Monday, 10 November 2008

The Glenrothes by-election

So, Labour won the Glenrothes by-election. This has been a strange affair; compared to the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in May, which the Tories won from Labour with a 17.6% swing, and Glasgow East in July, where the SNP snatched the seat from Labour with a 26.1% swing, the run-up to the election was virtually unreported in the media.

There have been good reasons for this. Firstly, a slightly more important election race has been ongoing in the US. And secondly, Labour was widely expected to lose. I find it strange that the BBC website relegated news of the by-election off the main front page to the 'UK Politics' section for much of Thursday, then, on Friday morning after Labour had won, the story gets headline status for most of the day. Is this another assumed example of BBC bias, or proper reporting of a story?

Labour won, and it was a victory that appeared to surprise everyone, including the Labour Party itself. Their majority in the by-election, a seemingly healthy 6,700, is actually a decrease of a smidgen under 4,000 from the 2005 election. The SNP have increased their share of the vote, but not nearly by enough to win the seat.

As usual after a by-election all the candidates have been claiming some form of victory; the SNP have been saying that they reduced the Labour majority (which is true), and Labour are claiming that a win in Glenrothes is a vote of confidence in the government's handling of the economic crisis (and particularly on Brown's leadership - his constituency neighbours Glenrothes).

The latter claim is particularly hard to fathom. How can a vote in one constituency, where you had a reduced majority, be seen as a positive judgement from the whole country? Particularly when that constituency is in Scotland, where the Tories have, for the last couple of decades, fared extremely badly.

What is not surprising, to me at least, is that the SNP did so poorly. firstly, let my lay my cards on the table. I love Scotland. The scenery and the people are all amazing. But I am also firmly convinced that the future of Scotland lies within the United Kingdom. Earlier this year Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP, stated in speeches that Scotland should become a small state with high-wealth industries, such as... Iceland.

Yes, the economy of the country that he wanted to emulate has just gone totally down the tubes. The other examples in his "arc of prosperity", Ireland and Norway - both small countries - are also not faring too well at the moment. For that reason, if I were a fiercely independent-minded Scotsman, I would have found it hard to vote for the SNP yesterday. It's the economy, stupid. Whilst Labour may have helped to muck up the economy, the the SNP's recipe would be even more disastrous for Scotland. I bet Alex Salmond is ruing the whole 'arc of prosperity' claims.

What does this all mean? Does this mark a new beginning for Labour under Gordon Brown? Or is the reduction of the majority a sign that Labour will be out at the next election? The truth is, it is too early to say. Brown and Labour have, for the moment, a breathing space that thy can use to try and turn around their fortunes. They must use it well. Whereas before Thursday the next general election was Cameron's to lose, he must now work hard to try, not just to win, but also to get a workable majority. He should not be measuring up the carpets for Number Ten just yet.

Interestingly (and rather surprisingly, to me at least) the by-election win has apparently led a number of Labour MPs to call for an early general election. This sounds strange; they are still at least thirteen percentage points behind in the polls, and would probably lose the next election unless the situation changed radically. So why do they want one? Perhaps they believe that this recent bounce and improvement in the polls will not last, and want to get the election out of the way before things get worse for them. Certainly they should remember that Brown's misfortunes started last year, when it looked likely he was going to call a general election, then did not.

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