Friday, November 07, 2008

'Roth Of The Gods

First of all, a very sleepy ‘congratulations’ to Scotland's newest MP, Lindsay Roy. With Labour having made great play throughout the campaign of Mr Roy not being a professional politician, the electorate delivered a cruel snub to Gordon Brown, deciding that it was time for a novice after all. I suspect that eventually, however, Mr Brown will perhaps find a way to overcome his grief and dejection...

There’s no getting away from it, this was a very good result for Labour. Even allowing for their deliberate spinning of expectations over the past few weeks, this was a win on a scale of which few of their number would have dared to contemplate.

I genuinely thought that the SNP was on course to win the seat, albeit not by much. After all, overturning a 10,500+ majority was always going to be a big ask. For that reason, I was wary of expectations running ahead of reality. After all, Fife is a very different kettle of fish to somewhere like Glasgow East.

For one thing, this time Labour took the precaution of selecting a candidate beforehand. Also, unlike in Glasgow, we weren’t dealing with a community which had a palpable set of grievances against Labour. Gordon Brown has had a much better press recently, and with a new leader at the helm in Holyrood, Wendy Alexander and her immediate memory no longer looms as a standing rebuke to humility and competence.

The by-election came about in tragic circumstances, rather than as a result of a sudden resignation under a cloud of murky financial dealings. Labour roots were also strong in parts of the constituency in ways that they simply weren’t in Glasgow East. As such, the conditions weren’t ripe for a big shift in allegiance as they were in Glasgow.

The SNP already represents tracts of the Glenrothes seat at Holyrood. Despite this, the swing to the SNP, at 5%, was relatively modest, despite the fact that the party’s vote went up by 13% to cut Labour’s majority in half. Given the differential turnout in parts of the seat, with areas where the SNP was expected to do well polling strongly while traditional areas of Labour strength stayed at around 40%, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that some complex factors were at work.

Of course, the temptation will be to say that Labour made a better job of getting out it’s vote than did the SNP. I have to say, I doubt it. The identified SNP support turned out and was motivated. On the eve of poll, I saw 2 Labour parliamentarians knocking on the doors of houses which already had Labour posters in the window, which hardly seemed the best use of their time. While I bet Labour had a general idea where their support might come from, I’m sceptical as to the extent they knew which individuals could be relied upon to turn out for them.

Did they manage to ‘re-activate’ dormant support? It’s possible, but a clue might be found in the squeeze which there was on the Lib Dem and Conservative vote, with both parties losing their deposits. I found very few people identifying themselves as Tories or Lib Dems, or for that matter people saying that they were switching from those parties to the SNP, at any point in the campaign. Could it be that some Lib Dem and Tory voters simply decided that on this occasion, they’d vote tactically and back Labour rather than an SNP which might have been doing just a little too well of late for their liking?

It’s been remarked upon already that Labour’s campaigning throughout was remorselessly negative. However, we knew it was happening, and the fact is, we should have been able to deal with it. Yes, we fought a positive campaign, highlighting the many good things which the SNP government has done for Fife, but it wasn’t enough.

When you look at it, you have to wonder how Labour managed to get any traction whatsoever over the issue of care charges. According to Audit Scotland, Labour’s stewardship of Fife Council had left finances in a ‘precarious’ situation. The previous administration had dodged the issue; the charges brought in by the new administration remain lower than those levied by many other Labour councils, and fewer people now pay than ever did before.

Nonetheless, they hammered it relentlessly and it took its toll. Incumbency is new territory for the SNP, and it’s clear that we haven’t quite yet got our heads round the idea of how to deal with being the front-runners. Better to have this exposed in a by-election now than in a wider contest later, but I can’t help but feel we need to develop a harder edge when it comes to dealing with these sorts of mendacious attack.

Lindsay Roy, by common consent, was a fairly poor performer in the hustings and the media. He failed to master his brief, even on care charges, and at one stage even blurted out on TV that he didn’t know what the Post Office Card Account was. However, that didn’t seem to matter to the voters, possibly because his local reputation preceded him. While I didn’t encounter him at all on the stump, he wouldn’t be the first candidate to have a completely different persona in the flesh to that which they enjoy on TV.

A widespread perception of being a decent guy, if you’re lucky enough to have such a thing attached to you, clearly counts for a lot more than a few woeful appearances on TV seen only by the already committed. It’s a timely lesson, perhaps, that the first rule of political punditry is never to assume that your perceptions will be the same as those of the electorate at large.

Anyway, there’ll be plenty time to reflect on what went well and what could have been done better in the days ahead. I have to say, I don’t buy the idea of Gordon Brown as saviour of the financial universe. While present turmoils may have driven some voters into the unfamiliar arms of Labour, his Norwegian-style (that’s 1990’s Norwegian style, before anyone kicks off again) taking of equity stakes in the banking system may not win him many bouquets in the long term.

