never have won this by-election. In Gordon Brown’s darkest days, in the midst of an unpopular war, after an epic expenses scandal in which the local MP, Michael Martin, played a leading role voters in one of the most deprived and neglected constituencies in the country still turned out to support the party that has apparently done so little for them.  The SNP has no excuses here.  They may mutter about intellectual challenged Glasgow voters, but the people have spoken, even with the lowest turnout in Scottish by-election history, and the SNP needs to listen.  The scale of Labours victory – 8,000 votes – was a profound shock to the SNP and following the Glenrothes debacle people are already betting on how long Alex Salmond will remain as leader. His critics will round on him for his obsession with an independence referendum that was never going to happen and for his vainglorious forecast of “hanging Westminster from a Scottish rope”.

More worrying for the SNP, Glasgow North East shows that Labour is capable of regaining its soul – reasserting its claim as the ‘national’ party of Scotland. Willie Bain showed that a good local candidate, prepared to speak his own mind and depart from the Labour party line, is all but unbeatable in West Central Scotland – especially if he has strong union backing.   In Glasgow East, Labour lost through incompetence and poor organisation. A capable shadow Scottish secretary, Jim Murphy, has put that right. and Labour won’t throw seats away again in a hurry.

The timing of Glasgow North East is as important as the actual vote.  The morning after the May general election, Scotland will suddenly remember what we’ve all forgotten in the hazy crazy years since 2007: that Labourremains the dominant political force in Scotland. The vast majority of Scottish MPs next May were always going to be Labour – but now they could be in the running for a Caledonian landslide The Scottish Tories are going nowhere; the Liberal Democrats are becalmed, and the SNP is going backwards on its showing in Glasgow North East. The SNP’s setback obscured the scale of the defeats suffered by Scotland’s other major parties. Even with their best candidate in years, Ruth Davidson, the Tories were still left vying with the BNP at the scary end of the poll, actually losing votes on their 1997 showing. Their only consolation was that the Liberal Democrats did even worse, coming behind Tommy Sheridan. Tory hopes of winning a Scottish breakthrough in the general election died last week – which leaves David Cameron with the uncomfortable prospect of winning in Westminster and losing his mandate north of the border. But the surprise will be that it may well be Labour that isleading the charge against London rule.

   In opposition, Scottish Labour will be liberated from the dead hand of the New Labour London leadership.Labour activists – those that are left – will no longer have to bite their tongues over the latest disastrous policy pronouncement from London or the latest disastrous war  Scottish Labour will be free to start sounding more nationalist, with a small ‘n’, than it has since the days of the Scottish Constitutional Convention twenty years ago.. We will be reminded that, since the days of Keir Hardie, Labour has been the main vehicle for Scottish home rule aspirations. That it was Labour that set up the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which the SNP boycotted, and that it was a Labour government that delivered the Scottish parliament.  Labour’s pitch at the general election campaign is already clear. If they have any sense, they will set aside cold turkey unionism and offer a better Holyrood, with added powers. They will claim that Labour, and only Labour, can defend Scotland against the Tories. Labour have already accused the SNP of being in bed with the Tories, and in Holyrood there has undoubtedly been nationalist collaboration with the old class enemy. 

No, this doesn’t mean that the SNP are going to lose power in the Scottish parliamentin 2011 – the Scottish votersmay still split their ticket, judging that the nationalists have shown themselves in office to be the most able party of government in Holyrood.  But it will be close. Labour only lost last time by one seat, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats will be much more inclined to form a coalition with Labour than they were in 2007, when they were fed up being the rump of the Lib-Lab donkey. With the Tories in power in Westminster, Labour will be able to claim that the SNP are irrelevant to the real struggle against Cameron’s cuts.

So, what does the SNP do to counter the resurgence of Scottish Labour? Dump Salmond? No, he is still a formidable political asset, a powerful leader who is still immensely popular in Scotland- but he has to stop sounding like the spokesman for the Edinburgh banking community.. Dump independence? Well, they could do with laying it to rest after their referendum bill is defeated. It is beginning to look like an obsession, and a distraction. Give up? Well, if they can’t win in West Central Scotland, they can’t really expect to command Scotland. The SNP needs a new formula for social democratic nationalism, if it isn’t to end up once again, bitter and divided, on the sidelines of Scottish politics. It’s happened before, and after Glasgow North East, I fear it could happen again.

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?


