Lunchtime on Thursday, there was plenty of sunshine on Leith, perfect weather for getting out and exercising the democratic franchise, but it was business as usual at the Norton Park and Broughton Nursery polling stations in the Leith Walk by-election. In other words, not much sign of life.
Be it political disengagement because of the Brexit meltdown, good old apathy for local government or a mixture of both, more than two-thirds of the electorate had better things to do than vote and a turnout of 30 per cent saw the SNP take the seat from Labour with a 1.3 per cent increase in the vote share. Bohemian, gritty and densely populated, there aren’t many places in Scotland like Leith Walk, so can the outcome be taken as a bell-weather of the national mood?
In many ways, it confirmed what most observers already suspected, that the SNP is holding steady but the slide of Scottish Labour is continuing unabated. Its vote share was down to 15.5 per cent from 22.4 per cent in 2017 despite fielding a very experienced campaigner in Nick Gardner, but compare it to a total share for its two candidates in 2012 of 33.2 and the collapse in a traditional Labour seat is undeniable.
Nor is this just Leith Walk; in last month’s Clackmannan Central by-election the Labour share fell from 39 per cent in 2017 to 31 per cent, and in Dee & Glenkens for Dumfries & Galloway Council in December Labour didn’t put up a candidate.
Momentum may be a Labour movement within a Labour movement, but for the official UK opposition and what was until relatively recently the default party of power in Scotland, momentum is certainly what it has – but in the wrong direction. Perhaps not surprisingly given all the publicity about climate change, the Greens seem to be benefiting more than the SNP.
In the Edinburgh Conservative Party, it’s fair to say that, against the background of Brexit turmoil, our expectations in a seat with no strong Tory tradition were not high, and although we were disappointed that the return for our candidate Dan McCroskrie fell from 14.4 per cent in 2017 to 10.7, it was still up on 2012’s 8.1.
There is no question Brexit is infecting all levels of politics and as the party in government the Conservatives should be taking the biggest hit, but despite a three-point drop in Leith Walk there was a three point rise in Clackmannan Central and In Dee & Glenkens the Tory share was actually up from 33 per cent to 45. That doesn’t look like a cliff-edge.
England and Wales go to the polls on 2 May for council elections which are already presenting a stiff test for Conservative candidates, judging by dispatches from the campaign trail on the Conservative Home website.
“I had somebody who was so furious he started getting a nosebleed. Even then he kept talking about the local Conservative MP letting him down,” an East Midlands candidate reported. And in the South-East: “When it comes to White Van Man it is much worse. We keep finding those who were marked as Conservative last time actually shouting and swearing.”
Goodness knows what will happen when Nigel Farage and his pals get going in the now seemingly inevitable European elections on 22 May, but that’s not the kind of reaction Scottish Conservatives are getting. That being said, there will be no avoiding the anger in the fishing ports of the north-east if there is any suggestion that rolling back on Brexit will lock the Scottish fleet into the Common Fisheries Policy.
The Scottish party has remained remarkably united and focused through all the chaos, largely because the SNP cannot accept the independence question has been settled, and the change in national leadership allows it to set out distinct policies in areas like immigration which respond to Scotland’s needs in a UK context. For Scottish Tories, much hangs on Ruth Davidson’s return from maternity leave next month at the Scottish conference, not because interim leader Jackson Carlaw has been doing a bad job, which he hasn’t. Expectations need to be carefully managed, but the inevitable attention Ruth Davidson will receive is an opportunity for renewal and a sense of direction.
Which is more than can be said for Scottish Labour.
Sister Morphine, I knew her well
Just before leafleting duty down Pilrig way on Wednesday, I dropped in on the launch of the Heart of Scotland Appeal, a new drive to raise and spend money on research into the prevention, treatment and cure of heart disease in Scotland.
Author Val McDairmid, actor Billy Boyd and singer Amy Macdonald have backed the appeal, but as far as public awareness of heart disease is concerned the appeal couldn’t have done better than Rolling Stones legend Mick Jagger’s recent ticker trouble.
Jagger issued an update yesterday, thanking fans for their support and saying he was feeling much better after his heart valve replacement, which as he’s 75 will be a tissue replacement. They are usually taken from pigs and last about 15 years, avoiding a lifetime on anti-blood clotting warfarin which the mechanical alternative involves. Routine nowadays, but it usually involves your chest being sawn open, heart disconnected from the rest of you and your lungs plugged into a ventilator while the surgeon sets about your ticker with a sharp knife.
I know all this because four years ago I got away with a heart valve repair rather than full replacement. Waking up in intensive care, I was a porcupine of drips, drains and jump leads poking out where once there was unbroken skin, but also there was a morphine pump for whenever things got a bit uncomfortable. At the time I couldn’t help but think of the Stones’ song Sister Morphine Sir Mick first sang in 1971: “Here I lie in my hospital bed, Tell me, sister morphine, when are you coming round again?” but I didn’t have to wait, just push a button. By the looks of him Sir Mick didn’t need to relive the Stones’ hard-living past - the surgeons went in through an artery.