The British Labour Party and their leader Prime Minister Gordon Brown fell to a nadir with the result of the Glasgow East by-election. The defeat to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) was by less than 400 votes but it was the massive swing away from Labour that has party members, Ministers and journalists starting the countdown on Brown’s Prime Ministerial clock. In the words of the 1970s Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healy, ‘the skies are becoming dark with the wings of chickens coming home to roost’.
Labour’s defeat came in a constituency that has always imbibed Scottish municipal and trade-union socialism. It is one of the poorest constituencies in the UK; it has been traditionally one of the safest of safe Labour seats – the loss of such a ‘banker’ will seriously hurt party morale. The reasons for the demoralising defeat are manifold and all too familiar to mid-term governments around the world.
‘It’s the Economy Stupid!’ – after nine years of apparent successive economic growth, a reputation for fiscal prudence and a level of near full employment, GB inc has taken a rapid turn for the worse since the credit crunch started in September 2007. Now, Brown is paying the price for an untrammelled financial/speculative sector, over-reliance on property price rises as an indicator of personal wealth and an oil addiction that 7 of the G8 are finding impossible to kick. Industrial action is increasing as CEOs, with their inflation-busting bonus schemes still operative rub salt in the wounds of the average worker. If you’re hurt in your pocket, chances are you’ll want to blame someone and Labour/Brown are obvious targets.
The Scottish Question has been bedevilling British politics for over three centuries now and has been become the issue since the SNP’s Alex Salmond became Scotland’s First Minister. Most Scots have been doggedly satisfied with devolution but independence is firmly back on the agenda. The actions of the London government are becoming increasingly contrary to those of the Edinburgh administration. The Scottish can no longer be relied upon to vote for Labour by the shovel-load.
The loss of Glasgow-East will be particularly hurtful to the proud Scot that is Gordon Brown. This is a defeat in his own political backyard; it’s a rejection of one of the formerly favoured sons. The SNP have been able to exploit Brown’s geographical and political distance from this left wing, egalitarian electorate and contrasted it with New Labour’s policies geared towards Middle England and the City. Brown, to many poorer voters, just doesn’t seem to understand their pain. This will hurt him grievously as he’s always seen himself as being able to speak for the broader labour movement as well as being able to tilt towards brokers and traders. He is a socialist of the heart.
Poor Gordon; a decade in the shadow of the better communicator but lesser thinker Tony, he succeeded Blair by promising to return the Labour Party to their roots. No longer would style triumph over substance; his premiership would herald the supremacy of ideas. It’s all gone so wrong; a year ago, Brown was making the Conservatives look lost and their leader seem shallow and inexperienced. Now, the Conservatives are streaking ahead in the polls and Labour were recently humiliated when they finished fifth behind the fascist BNP; as Labour’s 1997 song went, ‘Things can Only Get Better’ .But they’ve got worse and worse over the last ten months; there is even a Blair nostalgia developing among some Labour MPs.
All is not lost. However accumulating circumstances are proving beyond Brown’s control. If, and it’s a very big if, the British economy improves significantly between now and the next general election, Labour could run against the Conservatives on a more even electoral plain. Things look very bleak for the party right now; they’ll be hoping that they’ll get an Obama bounce should the Senator from Illinois take the Presidency. This is clutching at a very thin and slippery straw though; the UK and US are no longer Athens and Rome when it comes to political behaviour. As a historian, Gordon Brown knows how difficult it will be to turn around his and Labour’s electoral chances. Enthusiastic supporters from only twelve months ago are deserting Brown now; politics can be a very cruel sport.