17 thoughts on “Glasgow North East was a disaster for the SNP.

  1. The one redeeming sentence in your article is the last one which includes the word "fear" in it, as in "It's happened before, and after Glasgow North East, I fear it could happen again."Otherwise this article reads pretty much as if Murphy himself could have written it.Your analysis is too negative unless you truly believe that the SNP % vote will fall at the GE from the 17% or so polled in 2005.Don't forget, as he has said, if the Tories come to power, it will be with Salmond that Cameron will meet after the GE to discuss Scotland not with the successor to Brown, almost certain to be the last ever UK PM sitting for a Scottish seat

    Posted by JPJ2 | November 17, 2009, 3:16 pm
  2. Ian I would disagree about Labour finding it's soul and becoming a national party again.It's finding it's gear for negative and factual incorrect and misleading campaigning, same old same old.Look at the two campaigns in Glenrothes and Glasgow NE.The interesting thing about many of the English based media is that they don't repeat the Labour message over and over again.i.e. Ripping off Glasgow for exampleThe SNP will have to sharpen it barbs at the same time as trying to keep pushing the message of Scotland can be a better country if we govern ourselves.Watching the post election interviews what struck me was:-a. It seemed that Labours core vote was elderly.b. Folk said my family has always voted labour and I'll no change.If I was a SNP canvasser and was on the doorway, how could I inspire folk to change?I could point out the actual money Glasgow receives or the shocking health and quality of life metrics and say we know there is a better way to improve Scotland.Folk a lot of the time don't want to be told that after voting Labour for donkey years that they have been duped and let down.Tribal politics still works in Scotland, I learnt that when I was a wee laddie in my scheme in Edinburgh.They vote for old Labour, a vote elsewhere is a betrayal of their parents and the past.

    Posted by Tormod | November 17, 2009, 3:19 pm
  3. Sorry, Iain, but by your usual high standards this is a load of rubbish. A Labour "landslide" in the General Election? Since they already hold, what, around 47 of Scotland's 59 Westminster seats, the worst imaginable result for the SNP will be if that figure stays the same give or take a couple either way. In other words, just about as close to the diametric opposite of a "landslide" as is grammatically possible. The worst-case scenario for the SNP is the land stubbornly staying exactly where it already is.Labour lost thousands of votes in Glasgow NE and their majority was cut by 20%, on their second-lowest share of the vote in the constituency for 70+ years. That's a funny kind of triumph. The SNP got their best share of their vote in the constituency for decades. That's a funny kind of disaster.None of that is to say that it wasn't a disappointing result for the SNP – I expected them to get Labour's majority down from 10,000 to 6000 or maybe 5000 and said so in advance. But people naturally tend to cowardice and small-c conservatism in a recession, and to say that Labour "should never" have won this by-election is a real stretch when you're talking about a seat they've held for longer than any of the voters in it has been alive, that they held throughout the dark days of Michael Foot and the entire feeble, impotent Labour era under the Thatcher government.Since the recession hit I've never thought the SNP could reach their 20-seat target, and I reckon they'll do well to get to a dozen, because the closer the election gets the more obvious it will be that the Tories are going to win by a mile, and in those circumstances the only reason (in the minds of most voters) to vote the SNP in at Westminster evaporates more quickly the bigger the prospective Tory majority gets.But Holyrood is a different proposition. Polls continue to consistently show that the Scottish electorate have no desire to turn Bute House over into the hands of the useless likes of Iain Gray, Andy Kerr and Wee Dick Baker. And an SNP Holyrood government leading a country with its mind focused by a UK Tory government with no Scottish mandate could exceed even its own expectations.

    Posted by RevStu | November 17, 2009, 3:32 pm
  4. Oh, and the SNP managed to increase their vote share despite a nightmarish combination of circumstances:- a second-choice candidate with some unfortunate baggage- having to split the anti-Labour vote with 11 other parties compared to just 5 at the previous election. – those 11 including the two main opposition parties (which wasn't the case at the previous election as the Tories and Lib Dems didn't field candidates), the high-profile Tommy Sheridan who ran a strong campaign, and the novelty candidate John Smeaton. Between them those accounted for over 2500 votes which would almost certainly otherwise have mostly gone to the SNP.- the 2005 result was further distorted by the high number of votes (over 4,000) for the "Socialist Labour" candidate, widely held to have received thousands of votes by mistake because Michael Martin wasn't listed as a Labour candidate. So the "real" Labour majority in 2005 was probably closer to 13,000.- the fact that we're in the eye of the recession storm, with house prices starting to rise again and the increase in unemployment slowing. Brown is getting some credit for that (as well as some nicely-timed sympathy from the Sun farce), which won't wear off until 2010 when the cuts required to pay for the short-term fix really start to bite, particularly in poor areas like GNE.- the unfortunate timing of the GARL cancellation, and the collusion of the massively anti-SNP Scottish media in helping Labour concoct an "anti-Glasgow" image of the Nationalists.I think the SNP put the absolute minimum of resources and effort into the campaign that they could get away with, knowing that there was next to no chance of winning it and that it'll have to be fought again in six months anyway. In the face of all those circumstances, the result they got is actually rather respectable.

