Friday, 7 November 2008

Glenrothes - how did Labour win?

How did Labour hold on to its seat in Glenrothes against the political tide? Well, serious times demand serious people, said the Prime Minister, and if by-elections are referendums on governments then the voters of Fife would seem to concur with the claim that Gordon Brown is the right man in the right place – for now.

First, a reality check. Labour held Glenrothes; the party did not storm a Nationalist stronghold. This was their safe seat with a majority of 10,000 cut to 6737. However, given the way Labour had been written off after Crewe and Nantwich and after Glasgow East, a swing to the SNP of 22%, it was a remarkable result for the party.

The Brown bounce might, then, be more than a political aphorism. In the midst of a financial crisis not seen since the Great Depression, Mr Brown’s lengthy experience and reputation as a financial goliath plays well, at least in his home territory of Fife.

All honeymoons come to an end and Alex Salmond’s was unlikely to defy gravity for ever. The SNP First Minister had made the most of the political weather in Scotland until the global storm swept across the financial markets, claiming one of Scotland’s most powerful banks and weakening even the mighty Royal Bank.

The idea that Scotland would be able to resist the economic storm was held in ordinary voters’ minds against the experience of Iceland and contrasted against the staggering £500bn bailout of the banking system by Mr Brown and his Chancellor, Alistair Darling. After Glasgow East it was claimed that there was no safe Labour seat in Scotland and the nationalist momentum seemed unstoppable. The SNP juggernaut is now stopped on a roundabout outside Glenrothes.

Leading from the front as usual, to the degree that he almost eclipsed the candidate Peter Grant, Mr Salmond may now have to reconsider his tactics. People may be turning against the halo effect of him leading and the nation following. However, not winning a by-election is but a flesh wound compared with what it would have been like for Mr Brown if Labour had lost.

Mr Brown’s decision to campaign personally – he was, frankly, crow-barred into doing it– played well on the doorstep. Labour’s campaign was better organised than Glasgow East, which shows what the party can still do when it gets its act together, and a well-oiled SNP election machine knew that it was in a contest.

The SNP also had a record to defend, not just in Holyrood, but also running the local council. It was new territory for both parties with Labour delighting to be putting the boot in to the local authority. The SNP was hurt badly in repeated attacks but the party felt it had rebutted most of the charges.

Labour presented the winner, Lindsay Roy, headmaster of Gordon Brown’s old school, almost as apolitical. Well, he is no Barack Obama and with bigger marches in history dominating their thoughts, people outside Scotland’s political and media class seemed to have forgotten that the Glenrothes by-election was on yesterday.

It just proves that the real world is different from the political hothouse. In the greenhouse on the Thames there was new-found optimism among Labour MPs when Gordon Brown found his gravitas as the global economic crisis deepened.

Even if he had lost Glenrothes, there was never any danger that Gordon Brown would be out before Christmas – and just remember, eight weeks ago there were more than whispers in the corridors.
Back in the real world again, though, not too much has changed for Labour since the disastrous showings in the polls during the summer.

Labour’s overall level of support did not climb any higher after the bank bailout last month, according to the results of nine surveys.

The weighted average of the polls taken in October shows the Conservatives on 43% (down one percentage point on September), Labour on 31% (up four points), the Liberal Democrats on 16% (down one point) and other parties at 10% (down two points). These figures would give David Cameron a majority of 62 at a general election.

For Lindsay Roy, for Gordon Banks MP who ran the campaign, for Gordon Brown, for Labour, a corner may have been turned. The trouble is that no-one knows what comes next as the financial crisis unfolds.

Glenrothes shows that Brown can bounce; that Salmond does obey the rules of political gravity; and that no outcome is predictable in an era of uncertainty.

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