Friday, 1 July 2011

Greenock and the Janus Scottish electorate

Like a Spaghetti western character who felt their luck was on the verge of running out Scottish Labour's Iain McKenzie is tapping the body politic in amazement this morning and finding out he is the one left standing after an almighty gunfight at the Greenock corral.

When the smoke cleared Labour came home with a majority of over 5000 in the Inverclyde and Greenock by-election last night, that's down from a 14,400 majority the late David Cairns bequeathed the party.

At the beginning of the shoot-out with the SNP Labour's own polling showed it was heading to disaster. McKenzie's denouncement of the SNP in his acceptance speech betrayed the bitter tension in the campaign.

By-elections are but straws in the wind but Labour will take heart that they have taken some wind out of Alex Salmond's sails. The First Minister camped out in Greenock - seven visits in a month - but the SNP's Anne McLaughlin didn't have the momentum to get over the finish line.

Implications? Yes, Labour is standing and breathing again in Scotland but the party high heid yins openly acknowledge they have a massive task to do in restoring the Scottish party. Jim Murphy's interim proposals are due soon but these will just dip a toe in the waters of reform with plans to give council candidates contracts of commitment and the like.

Labour's Scottish fightback begins in Greenock but it is hard to see Greenock as a personal boost for Ed Miliband. On a day of national strikes against Coalition cuts (ostensibly pension reforms) Labour should have been romping home in a constituency that used to spit out Labour votes like shipyard rivets.

The result proves Miliband a competent opposition leader, but that's the trouble isn't it, being a good opposition leader isn't good enough.

For Alex Salmond Greenock, and several other Scottish constituencies, demonstrates the Janus nature of the Scottish electorate, willing to vote nationalist for the Scottish parliament but coming back to the Labour fold in a Westminster contest.

But the SNP is still the party making the best offer to the left-of-centre Scottish voter, they are the ones with all to play for and the energy and finance to campaign.

How will that two-sided nature of the Scottish voters play out in the independence referendum? If it were held tomorrow the independence option would be overwhelmingly rejected by Scotland, but Salmond will hedge his bets with a two question referendum - offering a choice of independence or more powers - and will spend spend the next three years hauling on the cables that bind Scotland to the UK.

There's no little irony in the Queen attending the Riding of a Scottish parliament at Holyrood today, one dominated by nationalists who want to rip her kingdom apart.

Today is the official opening of the five year Holyrood term (one year longer to avoid a clash with the general election due in 2015) which will be defined by the referendum issue.

And forget AV or Lords reform, the future of Scotland is due to become the big constitutional issue of this Westminster parliament too.

Cameron hasn't quite woken up to that yet, but how could he with his party still dead from the neck down in Scotland, and in many other parts of the country outside the south of England.

Business as normal there though strategist George Osborne marvels at the SNP's ability to govern as a minority and then go into an election as the party offering a better vision of the future. It's a script the Tories will borrow at a UK level the next time.

The most worrying result, for all the pro-UK politicians, is the complete disappearance of the Lib Dems, who only managed a streetful of votes.

There are some very bitter words from that great Greenockian, Ross Finnie, this morning. He called the 627 votes "a humiliating result" and said "there were clear issues of trust in the leadership". That translates as oh Nick, why have you foresaken us?

Every time a Scottish Lib Dem politician appears on the television you can see the truth in their eyes. I felt sorry Jo Swinson, the deputy Scottish leader, giving that glazed defence of their doomed marriage to the Conservatives late last night.

But Scottish Labour should be careful what it wishes for. I remember the campaign to wipe the Tories out in Scotland, which Labour gleefully achieved, but where did these voters transfer their allegiance to?

The same level of fury with the Lib Dems in the last year has crushed their support in Scotland. But disgruntled Lib Dem supporters have split between Labour and the SNP at a ratio of two to one in favour of the nationalists, according to SNP polling.

That gives the SNP heart and it also gives big clue as to the direction of travel for Scottish Labour if Greenock is to be a turning point rather than a waymark on the road to further Holyrood defeats.

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