    Posted by RevStu | November 17, 2009, 3:51 pm
  5. Oh, and one last thing:"A capable shadow Scottish secretary, Jim Murphy"Freudian slip there, Iain?

    Posted by RevStu | November 17, 2009, 3:58 pm
  6. Labour held out as long as they did to try and mitigate against things like Glasgow Labour's school closures and the embarrassment over Michael Martin's limos to Parkhead – and from the result I guess that you could say that worked. By the time the by election rolled round, these issues weren't fresh. I don't think however that these results make Labour a 'national party'. They hold only two Councils, and only one of Scotland's cities. Holding (not winning, mind) seats in deepest Fife and Glasgow do not a general election victory make.I pitched on the doorsteps for change, a wee chance to give someone else a try, positive things the SNP were doing to help. It's a desperate shame Labour's half-truths were more appealing.

    Posted by BellgroveBelle | November 17, 2009, 4:28 pm
  7. Bellegrove Belle I am curious what was the response like?Did folk say no way I believe Willie Bain the SNP are ripping off Glasgow?

    Posted by Tormod | November 17, 2009, 4:37 pm
  8. Given the "ripping off Glasgow" tag, I wonder if the Government had announced that they were going to plug the £80 million gap in the Glasgow based Commonwealth Games a week earlier, would the result have been different?I also wonder if we should be looking into the huge numbers of postal votes, how they come about, and who actually completes the forms. I accuse no one of anything, of course, but in both recent by-elections there has been a huge increase in the application for postal votes and a larger than exected majority for Labour. I hope this time that someone is taking very good care not to 'lose' the registers.

    Posted by tris | November 17, 2009, 4:56 pm
  9. Oh Deary Deary me Iain! You are usually on the ball but I think you have got a wee bit carried away here."It may well be Labour leading the charge against London rule". Not while they are being funded from there Iain, they are not going to cut off the hand that feeds them. You also seem to forget that they had to bus most of their activists up from England to do the work in this seat. They won't be there come future elections."SNP should dump independence". Why is that? We have all thse Scottish MPs at Westminster getting paid to do nothing for Scotland but interfere in English matters. We do not need three parliaments to run us here in Scotland and neither does England for that matter.SNP just needs to get the balls to tell it how it is, that these unionist parties are not Scottish and are funded and controlled from England, the press are not Scottish and that all they do (unionist parties and press)is lie to and con the people of this country.They also need to tell it how it is with regard to the waste of some £30 million per year on these unemployed Scottish Westmnister MPs plus whatever millions is being wasted on things like the Scottish Office, money that could be spent on patients or pensioners.There is plenty the SNP could be using against these waster unionst parties, there are too many politicians and too many parliaments running this country of 5 million people.Some of us have already started with these messages and we will see what people think of Labour after the truth is out re the London bombings.www.paisleyexpressions.blogspot.com

