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27 March 2000

Scots sound a wake-up call

New Statesman Scotland - Labour's humiliation in the Ayr by-election is worse than mid-term

By Tom Brown

Messrs Gallup, MORI, NOP and other pollsters take note. A new psephological term has been born: The Scunner Factor. It could only happen in Scotland, where “scunner” (or loathing) is still in everyday use. No word more accurately describes the sense of let-down felt by ordinary Scots about the new Scottish government – unless it is “gi’ed the dry boak”, which is even more disgusting.

When the pollsters, politicos and pundits have finished scratching around in the ashes of Labour’s humiliation in the recent by-election in Ayr, they will have discarded other considerations. When they get to the root cause of Labour’s worst by-election result in Scotland in over 30 years, they will conclude that it was simply disillusion with the poor performance of Donald Dewar and his partners in government.

Slumping to a feeble third place with a vote more than halved in a seat that was won in 1997 and 1999, albeit with only a 25-vote majority in a traditional Tory seat, signals more than mid-term blues. The “shoot the messenger” alibi of blaming the media will not stand up to the electoral arithmetic. Ayr 2000 should go down in Labour Party training manuals as the classic example of when not to hold a by-election and how not to run one.

Labour was on a loser from the moment the sitting MSP Ian Welsh quit after only six months, indicating that being a backbencher at Holyrood is beneath a man who had reached the dizzy heights of being leader of South Ayrshire council.

He had precipitated the by-election at the worst possible time, with Dewar and the Scottish Executive mired in their own long-running debacle.

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The campaign on the ground seemed knee-jerk, demoralised and deprived of rank-and-file support. Bereft of ideology and imagination, Labour was reduced to reacting to bad news – and much of the bad news was of its own making.

However, the message that should penetrate Millbank and Downing Street is that Ayr was not a little local difficulty. It was an alarm call for the general election because, just when Labour is firmly established as the natural party of government in Britain, it is losing its grip in Scotland. Labour should now be in no doubt that its prospects of a second massive majority at Westminster are being seriously damaged in Scotland.

One overheated commentator claimed that Labour’s dominance of Scotland was at an end. Hardly, when it still has 54 of 129 MSPs, 56 of 72 Scots MPs and overwhelming council control. Polls show that, despite serious reservations about the Blair government’s socialist credentials, the disaffected core support would return to Labour in a Westminster election.

However, the Scottish Tories, after being wiped out at the last election, now believe that their former seats in Aberdeen South, Eastwood, Edinburgh Pentlands and Dumfries are back in the bag.

Labour MPs in constituencies with the SNP breathing down their necks are jittery and have been scathing in their scorn for the “lame duck” Dewar administration. Ian Davidson, the Labour MP for Glasgow Pollok, who was already critical, commented after Ayr: “Anyone in the Labour Party who still believes that new Labour is popular in Scotland should get out more.”

These besieged Labour MPs will not be helped by the SNP’s new soft line on independence, which is designed to reassure Scottish voters that a Nationalist majority in the Scottish Parliament, or (far less likely) in Scottish seats at Westminster, will not lead to immediate breakaway negotiations.

The SNP claims that replicating the Ayr result across Scotland would make it the majority party in the Scottish Parliament with 58 seats. In their dreams . . .

Yet Labour strategists should take careful note of the Nationalist tactics in the Ayr by-election. In a seat that was number 50 on its hit list, the SNP scented possible victory and switched from its identified support and “don’t knows” to the aggressive targeting of disaffected Labour.

The prediction that devolution would be the death knell for the Nationalists could only be realised if Scottish self- government were handled properly, which it has not been. If Ayr was a wake-up call to Scottish Labour, there are signs that it is beginning to stir. No one is in any doubt about the basic problems: a lack of firm leadership and appalling presentation.

The day after the defeat, a number of Scottish ministers said openly that, if Dewar cannot supply the smack of firm leadership, they will. Complacent appearances to the contrary, Dewar is about to pre-empt them by relaunching his Scottish government. He will make a series of key speeches on the direction of his administration, will refocus on policies and, hopefully, will make clear that the current series of catastrophes, crises and cock-ups is not a programme. Progress will be signalled on education reforms and improvement of the NHS. In short, Dewar will present a Big Idea for Scotland. There may yet be a first anniversary reshuffle of his cabinet.

They have only months to make it work. Otherwise, Sassenach Labour will also learn the meaning of “scunner”.