The Result: Labour hold
Labour 15,118 (53.81%, down 2.16%)
SNP 9,280 (33.03%, up 15.50%)
Conservative 2,784 (9.91%, down 2.09%)
Liberal Democrat 627 (2.23%, down 11.12%)
UKIP 288 (1.03%, down 0.13%)
Depending on who you listen to, this was either a good night for Labour and a bad night for the SNP, or a good night for the SNP and a bad night for Labour. Apart from that, everyone wants to talk about the LibDem collapse. Again. So is this really the start of Labour’s fightback, or is momentum still with the SNP? Is there anything worth saying about the Tories, and are the LibDems really as knackered as the result suggests? And are UKIP flogging a dead horse?
On the face of it, this was a good result coming so soon as it did after the Holyrood election and following a campaign where it was thought that the best Labour could hope for was a win of about 1,500 – so a win of almost four times that is something to be cheered, surely?
Scratch the surface. Yes, Labour picked up 15,118 votes, and yes, that was almost 3,000 more than in the (albeit smaller) Greenock & Inverclyde constituency two months ago. But it’s almost 6,000 fewer than Labour picked up in the Westminster General Election last year. In the space of just fourteen months, Labour in Inverclyde has lost more than a quarter of its Westminster polling day support.
The figures are get more damning: the decrease in Labour vote share against 2010 is greater than the Labour 2007-11 Holyrood Constituency Vote decrease both nationally and locally. In other words, Labour’s position is actually worsening and the result is more a testament to Scottish Labour’s underlying strength in a Westminster contest than anything else.
And it’s that strength that will see them through: the swings seen at Inverclyde would – if a General Election were held tomorrow – see Labour unseat Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire, but lose Gordon Banks in Ochil & South Perthshire, and Eric Joyce in Falkirk. A net loss of one seat on a more adverse swing than that which delivered the Holyrood Constituency wipeout – a wipeout that, let’s not forget, Greenock & Inverclyde resisted.
Labour won in a contest where they tend to do well, in an area where they still do well: it’s fair to say that this is not yet the start of the Labour fightback. But even if it were, that’s what they said about Glenrothes in November 2008 – in June 2009, the SNP won the European Election. That’s also what they said about Glasgow North East in November 2009, and six months later Labour were able to recover their By-Election losses and hold out where other parts of the UK saw the party’s support wilt. But this was Iain Gray’s springboard into Bute House, and history will record that he fell off the springboard and got his ankle trapped in it. Labour have a long, long way to go yet.
A reality check? Perhaps. Tails were up, and the predictions were that the SNP could reduce Labour’s majority from almost fifteen thousand to about a tenth of that. That wasn’t to be, though the gap was more than halved. And while the SNP picked up 11,876 votes in the smaller Holyrood constituency in May, it only managed 9,280 this time.
Again, scratch the surface. In the space of fourteen months, SNP support in Inverclyde for a Westminster contest has gone up by almost 50% – 6,577 last year to over 9,000 on Thursday, with a vote increase of 15.5%, more than the party notched up two months ago, and were this to be repeated at that mythical General Election To Be Held Tomorrow, the SNP would go from six MPs to 14: gaining Ochil & South Perthshire and Falkirk from Labour, and a further six LibDem seats – Argyll & Bute; Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross; Edinburgh West; Gordon; Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey and West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine. Meanwhile, opinion polls seem to put the LibDems on 13 seats across the UK, so it’s now a possibility that the SNP could displace the Liberal Democrats as the third largest party in the Commons.
Nevertheless, we all know that the LibDem/SNP battle is a red herring: at Holyrood, a swing smaller than the one seen at Inverclyde ushered in an SNP majority, as the party had managed to convince people that they offered the best solutions, best representatives and best Government for Scotland. The former strongholds of Donald Dewar, John Smith, Robin Cook, George Robertson and even Gordon Brown all turned yellow. But at Westminster, those swings would be enough to hand only two Labour seats to the SNP – that marks out the gulf there, and the SNP absolutely has to change perceptions: Labour won because it was seen as the best best for a Westminster election. The SNP still has to show that voting for their candidates at Westminster will get them somewhere – and somewhere good. It has just under four years to find and develop that narrative.
Has anyone even acknowledged that they were on the ballot paper since the result? Talk has been about the first, second and fourth placed candidates – the Tories have been skipped over completely, and I suppose from a publicity point of view, that makes the result disastrous for them most of all. At least the LibDems are getting mentioned in the papers.
Anyway. It’s worth noting that have somehow managed to lose nearly two thousand votes in just over a year, and saw their vote fall by 2.09% against 2010. On the other hand, they found 750 voters that they didn’t pick up in May – though they could have simply been living in Kilmacolm, the part of Inverclyde not found in the Holyrood seat, and, most notably, part of the only ward in Inverclyde to have elected a Tory Councillor. Still, the 2.09% swing is considerably better than the 4.1% decrease they experienced in the Holyrood seat so it looks like the Tory core vote has now been marked out and things, at least, aren’t getting any worse.
Plus which, they kept their deposit, which isn’t bad going for the third horse in a two-horse race. Still, it’s the mark of a strong third party that their vote can hold up during a By-Election, and the last third party to achieve that in a Scottish Westminster By-Election was the SNP in Dunfermline & West Fife. The Tories worst days may be behind them (well, by ‘may be’ I mean ‘maybe’) but actual improvement? Not yet, I’m afraid. Once again, the party has done just enough to prevent humiliation. When does ‘just enough’ become not enough?
What to say, other than “Ohhhh, dear…”? Do I even want to intrude upon private grief? Yep.
