What does Glenrothes mean for the Lib Dems?

by Stephen Tall on November 7, 2008

In the scheme of things, it seems unlikely that this week will be best remembered by history for a by-election in Scotland; but, still, the Glenrothes was (as politicians under the kosh of bad polls are prone to note) about real votes in a real election.

And the Lib Dems tanked. The party’s vote dropped by 10%, our meagre 947 votes failing to save our deposit, with the added ignominy of finishing behind the Tories. None of which can be any reflection on our candidate, Harry Wills. But it must cause the rest of us to reflect. In a thoughtful post over at Himmelgarten Café, ‘Costigan Quist’ makes the point well:

Why, the question is asked, were we able to win from 10% in 2003 but found ourselves crushed from 13% in 2008? Is it that we’re just not as good at fighting by-elections as we were?

It’s a very reasonable question to ask. But I don’t think it’s the right one. Too many things are outside our control in any by-election: local issues, the strength of the other parties and the national mood for a start.

It just isn’t sensible to take different by-elections at different times in different parts of the country and say “we won in X, so we must have failed if we lost in Y.” That could be true. It could be that we lost because we ran a bad campaign or missed a trick. But the result alone doesn’t show it to be the case.

So a better question to ask, and a better question for both the by-election team and critics to answer is what could we have done differently than would have made a difference?

There is one very obvious answer to ‘Costigan’s’ question: the Lib Dems could have thrown the kitchen sink at the campaign (as we did, for example, in Henley) in order to prop up our vote, and avoid potentially damaging headlines. We chose not to, reckoning Glenrothes was a two-horse race (the voters agreed), and that it would be a waste of cash and manpower.

In any case, there’s a mighty difference between a by-election – which is almost always a referendum on the governing party, with a clear binary choice – and a general election in a safe Labour seat (as Glenrothes was in 2005), where voters are more likely to vote for a party to whose policies they feel closest.

The bigger issue for the Lib Dems, I think, is this: the party has made explicit its strategy of targeting the 50 most-vulnerable Labour seats at the next general election. This has attracted some internal party criticism, less for the strategy itself, than for making it so public, with the implied acceptance that the Tories are now in the driving seat. But there is, perhaps, now a practical problem. That the media-vaunted ‘Brown Bounce’ – however soft, as John Curtice observed in the Independent this week – has a certain reality.

The SNP did not lose the Glenrothes by-election because they failed to win new voters: their vote went up by a pretty impressive 13% to 13,209, a figure they believed would give them a narrow win on a low turn-out. The SNP lost because Labour turned out their vote, as The Guardian described:

Labour found 6,000 more voters than expected. “I saw people coming out to vote for Labour who haven’t voted for 20 years. I need to think about that,” said Tricia Marwick, the SNP MSP who won the equivalent Scottish parliament seat of Central Fife from Labour last year. Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, said: “The sharpness of some of the negative material shows there was some serious brains being in by Labour.”

It is this, rather than the simple fact of the Lib Dem drop in support, which should give the party greatest pause for thought. Labour’s (and the Tories’) campaigning has improved since the days when Lib Dems used to be able to pick off by-elections at seeming will.

To date, there have been only two by-elections in which the Lib Dems started in second place to Labour: Dunfermline, in which we memorably triumphed; and Ealing Southall, where we achieved a 5% swing from Labour, but failed to take the seat in a three-way fight.* But times have changed, both for the Lib Dems and the Government. Glenrothes showed the potential effectiveness of Labour’s get-out-the-vote operation, and the enduring importance of the party’s core vote.

None of which means the party’s ’50-seat’ strategy is wrong. But it does point to the hard work ahead.

* Edit (7/11/08): This sentence originally read “To date, there has been only one by-election in which the Lib Dems started in second place to Labour – Dunfermline – in which we memorably triumphed.” I omitted Ealing Southall, and have updated the article accordingly.

