Like the vast closing of an arc, the Scottish election in the sunshine was the last election for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, ten years exactly after their first extraordinary campaign. Never again will they campaign together as elected politicians; next month Gordon Brown goes solo. It was perhaps the most dramatic and certainly the most challenging of all the campaigns I have been involved in. We lost, but by the smallest of amounts, when four weeks earlier we were heading for horrendous defeat.
From the start the polls were against us. One had us 12 per cent behind the SNP with only weeks to go; another had us lagging by 10 points. This election should have been over before it began. Yet there were opportunities. The majority of the electorate believed Scotland was moving in the right direction. Many had doubts about the SNP and the financial risk of independence. Focus groups gave grounds for hope. Of course voters wanted change; they were fed up with Labour for a variety of reasons, but it did not seem an irretrievable breakdown. The electorate acknowledged progress, but were not prepared to give Labour much credit for achieving it.
Compounding this demand for change was a more potent mood for national expression in the post-devolution era. A minority wanted a complete break from the UK, but for most the demand was for recognition rather than separation. This blended into a political brew so potent it seemed unstoppable – the perfect storm that SNP leader Alex Salmond believed would sweep him into office. The strategy of the SNP in Scotland, like David Cameron in the UK, was to ride public sentiment, not change it. For this to work, the SNP, again like Cameron in the UK, had to reassure the public that it was an unthreatening repository for their vote. It sought this through a pincer movement: a referendum on independence and business endorsements.
This plan worked well until the crucial last days when the SNP, prevented from talking about the one thing it really believed in – independence – lost emotional power and clarity of message. It is at the close of a campaign that a strategy of reassurance is most vulnerable and so it proved. The SNP survived, but only just.
To its credit, the SNP had spent years planning its campaign. As with all incumbents, ours had to start later, given that the main players were involved in their day jobs. This is less of a disadvantage than it may appear. Today’s campaigning does need pre-planning but what matters now is flexibility. The early stages were bleak, but gradually we got back into the game. The turning point was the publication of the SNP’s economic plans that did not impress, particularly in the eyes of the media. From that moment until election day the SNP was on the back foot.
Sporting and business voices started to come out for the union, but still the polls would not change. Most people thought we were dead, but on the Sunday before polling day I conducted my normal pre-election focus groups and it was possible to feel a glimmer of voters coming back to us. In the last few days our campaign pounded a double message of SNP risk and “come home to Labour”. As we strengthened the SNP melted, and we were sure that we would win or come close. In the event, we lost by one vote in a night of unbearable tension, which ended late in the afternoon of the following day with the Highlands and Islands returning officer declaring the result of his list – first for Labour, and then for the SNP – and consequently the whole election.
This was a campaign that showed Labour at its best: Tony Blair magnificent, leading from the front, finding exactly the right words, always able to change the political weather. Gordon Brown like a tank, indomitable, raging against the possibility of defeat, generating ideas and implementing them with an energy that was breathtaking. Douglas Alexander, pathologically determined to win, displaying that infuriating determination of purpose that is the mark of great campaigners. And Jack McConnell, so often criticised, but who never showed the slightest loss of nerve, in the end finding a street-fighting demeanour that made Salmond’s helicopter tours look arrogant and presumptuous.
There were many besides and all were, in their own way, heroic, brought together by that extraordinary glue that new Labour campaigning has at its core: a courage that will not allow for the possibility of defeat. Whatever else can be said of Blair and Brown, they do not lack guts. No news, however bad, unnerves them. Even after it was announced that we had lost, they still believed something could be done. This courage will not fade with the passing of Blair; it is part of the DNA of Labour as a campaigning party. I believed at the start that it would be harder for Labour to win in Scotland than in the next general election, that if we could win north of the border we could win anywhere. We did not quite win but we fought back to almost neck and neck, and this with 100,000 ballots spoilt and lost.
It is clear from this campaign that when an election really matters, voters look beyond the moment and seek out the bigger argument. There is a point of reckoning that every election must reach. In Scotland this happened late, and so it will in the coming general election. If we hold our nerve, voters will move from a mood of protest to a serious consideration of the choice. You can only surf a mood for change for so long; there will always be a reckoning. This past week was the Conservatives’ highest point in this parliament, Labour’s lowest.
From now on Labour will strengthen, and the Tories inexorably weaken. Last week was a turning point, for Labour not David Cameron. Not a bad legacy for Blair and Brown’s last campaign.