    Posted by Anonymous | November 17, 2009, 5:28 pm
  10. Iain,you raise some good points here, but most of the respondants here havent seemed to engage.Your most pertinant observation is Scottish Labour's innate abilty to rebrand itslef to take on the SNP effectively. Here I write with no relish, but May 2007 and Glasgow East aside ( and both werre very very clsoe run things), Labour is historically very good at "seeing off the nats" when the chips are down. And this has often been in the most unfavourable circumstances from Labour's point of view. oftem – the more unfavorable the better, this appeals to their own and their core vote's underdog mentality: What could have been worse by election circumstances than Glenrothes and now GNE? But both ended in handsome labour victories, so decisive they have SNP folks assuming massive electoral fraud, with virtually nothing more than anecdote and a belief " we could not have been that badly mugged" to back it up.But the more fundamental point you raise is the likely impact of a Tory UK election victory. It seems almost unargued authodoxy in SNP ranks to assume, that in these circumstances the SNP will at last blow labour away, its weaknesses and impotence in the face of "English Tory rule" finally exposesed. But this did not happen all through the 80s and 90s when the English Tories were a good deal more objectionable , nor was there devolution to act as a buffer of sorts. So why assume it will happen post May 2011? Has the '79 Group learned nothing from the experience of the 80s and 90s?History does not need to repeat itself so I'd assume nothing, but the far most likely outcome is the one you spell out – namely Scottish Labour thriving as a "double oppositionalist" party. Soft left, soft nat, able to attack tories in Westmister and SNP in Holyrood with impunity. Scottish Labour with it good organisation, slavish media friends and direct appeal to the disadvantaged could be in dreamland.The faulre of SNP folks to see this very real danger is beyond me.The best outcome for the SNP in the 2011 holyrood elections, in my view? It still emerges as the biggest party, but lets the unionists of whatever colour cobble together a Holyrood Government. Becuase if they think labour had a field day in GNE just wait until Scottish Labour gets into action opposing Tory cuts at Westminster and SNP cuts at Holyrood…..The comrades will have rediscoverd a purpose.The SNP though needs to rediscover its purpose – and it aint sitting in Edinburgh running Labour's flawed devolved settlement with Labour on the outside pissing in.

    Posted by Aye We Can ! | November 17, 2009, 7:46 pm
  11. Nobody knew what was coming in the 80s. We know what's coming under a Tory government in 2010, and we know from bitter experience how impotent a block of Labour MPs are to do anything about it. They did nothing about it in the Thatcher years, and that was when Labour was still vaguely socialist.These abstract theories about double opposition are all very well, but they take no account of the very real total ineptitude of Labour's "talent" in Scotland, and the electorate have consistently shown that they rate Alex Salmond a vastly preferable First Minister to anyone else. People HAVE noticed how useless Labour have been as Holyrood opposition, which is why the SNP are still well ahead in the polls despite the extremely difficult circumstances in which they've had to govern. Judging by the polls, people realise they've been dealt a tough hand and have played it pretty well.As for cuts, Darling has been fighting with Osborne over who's going to cut the most, so that's not going to give Labour any sort of election platform on either side of the border. Cuts will already be biting hard by June next year (because Brown will cling on till the last minute of the last hour of the last day until he HAS to go to the country), and no amount of spin will be able to lay that at the SNP's door.I'll be surprised if the SNP make much headway in the Westminster elections in 2010. I'll be *astonished* if they're kicked out of Holyrood in 2011.

    Posted by RevStu | November 17, 2009, 7:59 pm
  12. "What could have been worse by election circumstances than Glenrothes and now GNE?"See my post above. The circumstances in GNE were about as favourable as Labour could possibly hope for at this point in history, and absolutely dreadful for the SNP.And it's fine to mock suggestions of foul play as nutty conspiracy theories, and I think the GNE result was legit, but you'd have to be awfully gullible to assume nothing untoward went on at Glenrothes. ONE HOUR before the result was announced, Labour people in the hall were glumly anticipating an SNP win. (The story is still available at The Guardian.) 60 minutes later, Labour have won not by a few dozen or few hundred votes but by SEVEN THOUSAND, out of just 36,000 votes cast. Bookies and commentators and everyone else get things wrong sometimes, but never in my lifetime has an election come out so colossally at odds with what absolutely everyone expected. How could anyone monitoring the count possibly not have noticed this situation developing? Yet nobody did.That's quite suspicious in itself, but for the records to then immediately disappear is worthy of Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, not a civilised Western democracy. In combination with the huge increase in postal votes (an area where Labour have a very real and extensive track record of electoral fraud, of course), the whole thing smacks of a botched stitch-up, leading to a ridiculously excessive margin of victory and a panicked cover-up.

    Posted by RevStu | November 17, 2009, 8:11 pm
  13. Rev Stu, I too share you suspicions over the Glenrothes vote and I am not naive enough to not suspect sharp practice by Labour and others in GNE. But both were bad defeats for the SNP, I dont think explained way by fraud.Your first post though ends with you saying you'd be "astonished" if the SNP is "kicked out" at Holyrood in 2011. I wouldn't.I still think the most likely outcome is that the SNP remains the largest party. But no guarantee, whatever polls are saying now.What I ask is should there not be consideration in SNP ranks about the desirabilty of remaining in government – running someone else's devolved settlement, administering year on year big block grant cuts impossed by a Tory Westminster Government and with Scottish Labour in opposition in Scotland.