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What strikes me is how a lot of people got excited with our new MIH tax policies at our last conference.
They were meant to benefit those on low incomes. Yet in this by-election, the policy had no impact whatsoever. Indeed Labour are now attacking us on this issue, and it hasn’t done them any harm.
I know it is asking a lot for the general electorate to notice the difference, but in a local by-election it is surely a far more favourable situation for us to push the policy.

by Geoffrey Payne on November 7, 2008 at 11:00 am. Reply #

I don’t think this is true. By-elections suit the promotion of local more than national policies, do they not?

by Julian H on November 7, 2008 at 11:10 am. Reply #

To date, there has been only one by-election in which the Lib Dems started in second place to Labour – Dunfermline – in which we memorably triumphed.

I assume you mean north of the border as of course there was Ealing Southall where we memorable failed to triumph.

Getting less than 3% of the vote in Glenrothes is significant as it shows how weak our support is at the moment – particularly in Scotland (where there were two council by-elections last night where the Lib Dem performance was similar).

We have to run incredibly hard just to stand still at the moment – witness Henley – and it is imperative that the party nationally finds some messages that start to turn this around.

by Dan on November 7, 2008 at 11:18 am. Reply #

I remain convinced that we should be targeting the Tories equally, if not more. Their platform and their unity are far more fragile than Labour’s, which retains its rump of ‘working class’ and middle class voters who are too dim to actually consider Labour’s record.

David Cameron has not got an enduring lead, as recent events have shown. This shameless optimist still believes we could displace the Tories as the opposition if we target them properly. Dave is the Tories last throw of the dice. If he loses, they are screwed for a generation.

With regard to by-elections, I did my share at Henley and I was very disappointed. I was also increasingly jaded by the hostility we generated with our paper campaign. I would like to see us prioritise by-elections so that we do not unreasonably raise expectations among our activists and so that we really can throw the kitchen sink at winnable seats.

I also think, probably rather controversially, that we should have a more ‘top-down’ approach to by-elections. Our candidate in Henley was chosen locally and, excellent though he was, he was not local and he thus hobbled the campaign from day one. We need someone to be able to come in and sort such issues out.

My local party is lousy with poxy little branches that jealously guard their little pots of cash and their little islands, with the result that we are haemorrhaging seats and support in a seat where we should be challenging Dave himself head on.

Once again the question arises: do we want to be lovely, warm, democratic people or do we want to win real power so that we can actually do something. Which approach would generate more members and more public support?

I have an answer…

by wit and wisdom on November 7, 2008 at 11:29 am. Reply #

Thanks, Dan – forgot Ealing Southall 😳 Apologies. Have edited the article accordingly.

by Stephen Tall on November 7, 2008 at 11:39 am. Reply #

I’m pretty unsurprised by the share we got in Glenrothes (but amazed that Labour won, especially by such a margin).

From a LibDem perspective:

(a) Our vote share in Scotland has taken a real bashing if the polls are to be believed (it’s down c.11% and has just about halved)
(b) This seems to have been largely to the benefit of the SNP who in “bread and butter” terms have many similar policies (LIT, tuition fees etc).
(c) It’s bloody hard to stop a squeeze in a two horse race by-election, particularly if one of the horses (the SNP) appears to be so attractive to LibDem-leaning voters.
(d) We don’t seem to have much of a USP in Scotland – especially on the big constitutional issue (the pledge I remember most from the last Scottish Parliamentary election was to NOT hold a referendum)
(e) The tax cut pledge is relatively new, fairly counter-intuitive, and so will take some time to be recognised.

I’m very glad we didn’t blow £100,000 on this by-election. The money spent in Crewe And Henley (a total that must have exceeded £250,000 in actual expenditure terms) was a shocking waste of limited resources.

by Mark Littlewood on November 7, 2008 at 11:52 am. Reply #

The main lesson I draw from this is that whatever strategy the party adopts for by-elections there will be a lot of activists who say it is wrong.

After Henley the party was criticised for putting lots of resources in, the result of which was that our vote held up (and was actually a good swing our way from the pre-by-election levels of support).

After this one there are signs of panic because we got squashed – the inevitable result of doing exactly what so many people were calling for after Henley.

Apart from that:

Labour are down but not out.

Salmond’s honeymoon is over.

The Tories are not charging towards inevitable success.

Neither are we.

by Liberal Neil on November 7, 2008 at 11:58 am. Reply #

Plenty to comment on here….


I think we need to package it carefully to avoid leaving ourselves vulnerable to the kind of attack that you are describing….


