Last weeks Dunfermline and West Fife by-election was a major defeat for the New Labour government.
Not only did the Liberal-Democrats overturn an 11,000 Labour majority in a solidly working class constituency, with a significant ex-mining community; they did so in the seat in which Tony Blair’s heir-apparent Gordon Brown lives.
The Lib Dems won with a 16% swing from Labour whose vote fell from 47% in May 2005 to 31% this time around on a 49% turnout.
An array of New Labour ministers have attempted to explain this debacle as a result of “local issues.” These “local issues” included a factory closure costing 700 jobs, the threatened transfer of hospital services from Dunfermline and the possible increase in the cost of tolls over the Forth Road Bridge to Edinburgh. Ironically these last two issues are devolved to the Scottish parliament where the Lib Dems are in coalition with New Labour. As part of the Scottish Executive they have overseen a wholesale attack on local health provision in Scotland. This did not stop their candidate from cynically coming out against hospital cuts.
Alongside these local issues it was primarily the intense anger at the pro-business, pro-war and anti-working class policies of the government, and particularly the hatred of Blair, that were at the heart of this crushing defeat for the government.
Lib Dems and the SNP
Despite being another big-business party the Lib Dems, in the absence of a mass working class alternative, are increasingly seen as a vehicle for anti-government protest in Scotland.
This is the first time since the second world war that Labour have lost a seat to the Lib Dems in a by-election in Scotland. However, this was a continuation of a process that was evident at last years general election when the Lib Dems increased their support significantly in cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh and across the central belt of Scotland.
This is a new phenomenon. In the past it has been the semi-radical Scottish National Party who have been the main beneficiaries of anti-government protest in Scotland. But their move to the neo-liberal right, and particularly the softening of the mood around the national question, has seen significant setbacks for the SNP in the last few years.
As election analyst John Curtice commented: "It is the worst SNP result in a by-election since 1982 on the change in share of the votes. The SNP’s potential as the natural repository for protest votes is now undermined."
The Scottish Socialist Party suffered a very bad result. Despite the candidate being the well-respected left-wing former Dundee Labour MP and MSP John McAllion, the party’s vote fell compared to May 2005 from 1.6% to 1.5%
The SSP vote across Scotland last May was 1.9%, a fall from 3.1% in the 2001 general election – which represented a 40% drop in its national vote.
This result poses urgent challenges for the SSP. There are as yet no signs that the party is recovering public support from the crisis that followed Tommy Sheridan’s resignation as party convenor in November 2004.
Even more seriously the SSP leadership have made a turn towards left nationalism, playing down a socialist and class programme, while launching a cross-party campaign for independence with the pro-business SNP and the Greens. This move, against the background of falling support for independence in the last few years, could further impede a possible recovery for the SSP.
International Socialists, the CWI platform in the SSP, is putting forward an alternative programme that would see the party prioritising the issues that are immediately affecting working class people from pensions, to job cuts and the bosses’ offensive against the working class. We also link these issues to the need to fight for a socialist Scotland as part of the struggle for socialism internationally.