By-election body blow will floor coalition
DESPITE the damage to Gordon Brown's prime ministerial ambitions suffered in the stunning defeat for New Labour in Dunfermline and West Fife, the truth is that the result matters more at Holyrood than at Westminster.
I say that because despite all the finger-pointing, briefing and back-stabbing in Labour ranks (and to be fair to them, Labour politicians fearful of losing their jobs do an absolutely terrific line in treachery), I doubt that much has fundamentally changed in the Westminster world.
Mr Brown will still succeed Tony Blair. He will be prime minister, at least until 2009-10. David Cameron will still fancy his chances in that election, irrespective of the dire Tory result in Dunfermline.
When the dust settles, little will have changed. In Scotland, the opposite is true. Scottish Labour will remember the Dunfermline by-election as a watershed.
First, this was the moment when the Labour strategy of turning a blind eye to the whispered hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats was exposed as a failure. The Lib Dems have perfected the art of being in government, but only when it suits. That is now costing Labour votes and seats and consequently cannot continue unchallenged.
The Liberal message to voters is simple, if dishonest - they claim to be responsible for forcing Labour to accept good things like free personal care and the "abolition" of tuition fees but regret that, despite their every effort, Labour has still managed to make a dreadful mess of other aspects of devolution.
But honest or not, the truth is that the Liberal strategy of being both in government and in opposition has been a triumph of presentation.
But all that will now change. Jack McConnell, the First Minister, has been criticised for weakness in failing to tackle the Lib Dems head-on. The Labour Party is wounded and embarrassed, and the simmering back-bench tensions which are ever-present at Holyrood can be expected to boil over. Despite his desire for coalition unity, Mr McConnell now has no option but to turn on his coalition partners, at least in public.
Secondly, Labour needs to resolve the total contradiction in the party as to how it feels about devolution. Was it a principled commitment or a convenient way of placating restless Scottish natives? The Labour Party claims to have "delivered" devolution (strangely I thought we all voted for it) and trumpets that success at every opportunity. It is now apparent from the by-election spats that in reality the Scottish Labour view of devolution is very different to that of the Chancellor and the UK Labour movement. That tension is even greater in the aftermath of the Dunfermline humiliation and needs to be resolved in the run up to 2007.
The result also throws the other parties into varying degrees of disarray. The SNP needs to look like a natural party of government, but currently is not seen by the electorate even as the natural party of opposition. The Nationalist defence that the Liberals benefited from tactical voting is only a partial explanation for what happened. The truth is that the SNP does not look poised to become the largest party in 2007 and seems slightly confused as to why that is. Alex Salmond hailed the results in 1999 with the confident prediction of future success on the basis that "oppositions tend to become governments". The difficulty is that the Liberals have managed both at the same time and the Nationalists have been left looking flat-footed. To progress in 2007, the SNP must look beyond simply damaging Labour and rather to ensuring that having done so, it is the SNP and not the Liberals who are seen as the natural alternative. That position can no longer be taken for granted.
Incidentally, the Dunfermline by-election confirms that the threat to the SNP from the SSP has all but evaporated. The much respected former MP and MSP John MacAllion polled only 537 votes - a result expected to end any SSP involvement in future constituency elections. The truth is that without Tommy Sheridan, the SSP is in terminal decline.
The Scottish elections in 2007 are just over 15 months away. Between then and now, the Liberals can expect to be exposed to the concerted fire of a threatened Labour establishment and an SNP desperate to reaffirm its position as the principal party of opposition. The days of being allowed to take credit for everything and responsibility for nothing will very soon be over.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east