    Posted by Aye We Can ! | November 17, 2009, 8:35 pm
  14. James Mtichell summoned it up perfectly:The Labour candidate was effective and Labour played the local card to maximum effect. Blending Willie Bain's local connections into a campaign that portrayed the constituency as the victim of the SNP's anti-Glasgow bias took full advantage of the debilitating politics of grievance. And make no mistake about it, grievance politics was what this was all about. Using the Scottish government's decision to abandon a proposal for a Glasgow airport rail link was smart electoral politics if dubious public policy. The argument heard repeatedly that voting for anyone other than Labour would let the Tories in might be effective in shoring up the core vote but is hardly a positive reason for voting Labour.

    Posted by Anonymous | November 18, 2009, 11:05 am
  15. Independence is beginning to sound like a bit of an obsession for the SNP?Iain, it is their raison detre! It is what marks them out as a party with convictions rather than an expedient election winning machine which is there merely to serve the careers of its MPs.They believe that becoming independent is in the best interests of the people who live here and they are pursuing that objective.What are the distinct Labour and Tory equivalents?I consider you a journalist of real integrity Iain and therefore always read your stuff with great interest. But I do feel that you have let a degree of wishful thinking creep into this article.Are you really saying that it might be a good move for the SNP to abandon its principles in pursuit of power?Is that really the type of party that would win your support?It certainly wouldn't win mine.That aside, there are some uncomfortable truths in your analysis which need to be taken on board.It's worth repeating one of Aye We Can's pithy obsevationsThe SNP though needs to rediscover its purpose – and it aint sitting in Edinburgh running Labour's flawed devolved settlement with Labour on the outside pissing in.

    Posted by voiceofourown | November 18, 2009, 1:38 pm
  16. What this election proves is whatever the level of contest, the dynamic between local, national and cross-national politics is blurred. Labour used the local (GARL) and forgot about the national (banks/…) despite it being an election for the latter.Alan raises some interesting points about SNP and where it finds itself. It's in government and the term up till now has been a great experiment for understanding our bodypolitic. Listen to the remarks of Salmond on inaugratio "states can only do so much in the modern day". I agree, and he should have added especially if they are devolved powers. What do I mean though? Despite an SNP win we have not seen a much change in the running of the our affairs. I attest this to the political machine which is more powerful than any party (Labour included). These sectors usually know which side their bread is buttered (therefore are pro-Gov) but I believe the lack of powerful interest groups backing the SNP and the unwillingness of influential groups (unions/financial sector) to back them will make it impossible for them to succeed longterm. Aware of this hole, SNP has cosied up to nearly every interest group it can and presented itself as congenial to anyone who thought it radical (very reminiscent of worries about Labour 1997), they are only prepared to position themselves as the enemy of one group – the Labour Party. They are in a catch 22, stand for your principles, but miss out on the favours that are required to last in government. I feel the SNP are compromising day by day so much that they'll return to either being the romantics on the sidelines, as they were in the past, or New Scotland's New Labour. Take your pick.

    Posted by Anonymous | November 19, 2009, 12:28 am
  17. AnonymousThere is a third way, and that to exploit the reality that every other party seeks power, largely for power's sake.I think in 2007 the SNP was right to take power, show there is an alternatve to labour and it that could run things competently. But circumsatnces might be changing so tactics must change. Getting a referendum , with the SNP as a party and a movement well placed to fight it is i think where the focus must be. And whilst this is never going to be easy, having Tories in westminster with a small lead ( maybe a minority) and labour desperately looking for a way back to some sort of influence in Scotland , plus the lib dems deseperate for any slice of the action, might just see the SNP well placed to get a referendum – neither as an incumbant or an irrelevance.I woud not condem the SNP for what it did in 2007, but increasingly it looks like it may have done – unwittingly but objectively – is traded power for forgoing having a referendum: By this I mean the unioist parties have only let it run a minority administration because they can block a referendum. Maybe in 2011/12 there might be the opportunity to reverse the deal.But power is seductive, especially when you have it, and you are right to point out the dangers of the SNP becoming Scotland's new "new labour", without even noticing.

    Posted by Aye We Can ! | November 19, 2009, 12:38 pm

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