I can kind of see where you are coming from on the first bit. It’s the eternal dilema of a third party which is rather incapable of being ‘full-spectrum’ like the big two…

Not convinced we should abandon the 50 seats and ‘throw the proverbial baby out’…I think we should be realistic about which seats we can actually defend/maybe even snatch from the Tories…where there is a strong local case I would agree with it however my feeling is still that our best hope is snatching Labour seats…

I would like to see more realism and less of the ‘winning here’ kind of thing so agree with you there…i think having a local candidate would matter more in a by-election but in general I dont agree its necessarily feel its always the best way to go….

Don’t think more top-down will help but it would help if the top would encourage change in the situation you describe…

by Darrell on November 7, 2008 at 12:32 pm. Reply #

Every contributor to this thread thus far has accentuated the negative. What about the positive?

A party that wants to dismember the United Kingdom and raise the legal drinking age to 21, and whose leader publicly grovels to Donald Trump, was beaten. Two cheers!

This is not the kind of constituency where we expect to get more than a derisory vote. It is a solidly working-class ex-mining area which once elected a Communist. If Labour can’t win big in a place like Glenrothes, then Labour is in deep, deep mud.

by Sesenco on November 7, 2008 at 12:39 pm. Reply #

You can’t really compare Glenrothes with Henley or Crewe – or even Dunfermline, for that matter. Put simply, the demographics are so different that we’re instantly at a disadvantage. In Dunfermline, although the old mining heritage remained, there is a significant number of people who have moved across from Edinburgh and are more disposed to voting Lib Dem (and, if they’ve come from Edinburgh itself, are probably more likely to.)

What Glenrothes should be compared with is Glasgow East, Hamilton South and Monklands East (I know that one was 1994, but it’s valid.) We had no real organisation locally, and no councillor elected in the constituency for a number of years. We were squeezed tightly by both the SNP and Labour, and I suspect that some of our vote has gone in both directions with others simply staying at home.

Whether we should fight or not is up for argument. We had to fight this one, simply because of its location (next door to Ming’s and Willie’s seats) and the fact we are in administration on Fife Council – if we hadn’t put up a strong fight we could have had even more problems.

by KL on November 7, 2008 at 12:43 pm. Reply #

Well, I suppose we were probably squeezed, though I’m not sure who by. The SNP didn’t pick up an awful lot of support, after all. Dropping from 4728 votes to 947 votes cannot be seen as a ringing endorsement of MIH!

It isn’t just a simple question of “tax cuts”. Obama has come in promising tax cuts as part of a Keynesian programme to save jobs in a recession, alongside public infrastructure spending and increased benefits. US voters have approved that as the right policy for tough times.

All that is very different from taking a doctrinaire position that taxes should be lower and state spending should be reduced, as a long term philosophy. (And never mind tough times, Keynesian economics, jobs, or human feelings, it’s the political philosophy that seems to come first!)

Gordon Brown never tires of repeating the charge that we would cut spending by £20 billion. Since we have failed to repudiate that charge in a clear and unambiguous manner, I would contend that Brown is quite entitled to continue making it. He thinks it is going to cost us votes. I think his judgment is correct.

by David Allen on November 7, 2008 at 12:59 pm. Reply #

I don’t think that “Make It Happen” really came into the equation at all – the main themes in the election were local issues around a change to social care charges, not helped by misinformation spread by Labour (and sometimes straightforward lies – the reason they had to be introduced was because Labour included provision for them in the 2006/07 Council budget and then didn’t implement them, leaving a £2 million funding gap. Also on Education – Labour said the overall budget had been cut, when it had in fact been increased.) If anything, the only mention of taxation was for local income tax, and even then this was muted.

Sesenco is right – Glenrothes not only stuck a finger up at independence, they also told the SNP to spin on it.

by KL on November 7, 2008 at 1:12 pm. Reply #

Sorry – just realised that should be 2007/08 budget, which we were tied to on taking office in May 2007.

by KL on November 7, 2008 at 1:13 pm. Reply #

KL, where you say ““Make It Happen” really came into the equation at all” that is my very point! It is having no effect, even in a by-election where we have the chance to put our case.
Obviously the squeeze affected our vote, there are many factors, but we rarely get squeezed this much!

by Geoffrey Payne on November 7, 2008 at 1:42 pm. Reply #

Elsewhere – in response to complaints of an iffy barchart portraying Glenrothes as a 2horse race Lab/Lib Dem (!!!!) – I commented that in seats like this we need a byelection to leave the local party stronger (or at least no weaker) than it was before.

