Opinion: By-election loss would not necessarily be end for Gordon

Losing the Glasgow by-election would be a blow, but big swings to the SNP are not unprecedented, argues YouGov president Peter Kellner in an online essay for the Fabian Society.

“Brown quits four months after SNP captures Labour stronghold”. No, that’s not a prediction for this autumn; it’s a glimpse at Labour’s past.

We’ll discuss that historical episode in a moment. Meanwhile, the message that should be spreading through the party is: calm down, dear; it’s only a by-election. The prospect of Labour losing Glasgow East has caused some excitable journalists and panicky Labour MPs to depict impending apocalypse. Some think (wish?) that the Prime Minister’s fate will depend on the result. Yet a brief trip down memory lane should warn against reading too much into the result.

Think back to September 1999. Two years into office, Labour is way ahead of the Conservatives. It has delivered on its manifesto pledge to set up a devolved Scottish Parliament. Labour and the Liberal Democrats share power at Holyrood. And Bill Tynan enters Parliament as MP for Hamilton South.

You don’t remember Bill’s victory vividly? I am not surprised. He was Labour’s candidate, and he held the seat. (The vacancy had been caused by George Robertson’s elevation to the House of Lords and appointment as Nato Secretary-General.) Yet Bill’s majority was just 556. If the 23 per cent swing to the SNP in that contest were to be repeated today, Labour would lose Glasgow East. Yet nobody then said that the collapse in Labour’s share of the vote, from 66 to 37 per cent, should drive Tony Blair from office.

Go back another five years to 1994. John Smith’s sudden death causes a by-election in Monklands East. Helen Liddell holds the seat, but again with a savagely reduced majority. The swing to the SNP this time: 19 per cent. Once again, Labour rightly reacts calmly to this adverse swing.

Bigger swings caused the SNP twice to capture Glasgow, Govan from Labour in by-elections: in November 1973 on a 27 per cent swing, and in November 1988 on a 33 per cent swing. Did Harold Wilson (1973) or Neil Kinnock (1988) fear revolts against their leadership? Of course not. On both occasions, the party wisely held its nerve and gained seats (including winning back Govan) at the subsequent general election.

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