Scotland: New Labour holds Glasgow seat in lowest ever by-election turnout

Solidarity’s Tommy Sheridan only viable socialist candidate

Labour’s victory in the Glasgow North East by election last week, by more than 8,000 votes over the Scottish National Party (SNP) seems, on the face of it, to be a surprise. The by election was, after all, triggered by the forced resignation of the longstanding right wing Labour MP and Commons speaker, Michael Martin – a consequence of his role in the MPs expenses scandal. Gordon Brown’s New Labour government at Westminster is also presiding over the deepest recession in generations, while their electoral support is draining away.

As recently as July 2008, the SNP pulled off a big victory in winning the neighbouring constituency at the Glasgow East by election; a seat whose levels of social deprivation, poverty and unemployment are very similar to Glasgow North East. The 20% share of the vote that the SNP won last week contrasts sharply with the 43% they polled in Glasgow East last year.

There were three main factors that decided the outcome of this election. Firstly, was the mass abstentionism that produced a dire 33% turnout – the lowest by-election turnout ever in Scotland. Forget apathy, this was anger, hatred and disgust towards the political establishment of all parties who are held in contempt by the majority of the working class. Never before has there been such a gap between the political elite and the overwhelming majority of the people. The rage at the plain greed and arrogance displayed by MPs, while working class communities are being torn apart by the economic recession, was there for all to see.

The second factor is the increasing exposure of the SNP as a party of the capitalist market and, therefore, not fundamentally different from the rest of the main parties. The SNP government in Edinburgh is preparing to pass on huge cuts in public spending, which will see a slashing of services and jobs in the public sector. As part of these planned cuts, the SNP dropped a proposed rail link between Glasgow and an airport that Labour used to portray the SNP as being “anti-Glasgow” and an “east coast” party. This, in a distorted way, was an ironic attempt by Labour to paint the SNP as being hostile to the interests of the working class; a theme that Labour will continue to try and play on in the run-up to the Westminster elections, next year.

The third factor is the fear of the return of a Tory government at the general election. There has been a significant increase in Labour’s electoral support in Scotland over the last few months, as the prospect of a Cameron-led Tory government looms ever closer. In April 2009, Labour had a 4% lead over the SNP for the next Westminster election. By the start of November, that rose to 14%, with Labour on 39% and the SNP on 25%. Neither this revival, nor Labour’s 60% share of the vote in last week’s by election, is a positive endorsement of Prime Minister Brown’s, Chancellor Darling’s or leading New Labour minister Mandelson’s anti-working class agenda. Rather, it is a reflection of a desire, especially powerful among the 40 year plus generation, whose memory of Thatcherism is still strong, to stop the coming to power of a Tory government – even if it means voting Labour while “holding their noses.”

In the absence of the emergence of a sizeable left electoral force to offer a poll of attraction for broad layers of the working class, it is likely that Labour support will hold up in Scotland and the SNP will fail to make a sizeable breakthrough next year. The Tories, who only just saved their deposit in Glasgow North East, will be unlikely to win more than one or two seats in Scotland. However, if the Tories do come to power next year at a UK level, Scottish politics will be thrown into upheaval. The urgent need to create and build a new organised voice for the working class is growing by the day.

Tommy Sheridan and Solidarity’s campaign

Tommy Sheridan stood for Solidarity in the Glasgow North East election. Standing as a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage, Tommy came 5th out of 13 candidates, winning 794 votes which was 3.9% of the poll. He came well ahead of the Lib Dems, polling almost double their vote, and won more than double the vote of the Greens. Unfortunately, despite Solidarity supporting left unity discussions to try and avoid more than one socialist candidate in the byelection, both the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) rejected any idea of a united left candidate and also stood in the election.

In the event, Tommy Sheridan was clearly seen as the only viable socialist candidate and he won 80% of the socialist vote, polling 5 votes for every 1 vote for the SSP and 17 for every SLP vote. The SSP could only hold onto 152 votes (0.76%), the lowest number ever for the SSP in a by election, which was a loss of 85% compared to the last time they stood in the same seat in the general election of 2005. This was the worst ever elections result for the SSP in Glasgow, and is a clear indication that the remnants of the SSP are finished as a significant electoral force.

Despite not having stood in an election since 2007, and while still fighting a titanic battle against the Scottish legal establishment and the Rupert Murdoch media empire, Tommy Sheridan is still seen among important layers of the working class as a socialist fighter of standing. Tommy’s political profile has inevitable dipped since losing his seat in the Scottish parliament in 2007, but during this election, and despite minimal media coverage, Solidarity’s campaign fought to raise the key issues of the recession, public ownership, the need for a mass working class party and opposition to wars and nuclear weapons. This was linked to Tommy’s record as an uncompromising fighter for the interests of working class and having lived as a workers’ MSP on a worker’s wage for eight years between 1999 and 2007.

Alongside the dozens of street stall and tens of thousands of leaflets distributed, Solidarity was the only party with the confidence to hold public meetings – 7 in all – during the campaign. Three hundred and fifty people came out on the Tuesday before polling day to hear Tommy, George Galloway MP, and International Socialists members Luke Ivory and postal worker Gary Clark, speak at four meetings across the constituency. These meetings resulted in dozens of people looking for more information about joining Solidarity.


Many people were shocked at the fact that the far right British National Party (BNP) took over 1,000 votes in coming fourth, only 50 votes behind the Tory candidate. This is the largest vote ever for the racist party in Scotland in an election. In fact, the BNP have had a significant vote in the Glasgow North East area for a number of years having consciously targeted the area which has a relatively large number of asylum seekers and immigrant communities. They achieved 4.4% in June during the European election and despite having seen two MEPs elected and the massive publicity generated around Nick Griffin’s appearance on the BBC television’s Question Time programme, they will be disappointed that they were unable to hold their deposit. Nevertheless the size of the BNP vote is a warning which, in the main, reflects both a rise in racism and anger at the failure of the main establishment parties, particularly New Labour, which abandoned the working class. Tommy Sheridan’s campaign and the 800 votes won for fighting socialist policies almost certainly prevented the BNP from going over the 5% threshold.

The need to build a more powerful working class and socialist alternative to the parties of big business, as well as to racism and the BNP, is an urgent task. While Solidarity is clearly the biggest and only viable socialist party in Scotland, the need for a bigger left alternative in Scotland and across Britain is essential. Solidarity participated in the RMT-led coalition, No2EU, in the European elections in June, this year. In Glasgow North East No2EU won 1.4%. Tommy Sheridan and Solidarity pushed that left vote up to just under 4% during this by election. Solidarity has enthusiastically supported the process, led by Bob Crow and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, among others, aimed at agreeing an electoral formation to contest the Westminster elections. It is vitally important that this process of discussion comes to a successful conclusion that allows Solidarity and the International Socialists (CWI Scotland), who played a central role in Tommy Sheridan’s election campaign, to help spearhead the building of a bigger working class alternative in Scotland in conjunction with wider trade union and left forces.

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