Leading article: Labour's Glasgow East defeat is a portent of worse to come

Share
Related Topics

The catastrophe that was last night's by-election result for Labour had loomed ever since David Marshall MP announced his decision to step down. Glasgow East was the party's third-safest seat in Scotland and one of the safest in the country. Yet everything, from the political climate to the timing, conspired to make even a 13,000 majority seem marginal. In the end, Labour lost the seat to the Scottish National Party by 365 votes. They are votes that could decide the fate not only of a Prime Minister, but of his party.

That Gordon Brown is not minded to leave office quickly, if at all, was apparent from his speech to party activists in Warwick only hours after the result had been declared. The puritan in him seems almost to relish setbacks as a challenge to defy the odds. Saying that he did not want to wake up "24 months from now" to see tax cuts for the rich and health and education budgets cut was a pointed hint that he had no intention either of leaving office or calling an election before he has to.

Much can change, however, and change fast, even if the plotting that might be expected to follow such a loss is complicated by the parliamentary recess. How much pressure there will be on Mr Brown personally also depends on how far the quality of his leadership is held to account for Glasgow East, and how far he can pass the responsibility to outside – mostly economic – forces beyond national control.

All the signs are, though, that Labour lost Glasgow East largely on its record. And the catch here is that Labour, and Mr Brown personally, were once so keen to claim the credit for the good years that they will now find it hard to duck responsibility for the bad. Nor is it just the economy: a lengthening record of missed opportunities and mismanagement in areas as diverse as welfare, border protection and SATs has damaged Labour's boasts of competence.

The latest defeat also perpetuates the impression that Labour under Gordon Brown is somehow jinxed. It came in fifth at the Henley by-election, below the BNP. It lost Crewe and Nantwich to the Conservatives, and Boris Johnson was comfortably elected mayor of London, the most prominent of a slew of Labour losses in council elections across the country.

Perversely, this string of losses could even have the effect of prolonging Mr Brown's hold on office. Not only is there little appetite among MPs for another, potentially divisive, change of leader, but there is even less appetite for a quick election. Swings such as those registered in Crewe and Nantwich, and this week in Glasgow East, could see more than half the Cabinet evicted from their seats, including the Prime Minister.

Glasgow East, though, was not just about the Prime Minister and Labour. It was a drama in two parts, and the second part was the success of the Scottish Nationalists. To overturn a Labour majority of 13,000, even in such unpropitious economic circumstances, is a hugely impressive achievement, which testifies not only to the depth of disillusionment with Labour, but also to the appeal of the SNP under the adroit leadership of Alex Salmond. It also reflects the fact that, after decades of being taken for granted, Scotland's traditional Labour voters have a choice, and on Thursday more than 11,000 of them chose to exercise it.

There is thus a sense in which Labour's defeat in Glasgow East can be laid directly at the door of its devolution policy. Far from securing the future of the Union, this partial devolution has fostered the demand for even more autonomy. It has also, coincidentally, weakened the Labour Party north of the border to the point where its very survival as a credible political force is threatened. If the swing in Glasgow East were to be replicated across Scotland, Labour would be left with only one of the 38 seats it now holds.

The carnage in England would be less, because unhappy Labour voters, unlike their Scottish counterparts, would have no choice but to move to the right or stay at home. But this is scant consolation for the party, which would have to resign itself to long-term opposition without its Scottish MPs. England's Conservative majority would reassert itself.

Ten years after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, it is not at all clear where devolution will lead; forecasts – wishful or otherwise – that it will spell the end of the Union may well be premature. The significance of Glasgow East is not that it brings closer the break-up of the United Kingdom, but it could presage the end of Labour as a party of British government. If it does, then the blame, for constitutional, as for electoral failure, will rest with the hapless Gordon Brown.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Product Manager - (Product Marketing, Financial Services)

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Marke...

Recruitment Genius: External Relations Executive

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An External Relations Executive is requi...

Ashdown Group: Web Developer (PHP & Wordpress) - Central London

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Web Dev...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative - Unskilled & Skilled

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen to jo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the old Palace of Westminster; Batman vs Superman; and more Greenery

John Rentoul
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee