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25 July 2008

An electoral kicking

The discontent felt by voters throughout the UK is as real in Glasgow as anywhere else, writes Tom H

By Tom Harris

My older brother called from his Surrey home the day after Glasgow East to ask if he should start saving up to buy a separate Scottish passport. I reassured him that, however dramatic the result in my neighbouring constituency, it had virtually no relevance to the ongoing debate on Scottish independence.

As with all by-elections held while the incumbent party is unpopular, voters make a judgment as to which of the alternatives is best placed to provide the government with an electoral kicking. In Dunfermline in February 2006, voters decided the LibDems were the obvious vehicle, in Crewe the Tories and in Glasgow East, the SNP.

Nevertheless, at a UK level, the loss of one of our safest seats, albeit in a by-election, cannot be easily dismissed. The discontent felt by voters throughout the UK is as real in Glasgow as anywhere else. And from conversations I had on countless doorsteps in the past three weeks, voters’ concerns there are identical to those felt anywhere else: petrol and food prices, street crime (or the fear of it) and economic insecurity. And there’s no doubt that the SNP played a clever card by publicising the government’s apparent willingness to grant Baroness Thatcher a state funeral; memories are long in Glasgow and she remains a hate figure without rival for almost everyone over the age of 35.

This should have been the first election ever when Labour ran an anti-establishment campaign against the SNP. They are, after all, in government at Holyrood, and so are responsible for many of the policy areas about which voters are worried. Yet that tactic just didn’t seem to have any resonance in the run-up to polling day. When one retired couple complained to me of their and their neighbours’ fear of local gangs, they directed their anger at the UK government, not the Scottish Executive, which has responsibility for police and criminal justice.

What does this say about people’s attitudes to national and devolved government since the devolution experiment started in 1999? Scottish MPs may take some comfort in the fact that most voters still see Westminster as the most significant player in government, but that means we also must accept that SNP government or no, Labour remains the establishment in Scotland, and therefore the number one target for voter anger.

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I’ve already received some criticism on my blog for comparing the swing achieved by the SNP in Glasgow East (22.5 per cent) unfavourably with other, more significant swings. But is it arrogant or complacent to point out that Glasgow East, impressive though the result undoubtedly was for the nationalists, represents only the SNP’s fourth best result over Labour, after Hamilton in 1967 (38 per cent), Govan in 1988 (33 per cent) and Hamilton in 1999 (27 per cent)? Even in Monklands East, caused by the death of John Smith in 1994, there was a comparable 19 per cent swing away from the party Smith had so recently led.

But today is not 1999, let alone 1988 or 1967. The political landscape has changed significantly, and so the Glasgow East result cannot simply be swept aside, even though its implications are more profound on a UK than a Scottish basis. We have to do more than promise to listen (as soon as politicians promise to listen, voters tend to do just the opposite). If a change of direction in some policy areas is called for, we should not refuse to acknowledge that for fear of being accused of inconsistency. Similarly, where we’re convinced that we’re on the right track, we have to do more to explain what we’re up to, and what the consequences of the alternatives would be.

More than anything, we have to do more – far, far more – to illustrate just how much our nation and our people have achieved with Labour.

Monty Python has a lot to answer for. Without the famous scene from “The Life of Brian”, Labour MPs and activists would be unable to use the highly appropriate phrase “What have the Romans ever done for us?” to illustrate their frustration at what they perceive as voter reluctance to recognise our achievements. It would be a tragedy, for Labour and for the country, if that question is answered only after a Conservative government has removed many of those hard-won advances.

Tom Harris is transport minister and MP for Glasgow South

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