Gordon Brown and New Labour suffered an electoral disaster in Glasgow East, last Thursday. A 22% swing to the Scottish National Party (SNP) resulted in the overturn of a previous 13,500 Labour majority. The SNP won with a majority of just over 300.
This was payback: payback for years of neglect by New Labour who, long ago, abandoned the working class for the rich and the capitalist establishment. Payback for increasing levels of poverty among the young and old; rocketing costs of food, fuel and petrol prices while the storm clouds of an economic recession gather. Glasgow’s East End was the scene of a referendum on the New Labour project and its architects, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, alongside Labour’s long-standing failures in Glasgow over decades
The political fallout of this defeat may well end the career of Gordon Brown who could face a challenge to his position from within the Labour party. Brown has become a prime minister with feet of clay. Like King Midas, in reverse, everything Brown touches turns not to gold but to ruin. Not once did Brown come to Glasgow East during the campaign – an indication of the liability he has become. In contrast, SNP leader Alex Salmond campaigned 12 times in the East End, hoping to capitalise on the relative popularity of the SNP government in Scotland, compared with the catastrophic performance of the Labour-led Westminster government.
Labour’s campaign was a series of mistakes and blunders. The preferred Labour candidate pulled out at the last minute and their campaign launch was delayed for three days until they found a replacement. In the middle of the campaign, the plan supported by Gordon Brown to give Margaret Thatcher a £3 million state funeral, was announced. This is an insult to working class communities across the UK, who suffered and still does as a result of the brutal legacy of Thatcherism. It was also another potent reminder of how far New Labour had gone to embrace the policies of neo-liberal capitalism. This was seized on by the SNP. A new wave of rises in fuel bills were also announced, as was the news, in the last week of the campaign, that Glasgow was to become a laboratory experiment for the effective abolition of incapacity benefit. Glasgow East has 11,000 people on incapacity and this attack on the sick and the poor outraged many.
After all this, it was a wonder that Labour almost held onto the seat. There was no tidal wave of enthusiasm for the SNP. Independence for Scotland did not feature as a key issue – nor was it an issue that the SNP campaigned on. Instead, the SNP concentrated on the unpopularity of the Brown government, on the rising cost of living and the prospect that a defeat for Labour would force a change of policy over price rises and fuel costs at Westminster. The desire to give Labour ‘a kicking’ was the overwhelming mood and the SNP, who stood a well-known local candidate, were the main vehicle in which to do that.
Nevertheless, 11,000 people still voted for Labour. Partly, among an older generation, there is still a faint echo of a tradition that Labour was the party that working class people voted for. This was reinforced by a fear that a Labour defeat would lead to an increased likelihood of the return of a Tory government at Westminster - as well as opposition to independence. The prospect of the nightmare of the election of a Tory government could still be a powerful factor in the outcome of the next Westminster elections.
What the Glasgow East campaign and outcome shows is the potential to build a powerful socialist alternative to all the big business parties – including the SNP. Solidarity’s campaign was impressive and, by far, the biggest of any party outside of Labour and the SNP. In a campaign called at very short notice and lasting less than three weeks, Solidarity managed to organise 40 street stalls in various parts of the constituency, speaking to literally thousands of people. 40,000 plus leaflets were delivered to every home in the area by the post office, with a further 20,000 distributed by Solidarity members. 5,000 leaflets advertising public meetings in Shettleston and Easterhouse were used, as well as 6,000 special polling day leaflets.
Solidarity received a very warm and sympathetic response to our key policies of a living minimum wage and pension, radical wealth redistribution, public ownership, particularly highlighting the need for nationalisation of the energy, oil and food companies, making a killing out of rising prices, as well as an end to the war and the scrapping of nuclear weapons, a ban on the public sale of airguns and for an independent socialist Scotland.
Tricia McLeish, Solidarity’s candidate and a local government worker and active trade unionist in Unison and was the only person standing who has lived in the East End all of her life. Alongside Tricia, Tommy Sheridan played a central role in the campaign and is still clearly seen as a popular figure among the working class in Scotland. Solidarity’s public meetings - the only party that organised any public meetings - were very well attended, with 45 in Shettleston and 20 in Easterhouse. In all, 12 new people joined Solidarity during the campaign.
The 512 votes won by Solidarity represented 2% of the poll, and under the circumstances, was a good result. The extremely polarised nature of the election (more than 86% of those who voted either voted Labour or for the SNP), made it difficult for a smaller socialist party to convince people they should vote Solidarity. Many people told us that they would have backed Tricia McLeish but that they wanted to protest at new Labour and would back the SNP instead. All parties were affected by this squeeze. Although the Tories came third, their vote fell, compared to the last general election and they only polled just over 6%. The Lib Dems fared even worse and they lost their deposit, polling 915 votes, compared to 3,600, in 2005. A number of Lib Dem voters switched to the SNP.
The Scottish Socialist Party actually achieved a slightly higher vote than Solidarity, polling 555 compared to Solidarity’s 512. But it is clear that the fact that the Labour candidate had the same name as the SSP candidate (who appeared before the Labour candidate on the ballot paper) did result in an artificially inflated vote for the SSP. This analysis was underlined by the fact that the overwhelming majority of spoilt ballot papers involved voters marking a cross beside both the Labour and the SSP candidate. Even with the confusion over the name, and the fact that the SSP stood their national co-convenor and former MSP (member of Scottish Parliament) Frances Curran, the SSP still saw their support fall by half compared to 2005, at just over at 2%.
On the ground, however, in terms of the numbers of activists, street stalls, leafleting teams and numbers of people spoken to, Solidarity was way ahead of the SSP.
Whether Gordon Brown survives, or not, the likelihood of the return of a Tory government under David Cameron in increasing by the day. The deteriorating economic situation will increase the attempts of all pro-capitalist governments, including the SNP government in Scotland, to make the working class pay for the crisis in terms of cuts and attacks on living standards. Under these circumstances, the need to build a powerful mass party of socialism that defends the interests of the working class is more important than ever before. The CWI in Scotland, which played a key role in Solidarity’s campaign, will continue to work to build Solidarity to achieve that goal.