Magazine article Public Finance

Dancing to a Different Tune

Magazine article Public Finance

Dancing to a Different Tune

Article excerpt

It had to end sometime. First Minister Alex Salmond's honeymoon with the Scottish voters was intense while it lasted -70% approval ratings and all. But the Glenrothes by-election has drawn a line under this phase of Alex's great adventure. From here on it gets difficult.

This Is not to say the nationalist experiment in Scotland is over, far from it. Glenrothes was In many ways a highly creditable result for the Scottish National Party: its vote rose by almost 50% on a 5% swing. Not bad for a government in midParliament and during an economic crisis in which UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was being hailed as a saviour of the world economy.

But in by-elections, a good second just isn't good enough, especially for the SNP, which has never won two consecutive Westminster byelections. The party had great hopes of doing the double in Glenrothes, having taken Labour's third safest seat In Scotland, Glasgow East, only six months earlier. As the campaign drew to a close, Its candidate, Peter Grant, and the first minister were exceptionally confident that they had done enough to win.

The SNP doesn't make these claims lightly; its by-election machine is legendary. On the weekend before the Glenrothes count, it put 1,200 activists on the streets. They knew exactly where their voters were, and made absolutely sure they got their vote out. This meant that, as polls closed, the nationalists thought they had won by around a thousand votes. In reality, they had lost by a massive 6,700. This was a blow to the party's confidence, and to Salmond's authority. He doesn't walk on water any more.

The only consolation was that Labour was even more surprised than the SNP. The party knew it had put in a creditable performance in Glenrothes, but as polls closed thought it was short of around a thousand votes -much as the SNP believed. What it didn't expect was a last-minute surge of traditional Labour voters setting aside their antipathy to New Labour In the interest of supporting Gordon Brown's handling of the economic crisis. Glenrothes put an end to all speculation about Brown being replaced as leader and to talk of an early general election.

But where does Scotland go from here? Well, this setback for the SNP is probably not on the same scale as great by-election defeats of the past, such as Garscadden in 1978, after which the party fell apart, losing nine of its 11 seats in the 1979 general election, and then descending into factionalism for a decade. The SNP is now in government and united under a popular first minister - even if some in the party have been criticising Salmond's 'one-man-band' style. …

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