What did the Donside by-election mean for Labour and Johann Lamont


  By G.A.Ponsonby
It was the by-election in which everybody won something.  The SNP of course took the real prize in the shape of holding the constituency, but Labour achieved a nine per cent swing.
The Lib Dems increased their vote share and beat the Conservatives into third.  The Tories held firm and UKIP came fifth but despite this, still lost their deposit.

Donside was a curious affair with all major parties defending their record in office in one way or another.  The SNP stood to lose their Holyrood majority if the party failed to hold the seat, Labour were defending their record in the local council whilst the Lib Dems and the Tories are of course in power at UK level.

Even UKIP were defending their own record as the new kids on the block.  Is the Nigel Farage show an English only affair or can the right-wing circus pitch its tent in Scotland.

Pity the poor Scottish Greens whose only media profile during the campaign came courtesy of a complaint against the BBC after the corporation singularly failed to appreciate the political landscape in Scotland with an appalling selection of panellists for a Question Time broadcast one week before the by-election vote.

The SNP won the contest with a majority of just over 2000.  A comfortable win in the end, but the gap between themselves and main rivals Labour was down from 7000 in 2011.

Much has been made of the 5000 votes lost by the nationalists, but the turnout was down from 47% (26707) in 2011 to 39% (23396) last week.  There were 3311 fewer voters, of which 1700 would have voted SNP in 2011 – so the SNP drop in terms of votes was closer to 3300.

Labour would have been entitled to a third of the missing 3300, so their increase of 164 on a much reduced turnout, was closer to 1200, a little over e third of the SNP’s ‘lost’ vote.

In percentage terms the SNP dropped just over 13% and Labour went up 4.8% – the Lib Dems achieved a 2.3% increase on their 2011 result.

But that’s the numbers and you can make of them what you will.

The real message of the Donside by-election is twofold.

The first is that it is pretty much meaningless in terms of the independence referendum.  Labour attempted to make it an issue, with their main campaign bonus card in the shape of Sir Alex Ferguson urging voters to send the SNP an anti-independence message, but voters ignored this campaign tactic and local issues dominated.

In other by-election campaigns national issues have come to the fore, but such was the low key coverage of this by-election by the media that a roundabout became the central theme.

In truth, Labour were probably better served by the lack of coverage, with their candidate not coming across well in the few broadcasts that there were and pledges by the party not to undo Tory cuts at UK level an uncomfortable backdrop.

The other message of this by-election is that Labour, in terms of Holyrood, is a spent force in Scotland. 

The usual suspects within the Scottish media can dress this result up any which way they choose, but the stark reality is that on the strength of this by-election, Labour does not have a hope of forming the government in Scotland no matter what the outcome of the 2014 referendum.

The party needed to do better in Aberdeen to show that Johann Lamont really is taking on Salmond and beating him.  I wrote last week that anything less than ten per cent would be a disappointing result for Johann Lamont – the swing of nine per cent was thus, disappointing.

The 2012 local election result was, we were told, the turning point.  Labour’s vote share in this by-election was actually down in percentage terms if we take the 2012 local elections as a guide, and the SNP’s slightly up.

Labour and the SNP poured all they had into this by-election.  Johann Lamont was joined by two high profile MPs in the shape of Harriet Harman and Margaret Curran as well as busloads of activists.  The SNP sent in their own big hitters with Salmond making several visits.

Labour’s return was a miserly 4.8% rise in support.  Consider this was a mid-term election with the SNP well into their sixth year in office and a contest that saw a very popular MSP no longer standing for the nationalists, then Labour’s gain doesn’t look all that impressive.

A nine per cent swing, we are told, will see the SNP lose many seats in the next Holyrood election.  But that election will pit Salmond against Lamont and Nicola Sturgeon against … well who exactly?  Scottish Labour’s Deputy leader Anas Sarwar isn’t even an MSP.

Watching Sarwar on STV as the broadcaster covered the by-election was eye opening as we witnessed Scottish Labour’s Deputy leader’s limitations exposed.  Sarwar is a speak your weight politician with little discernible talent beyond a capacity to keep speaking about anything regardless of what he is asked.

So short on talent is the Labour front bench in Holyrood that a Scottish election would see them badly exposed against a, by then, very experienced and highly talented nationalist team. 

Mark McDonald’s election as the newest MSP highlights the kind of talent the nationalists are currently nurturing for the future.

In truth, Scottish Labour has no hope of regaining power in Holyrood in 2016 and they almost certainly know this.  What Scottish Labour has become is a glorified pro-Union lobbying group led by Johann Lamont who has resorted to making cheap insults once a week at First Minister’s Questions.

It goes down well with her backbenchers who routinely guffaw and hammer desks as she repeatedly pokes fun at the First Minister.  What the wider electorate think of her leadership was evident in Donside.

The by-election simply provided proof that Lamont reached the peak of her term as Scottish Labour leader in the local elections of 2012.  They didn’t know it then but they probably realise it now – that was Lamont’s Honeymoon period.

Labour and Lamont couldn’t make an impact in Donside.  It’s unlikely that Johann Lamont will ever be First Minister of Scotland. 

How this will manifest itself within the ranks of Scottish Labour as the independence debate closes in on its final year, we will just have to wait and see.