Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Time and Time Again

Many around the blogging world have paid tribute to John MacDougall, MP for Glenrothes, who died early on Wednesday morning. I can’t say – and I’m sure most of those commenting would say the same – that they knew the member in any capacity. But, from what I have heard, the man was a formidable opponent, a hard-working MP and a good man. I’d like to add my own condolences to those that have been spoken and printed since his untimely death on Wednesday.

Though tragic for his family, thoughts – as they must in the case of a death of an MP – turn quickly to who will succeed him as MP for Glenrothes. Much speculation has already been had as to possible candidates, with former ("disgraced") First Minister Henry McLeish, Claire Baker and John Park, regional MSPs in the area, former MSP Christine May, Catherine Stihler MEP, several local councillors (who, apparently, have declined the opportunity) and even author Ian Rankin all being tipped in various quarters. For the SNP, speculation has been much less public. For both sides I would suggest an announcement will be imminent following the moving of the writ for a by-election.

The bookies have, of course, already installed the SNP as favourites for the seat after their stunning by-election win in Glasgow East (on a 22.5% swing). With many they are as short as 4/1 ON. To put that into perspective – it’s like putting money on that one of the Old Firm to win the SPL. Now I’m not suggesting that the SNP shouldn’t be favourites – Labour are in absolute disarray at the moment, the PM is looking at yet another relaunch, they are leaderless in Scotland, the economy is in tatters and David Cameron has started marking off the days until he becomes Prime Minister... okay, I might have just convinced myself!

But at 4/1 on? I’m not convinced it is that cut and dried – I think Labour might (maybe, just maybe) cling on... by a small majority.

Having said that, let’s have a look at the numbers.

2005 General Election
John MacDougall LAB - 19,385 (51.91%)

John Beare SNP - 8,731 (23.37%)

Elizabeth Riches LD - 4,728 (12.65%)

Belinda Don CON - 2,651 (7.09%)

Swing to SNP required for victory – 14.5% (remember, Glasgow East: 13.5% swing needed... 22.5% swing achieved).

But I think that the last election in a particular area – regardless of which Parliament it elects to – is a better read on the public mood. 2005 was 3 ½ years ago after all.

2007 Scottish Parliament Election
Tricia Marwick SNP - 11,290 (44.21%)

Christine May LAB - 10,754 (39.88%)

Elizabeth Riches LD - 2,288 (8.49%)

Maurice Golden CON - 2,003 (7.43%)

Tricia Marwick won it for the SNP on a swing of 7% - maybe a large personal vote yes, but the SNP councillors elected in the constituency were also elected with large swathes of the vote. Equally true is that John MacDougall’s win was probably influenced by a huge personal vote – the man was incredibly well liked in the constituency and outwith.

So – what am I saying? Probably that the figures look good for the SNP, as do the circumstances. But I wouldn’t write off Labour here. If they call a by-election for Motherwall & Wishaw for the same day (thereby splitting the SNP activists available for a by-election campaign at the height of the Scottish winter) and appeal to their voters not to abandon them to give Gordon Brown a bloody nose (as they did in Glasgow East) they may survive the winter without losing another MP in Scotland.

Then again, maybe not.

The issue of timing for this by-election is interesting as well. Will Gordon go short again - earliest possible date is Sept 11 - to get it out of the way before conference season and, crucially, before Labour name their Scottish leader? If it was me that was a candidate for the leadership of Scottish Labour (sorry, leader of the Labour MSPs in the Scottish Parliament) that's what I'd be asking for. An opportunity to draw a line under Glasgow East's debacle and a potential defeat in Glenrothes (even if they win it is unlikely to be by more than 1,000 votes; still very much a kicking) and have a fresh start under a new leader.

Of course, the other, much touted option is to kick it long - possibly even into November. This has a couple of advantages - not least the opportunity for the economy to turn around, Brown to relaunch, polls to turn, a decent candidate to step forward, a new leader in Scotland to tackle the First Minister. However, there is still the chance that, with all that done, Labour then go on and lose Glenrothes, thereby undoing all the good done before. Brown would then almost certainly face a leadership challenge and his premiership would probably be over before it has really started.

So what do I think? I'm leaning towards it probably being in September - probably the week before the leadership contest is announced. As to who wins, I'll reserve that judgement until we know for sure who the candidates are.


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