We certainly don’t seem to have managed that! If I were a Glenrothes Lib Dem member I’d be very, very, very disheartened today.

We must stop leaving byelection victims in our wake!!

p.s. the Lib Dem (and Tory) performances in Glasgow East and Glenrothes, and the Labour performance in Henley all point to the thankless task of being the 3rd or 4th party in a byelection. Perhaps we need to recognise the achievement of Neil Trafford and his team in holding up the Lib Dem vote share in Crewe & Nantwich.

by crewegwyn on November 7, 2008 at 1:46 pm. Reply #

Remember when Willie Rennie won his seat nearby. And we were leaderless then – almost. What has happened since then, and why?

by Biodiesel on November 7, 2008 at 2:07 pm. Reply #

“Perhaps we need to recognise the achievement of Neil Trafford and his team in holding up the Lib Dem vote share in Crewe & Nantwich.”

I think I’ve said elsewhere that Crewe is easily the best result of the four by-elections.

by Hywel Morgan on November 7, 2008 at 3:22 pm. Reply #

“Crewe is easily the best result of the four by-elections.”

Yes, I was disappointed by the Crewe result at the time, but in hindsight maybe we should have been pleased with it.

Not that long ago it was the exception rather than the rule that we would do well in a by-election. Perhaps we just need to accept that we have returned to those days. I don’t think any of this bodes badly for the general election, as it was only really a three year period when we seemed to be able to win anything. Also if you look back, our record in Scottish by-elections has always been mixed. The only real concern is that the Tories overtook us (a larger core vote perhaps?).

For party morale, what we really need is a by-election in a seat where we are a good second (to either Labour or Conservatives) and where we can credibly win.

by Anders on November 7, 2008 at 3:51 pm. Reply #

In response to Dave Allen:

“Gordon Brown never tires of repeating the charge that we would cut spending by £20 billion. Since we have failed to repudiate that charge in a clear and unambiguous manner”

– I tend to agree, although something strange happened during the Sky coverage of PMQs this week.

When Gordon Brown attacked Clegg for ’20bn cuts’ the Sky voice over commentator butted in during the live coverage itself and clarified by saying:

“The Lib Dems of course would reallocate £20bn not cut it”

So someone in our press office is doing an excellent job ensuring that the opinion formers are clear about what we are saying.

I agree that this message needs to get out on the ground too.

But well done the press office!

by expriest on November 7, 2008 at 4:24 pm. Reply #


I suspect that just means the Sky commentator was as confused about the policy as many people are.

Obviously there is an “aspiration” that not all of the £20bn would be reallocated.

by Clegg's Candid Friend on November 7, 2008 at 4:41 pm. Reply #

Anders & others,

It has always been the case that winning in by-elections has been the exception rather than the rule.

The problem is that, rather like marauding vikings drinking ale round the fire, we tend to remember the glorious victories rather than the tedious disappointments.

This leads to an expectation that the ‘lib dem by-election machine’ will sweep all before it, even though that has never been the reality.

Previous parliamentary by-elections:

83-87 15 by-elections*, 4 wins
87-92 24 by-elections, 3 wins
92-97 18 by-elections, 4 wins
97-01 17 by-elections**, 1 win
01-05 6 by-elections, 2 wins
05 to date 13 by-elections, 1 win

* excludes mass NI by-elections Jan 86
** excludes Winchester re-run

by Liberal Neil on November 7, 2008 at 4:46 pm. Reply #

The result is nothing short of a disaster – wake up and smell the coffee everyone.

We have a problem and CHANGE IS NEEDED !!!!

by Yellow belly on November 7, 2008 at 9:14 pm. Reply #

I’m too busy fighting by elections at the moment, but whatever we spent in Glenrothes, it seems an awful lot for a vote which is less than I get in most Town council elections. Ho hum. Hopefully, greater minds than mine are looking at the problem…

by Martin Land on November 7, 2008 at 10:15 pm. Reply #

So what’s our alternative?

