Analysis: A foregone conclusion

Don’t extrapolate. Today’s result doesn’t mean Labour will win the general election.

By Ian Dunt

Usually after by-elections we extrapolate from the result to make predictions for the general elections. We did it after Glasgow East, and Crewe and Nantwich, for instance. But today’s Labour victory in Glasgow North East doesn’t really stand up to that sort of analysis.

Peter Mandelson’s push for this campaign to be fought as upstarts – a continuation of the ‘fightback’ agenda sparked off at the Labour party conference – makes this contest qualitatively different from those that came before it. Labour framed itself as a rebellious upstart, campaigning against the SNP incumbents in Holyrood. This is remarkably cheeky, not just because this is a Westminster election and Labour has now been government for 12 years, but also because Labour has owned this constituency for 74 years.

The area remains grossly deprived, with pitifully low life expectancy and poor life-prospects for most of those who grow up there, barring a few isolated well-to-do areas. One might assume that after three generations of Labour failure to sort out its problems, the people of Glasgow North East would rebel against such an ineffectual party. But the irritation with the governing party is clearly not being expressed through votes for the SNP. It’s being expressed by people simply staying at home. With turnout at just 32.97 per cent, none of the candidates have much to be happy about this morning. When all 13 candidates don’t even get a third of the electorate out to vote, your mandate, such as it is, won’t be something to brag about. This was the lowest turnout in a Scottish by-election that anyone can remember.

Labour is already trying to tell people that the contest is proof of Gordon Brown’s popularity north of the border. It’s true that he is more popular, incrementally, the closer he gets to his constituency, where he is a sort of hero. Officials point out that he visited the constituency last Friday, in a way he didn’t at Glasgow East, which Labour promptly lost. Don’t believe a word of it. They are putting the chicken before the egg. Brown went to the constituency because Labour HQ figured the contest was already in the bag. They wouldn’t have risked it if there was much chance of a loss.

Making a few phone calls yesterday morning, everyone merrily told me that Labour was certain to win, apart from, rather predictably, Labour and the SNP, who both thought it was close. Labour play down expectations to get their vote nervous and make them come to the polls. The SNP play them up to make their supporters think there’s a chance, and that it’s therefore worth voting. Neither was true. This election was a given.