Cutbacks, lay-offs, repossessions and increased charges, previously the responsibility of anonymous ‘fat cats’, will now be the responsibility of the Chancellor. In addition, I really can’t see how Brown, even with his dedicated band of cheerleaders, can seriously get away with the idea that everything which went well over the past decade was down to him and that everything which has gone wrong subsequently was down to regulatory failure in the US.

There’s a trail of debt and dodgy decisions leading back to Brown’s door, and I suspect that there’ll be a day of political reckoning for him yet to come. My own view of him is that he’s a bit like the fire-raiser who expects credit for dialling 999, after he’s already torched your house. While people aren’t making that judgement quite yet, it doesn’t mean that they won’t do so in future.

So, plenty to think about over the weekend. I’ve written before about how things might start to unravel for the SNP, and having read that piece again this morning, I think much of it remains apt. The SNP Government still remains popular, but there’s also a hard core of people out there who are not now nor will ever be reconciled to the idea of the SNP in office.

If you’re in a minority, just occasionally, the majority of others, united or otherwise, will be able to combine in such a way as to stop you in your tracks. Yesterday, I suspect if they didn’t already vote Labour, some of that hard core held their nose to do so. That section, who could probably still find fault in the SNP even if we suggested taking plenty of exercise and eating 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, aligned to those with traditional Labour loyalties and the more workaday concerns of floating voters which we were not successful in countering, were probably what kept corks in SNP champagne bottles last night.

However disappointed we might be, this one needs to be taken on the chin. I don’t like talking of honeymoons in politics, but it’s clear that the charmed existence which the SNP has enjoyed since 2007 is probably at an end. If that means an end to the hyperbolic trumpeting of every minor bump in the road as some kind of setback for the SNP, then that in itself is probably a good thing.


Scott @ loveandgarbage said...

Once again you demonstrate why you are a must read blog. I am not a natural SNP supporter (although did vote for the SNP in the council elections last year in Falkirk) but think that I am one of those that needs to be won over for either general SNP support at national level or in a referendum - in that I am persuadable with the right policies, with honesty in politics, and a cogently argued case. I must confess that the triumphalism of some in the SNP in the past 18 months (after lest we forget a one seat majority over Labour and nothing like a majority of the popular vote) has put me off. I wrote - either on my own blog or in a comment on jeff's earlier in the year - that Alex Salmond needed someone at his shoulder whispering in his ear occasionally, "Remember, thou art mortal". You seem the very man for such a role. You remind me in your postings of Neil MacCormick - a great SNP man, who once described himself as an "unrepentant gradualist" as he acknowledged that arguments had to be made and won for this cause, as he would in his normal working life.

So, while not an SNP supporter, may I wish you the very best in your bid to get elected in due course. All parties could do with more like you.

Richard Havers said...

Great post Richard. I think you are about right on most of what you say.

I would definitely have voted Labour if I were in the constituency, despite never having voted Labour in my life, to try to ensure a nationalist defeat. As a Unionist I would see no other choice. The Tories were never going to win and a vote for the Lib Dems, who were also never going to win, has the added downside of them being a party who has no clear idea of what they stand for.

I think Scott is right. The triumphalism is hard to take if you're not a supporter. There's a thin line between love and hate and it's not difficult to see why some get turned off AS's style...not me as it never turned me on. If you really want to be a the arty you dream of then somehow there needs to be a wider focus. To me Messrs Swinney & Mather seem like good support managers and Nicola has abilities but that's where it stops. AS is everything and he could eventually prove to be nothing. He needs to rethink.

no-one in particular said...

Brilliant - the best analysis of the subject that I have read yet!

Allan said...

Spot on.

The SNP are in government and run lots of councils in Scotland, this itself gives ammunition to New Labour.

One thing i sort of dissagree with, Browns day or reckoning might not come. He has followed policies which all the main parties pretty much agree with, the removal of financial regulation, the (lack of) use of (the higher rates of) income tax in controling the ecconomy. When someone comes along and successfuly challenges Brown, Cameron and Salmond on their views on this, then Brown will be in trouble with the voters. Untill then, discontent with the thatcherite concensus will grumble on with no figurehead, and Brown will be safe.

Guth Adhartach said...

Excellent post richard. Completely agree with your analysis. The fact this defeat has come in a by-election and will perhaps give the party and AS a wake up call that we shouldnt let expectations run away with themselves and should not believe that we are untouchable....

Matt Wardman said...

Good piece, and you write well.


Richard Thomson said...

Well, thank you one and all. I shall do my best not to inhale too deeply... :-)