Open (speculation) thread: What do you think will happen in Glagow East – and will it matter?

by Stephen Tall on July 24, 2008

What is it about parliamentary by-elections? You wait ages for one, then four come along at once. Hot-on-the-heels of Crewe and Nantwich, Henley and Haltemprice & Howden is Glasgow East, theoretically at least a safe Labour seat. Here was the result at the 2005 general election:

David Marshall, Labour 18,775 (61%)
Lachlan McNeill, Scottish National Party 5,268 (17%)
David Jackson, Liberal Democrat 3,665 (12%)
Carl Thomson, Conservative 2,135 (7%)
George Savage, Scottish Socialist Party 1,096 (4%)
Labour majority: 13,507 (44%), Turnout: 48%

It’s clear enough this is the proverbial two-horse race for first position, with the SNP apparently breathing down the Labour party’s neck. It would take a swing of more than 22% from Labour to the Nationalists for an upset to happen. Difficult, but certainly not impossible: 22% was exactly what the SNP achieved in the 1999 Hamilton South by-election prompted by George Robertson’s elevation to a peerage, though Labour clung on with a three-figure majority.

A lot will almost certainly depend this time on turnout. Fewer than half the voters turned out for the general election, so how many will show up to cast their vote today? The party which best motivates its supporter base will most likely emerge victorious.

Labour sources seem to be quietly confident of victory – but, then again, so they were in Dunfermline in 2006, when Willie Rennie sensationally snatched a famous by-election victory for the Lib Dems. There has been a marked complacency among Labour campaigners in Scottish constituencies in the past which suggests that all is up for grabs today.

For the Lib Dems it’s hard to know how to judge our result, given that it’s likely voters wanting to give the Labour government a kicking will choose to do so by voting SNP – which suggests our 12% vote in 2005 will get heavily squeezed. The Tory vote, already small at 7%, is more likely to be resistant.

In Hamilton in 1999, both the Lib Dem and Tory votes fell – indeed, the Lib Dems finished in sixth place, well behind the Scottish Socialist and Independent candidates: apparently it was “the worst placing in a by-election by any major party since the Liberal candidate in the Glasgow Camlachie by-election, 1948 also came sixth.” Yet our poor showing there had little significance for the party as a whole in Scotland.

In Ian Robertson the party has been fortunate to have an excellent candidate who – it’s widely acknowledged – has represented the Lib Dem cause well. Whatever vote Ian gets, he personally has come out of the campaign well.

In any event, the only real national significance of the Glasgow East result is whether Labour holds on, and what this means for Gordon Brown’s fortunes…

Is a Scottish Labour victory, however tight a squeak, good for the national Labour party, as it makes it less likely Gordon Brown will come under renewed leadership pressure? Or would that be a bad result for Labour precisely for that reason? After all, as John Rentoul notes on the Indy’s Open House blog, the polls suggest that Mr Brown is a drag on Labour’s ratings:

Cameron lifts his party, Brown drags his down. Labour is popular, Brown is not. Labour MPs will ponder those facts over the summer, whatever happens in Glasgow East today.