Do we mount an entirely paperless campaign and run the risk of having no votes at all?

Do we not bother putting up a candidate?

The by-election limit of £100,000 puts us at a huge disadvantage from the start – if we are not the challenger, we are at a huge financial disadvantage.

I think that one of the answers is to be more aggressive with the journalists who choose to ignore us. The SNP basically got their press people to aggressively pursue a media strategy and give serious grief to journalists who didn’t print their stuff. Should we now be doing the same?

Gordon Brown is lucky that he was up against the Nats in this by-election – if we had been in second place, he would have been stuffed given Vince’s strong and credible messages on the economy.

by Caron on November 7, 2008 at 10:39 pm. Reply #

Does executing two scottish federal leaders in the last 3 years help ? Its a genuine question rather than a rhetorical one. In the current circumstances I don’t think this classic third party squeeze could have been avoided and we were better of just taking the hit and saving much needed resources. However Stephen T is right to ost the thread. Its the sheer scale of the squeeze, 10% from 12.5% that is alarming.

However we don’t need much navel gazing. the partys opinion poll rating is 7% down from the last general lection or about 30% of the base vote.

its the national profile that has taken the hit not the machine on the ground.

by Clegg's Ardent Admirer on November 8, 2008 at 4:01 am. Reply #

The Labour Candidate’s victory speech was in three parts:
1) An attack on the SNP/Lib Dem run Council
2) A belated formal thank you to RO and staff
3) A eulogy to Gordon Brown.
It looked to me as if he’d written 1) and 2), but got them the wrong way round, and part 3) was written by by his Labour minders!

We should not under-estimate how much resonance Old Labour can still muster with their traditional base on social services issues. Labour made net two gains in Bristol in 2007 against a Lib Dem administration preparing outsource home care. By going into opposition mode they managed to distance themselves from what was their own Governments policy, and it looks like they’ve pulled the same trick in Glenrothes.

Labour may be down, but they have a largeish hard-core vote which they can sometimes motivate…And as for the SNP bleating about others fighting on local issues, well……

by Steve Comer on November 9, 2008 at 11:04 pm. Reply #

Yes, we were squeezed in this by-election and always were going to be. But the scale of the squeeze suggests the number of people who are so impressed with us that they’ll vote for us whatever is tiny.

Our party OUGHT to be running wild in the polls, with the current economic disaster pulling Labour down for being the people in power who did nothing to stop its build-up, and the Tories being the other lot who wanted more of the same. Instead we’re making almost zero impact.

It wasn’t so long ago that there were people in the party telling us there was just one step we had to make, and then our message would be so brilliantly communicated that we’d be shooting up. And I remember writing “What the heck do people see in …” because I couldn’t for the life of me understand their enthusiasm for this step.

I still can’t.

by Matthew Huntbach on November 10, 2008 at 12:02 am. Reply #

“For party morale, what we really need is a by-election in a seat where we are a good second (to either Labour or Conservatives) and where we can credibly win.”

Sounds like a return to the days when party “strategy” was “muddle through and hope a winnable by-election turns up…”

However what is a winnable by-election?

Neil – we have rather encouraged the media myth of the “unstoppable Lib Dem by-election machine”. Sometimes with good reason. Up to Brent East our average of by-elections we really went for was pretty good (the only failures being Walton and arguably Monmouth. Since then it’s not been as hot 4/8 (or 9 if you include Crewe) with one of those being a defence.

by Hywel Morgan on November 10, 2008 at 1:19 am. Reply #

I was thinking about this yesterday. I think that the current political climate has left Brown’s Labour and Cameron’s Conservatives on broadly equal footing. It has never happened in the Lib Dem’s 19 year history that we have faced two parties that are actively campaigning against each other so far from the elections in 2010. I don’t see how it will be possible to break into the scene and cause a ruckus unless something changes. Before, from 1997-2007 we were campaigning against Labour in the north and the Conservatives in the south, and that made us a lot of headway as the leading opposition in those areas. But now that both the Conservatives and Labour are concentrating on every by-election, and add in the SNP, and you get an incredibly hostile climate for the Third Party.

by Huw Dawson on November 10, 2008 at 8:35 am. Reply #

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