Friday, February 10, 2006

Time for a jolly good gloat

Many Liberal Democrats will find themselves unable to wipe the smile from their face after last night’s excellent victory in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election.

In the last week or so, when I heard of just how much was being put into the campaign, I did begin to think that this was a lot of effort just to make sure of coming second, but I doubt whether any of us who didn’t get to Dunfermline actually believed we could win. This is a sparkling return to form for the Lib Dem by-election team after the disappointment of Hartlepool. Willie Rennie is a thoroughly good thing and has the right knowledge and experience to be able to build on the victory and have a long tenure as MP.

The real reason, though, that a bit of gloating is in order is the glib way in which opponents and media confused our ephemeral embarrassments with long-term decline – see for example Iain Dale’s 28 January posting on his blog.

Sex scandals and the like are fun for opponents and uncomfortable for supporters of the party who see one of their leading figures exposed in the tabloids. But they don’t last and appear to have little impact on the voters.

At first glance, Labour are the main losers from Dunfermline and West Fife, but in fact the Tories finishing fourth have most to worry about. The Conservatives have yet to put in a convincing by-election performance as the main opposition party. Since Labour took power, the Lib Dems have had three by-election gains from Labour, one from the Tories and two near misses. No one would seriously have expected the Conservatives to win this seat, but for a party that seriously hopes to win the next general election, the least they would have wanted was significant swing in their direction, perhaps overtaking the SNP and/or us.

Unlike in 1970 and 1979, the voters getting tired of Labour isn’t going to mean victory falls into the Conservatives’ laps. All the more reason for Lib Dems to take the battle to both of them.


cymrumark said...

Yes have a good gloat.....think this by-election is important as eastbourne was back in 1990.

Interesting is that it was won on a swing from Labour with no tactical switch from SNP ...indeed SNP vote actually went up. Taken with the other two by-elections and local government by-elections in scotland Labour is in for a hard time in may 2007.....

Angus J Huck said...

Comparisons with Edge Hill are entirely flawed.

In Edge Hill, the Liberals held some 80% of the local council seats, there had been an unpopular absent MP, and the local Labour Party organisation was moribund. David Alton's success was exclusively attributable to local factors. Jeremy Thorpe, the Lib Lab Pact and the Winter of Discontent played no part whatsoever.

Dunfermline and Fife West, by contrast, had had a popular Labour MP who had just died in fairly tragic cricumstances. The Labour Party locally may have been the subject of much complaint, but it wasn't detested in the way in which Sir Arthur Irvine and his son were.

The SNP vote did indeed go up, which suggests that Scotland has a residuum of separatists who will vote SNP come what may. The Tories never have done well in this area (which used to have quite a big mining industry). In Scotland, Conservative support is now confined to a handful of high status areas (like Maxwell Park, Colinton and Fairmilehead) and is unlikely to revive in any significant way.

Comparing Willie Rennie with David Alton is quite an insult. I wonder how those radical liberals who swarmed up to Liverpool now feel. They genuinely believed that Alton was one of their own, not the reactionary sectarian religious bigot he has turned out to be.

Liberal Neil said...

Labour are the real losers here. This is a shockingly bad result for them.

It is good for the Lib Dems because it shows that their support base is stronger than expected and that they are not reliant on a popular leader to do well. It should also be noted that this was a very short by-election campaign so the swing is that much more impressive.

I think it is a bad result for the SNP. I was shocked by how little campaigning they could muster and was left with the impression that they really aren't geared up for serious campaigning. The SNP vote did not go up, it went down by 765.

Angus J Huck said...

The SNP vote went up in percentage terms, not absolute terms (the turnout was down).

For the SNP to succeed against Labour it needs Roman Catholic support, almost all of which goes to Labour. Tory support in Scotland has collapsed largely because of the evaporation of the working-class "Orange" vote (which has split between Labour and the SNP).

This is why the SNP is much more of a menace in the East of Scotland than the West. (Note how the SNP never says anything rude about the Ulster Unionists.)

If you look at the 1973 Govan byelection (which Margot MacDonald won), Labour lost to the SNP because they were perceived to be in the pockets of the Roman Catholic Church (all the meetings were held in Roman Catholic schools). People voted on sectarian lines.

For these (and other) reasons, I consider a Tory revival in Scotland inherently unlikely (they will never again get working-class support). The SNP, on the other hand, has never really faded, and might benefit from a recrudescence of nationalist feeling, which could be sparked off by anything from Gordon Brown failing to become PM to Scotland winning the World Cup.

Gordon Brown, who comes from Fife, knows how deadly and corrosive identity politics can be. That's why he wants a day to celebrate "Britishness".

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