Let’s not forget that in 2003, the LibDems won control of Inverclyde Council. Eight years on, and they’ve now lost their deposit in Inverclyde. Against 2010, their vote share has fallen by 11.12%, worse than the fall they experienced in the apocalyptic result they received in May, and over fourteen months, they’ve lost more than four thousand voters. Indeed, in the past two months alone, they’ve managed to lose at least 1300. Two months ago, I said that the swings seen at the Holyrood election could happen again at Westminster and the LibDems would lose only three MPs. If the Inverclyde swings happened at a General Election, they would lose seven. Argyll & Bute – gone. Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross – gone. Edinburgh West – gone. West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine – gone. East Dunbartonshire, and the Scottish LibDems’ Deputy Leader Jo Swinson – gone. Gordon, and the President of the Scottish LibDems Malcolm Bruce – gone. Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey, and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander – gone.
So the troubles facing the LibDems are actually getting worse when we thought they couldn’t. And if the candidate, student Sophie Bridger (and how the hell can a university student be a LibDem candidate after their betrayal on tuition fees?!), was the ‘breath of fresh air’ that the party’s leaders proclaimed her to be, then boy oh boy, the rest of the party must be stale beyond belief.
The blame game has begun: Ross Finnie has blamed the Coalition, saying that voters simply can’t trust the LibDems ever again. Nick Clegg’s office has blamed the Scottish party for trying to tell voters that the Coalition is nothing to do with them, when the electorate knows better than that.
In a sense, they’re both right: the Coalition and its actions have hurt LibDem voters far harder than Tory supporters. The latter are, in the main, getting most of what they wanted, even if, in places, it’s been watered down. The former are, in the main, getting the opposite of what they wanted: a tuition fee rise their candidates pledged to vote against; a VAT increase that was made part of the “Tory VAT bombshell” on LibDem campaign posters; electoral reform killed off by a referendum on a system once dismissed by Nick Clegg as a “shabby little compromise”. So when Ross Finnie identifies the disappointment that former LibDem voters must feel, he has to be listened to. On the other hand, Nick Clegg’s people also have a point: they look to the Welsh party, that didn’t try and distance itself from the Coalition every time it was brought up, and whose decline in vote share two months ago was around half of that incurred by their Scottish counterparts (they only lost one AM: the Scottish LibDems lost 11 MSPs). Moreover, it’s impossible for Scottish LibDems to distance themselves from the Coalition when there are four Scottish LibDems in the Government: Lord Wallace, the Advocate General; Alastair Carmichael, the Deputy Chief Whip; Michael Moore, the Scotland Secretary; and last but by no means least, Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and one of the so-called ‘quad’ at the top of the Government – Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Alexander. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Scottish LibDems can’t distance themselves from the cuts when one of their own is running with the scissors.
Having said that, both Ross Finnie and the DPM’s mystery apologist are both wrong, in that they’re pegging this to the Coalition. The reality is that the party’s current difficulties go back further.
In Glasgow East (was that really three years ago?!), the LibDems came fourth, lost their deposit and their vote fell by 8.3%.
In Glenrothes four months later, the LibDems came fourth, lost their deposit and their vote fell by 10.1%.
In Glasgow North East a year on, the LibDems came sixth and lost their deposit. There was, luckily for them, no comparison against 2005 as they didn’t field a candidate then.
So Inverclyde is actually part of a three-year By-Election trend for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. You can’t blame the Coalition (or the Scottish party’s handling of it) for that. Also, let’s not forget that while England and Wales were tuning into Cleggmania last year, in Scotland, the LibDems were the only one of the Big 4 parties to see their vote fall. The Dunfermline & West Fife By-Election seems to have represented a zenith for the party and it’s been downhill all the way since then. The party will be hoping that this comes to represent the nadir, but right now, I’m not sure how, when or even if the decline will be arrested.
One other thing to consider: for them, the start of the campaign was hit by the untimely passing of their Deputy Director of Campaigns, Andrew Reeves. If it was possible to keep him down, I never found out how: he was occasionally shameless (and his blog would generate some fairly stormy posts from these quarters, particularly at election time) but he was indefatigable. Were he still around, doubtless on Friday morning he would have posted on his blog, hailing the hard work of activists, expressing his disappointment but defending his party and geeing his people up for the next campaign, wherever and whenever it might be. Frankly, he struck me as the sort of person that the LibDems will need now more than ever.
It’s worth acknowledging that they had a candidate – as acknowledge him was all the media did. We keep assuming that for full-on, red-blooded, meat-eating Tories who are hacked off with the Coalition, UKIP is the natural destination for a protest vote. They must be few in number in Inverclyde as the party managed to lose a third of its support in 14 months. Granted, that only equated to the loss of 145 voters and a 0.13% drop in vote share, but still, that shows that the party which is looking for that protest vote didn’t find it at all here, and Marta Andreassen’s criticisms of the party’s failure to develop any credible forward momentum is, on this showing, correct.
Of course, when you realise just how unpopular the Conservatives are in Scotland, you also realise that a party trying to be more Tory than the Tories is pretty much destined to fall flat on its face north of the border. Still, after the good start afforded to them in the Barnsley Central result, UKIP’s 2011 has stalled: only nine Councillors in England, no AMs, no MLAs, and not even reaching 1% of the vote at Holyrood. This is supposed to be their golden opportunity, and they’re blowing it.
So in short: the SNP might have reason to feel a little disappointed but the general trend is still very positive; Labour can allow themselves a brief moment of relief but are far from being out of the woods yet; the Tories avoided disaster but will find very little to celebrate; UKIP have nothing to shout about at all; the LibDems do have plenty to shout about, but only shouts of distress.
So onto the next challenge – just ten months to go until the local elections…