Nats and left take a beating

Sarah McDonald assesses the result of the Glasgow North East by-election

Thursday November 12 saw the Scottish National Party take a proper kicking in the Glasgow North East by-election. The election held to replace the former Commons speaker, Michael Martin, following his resignation during the expenses scandal earlier this year, was predicted to be a close contest between Labour and the SNP. The nationalists had hoped for a repeat of the victory in the neighbouring constituency and formerly safe Labour seat, Glasgow East, in the July 2008 by-election.

Yet first-time Labour candidate Willie Bain won with an overwhelming two-thirds majority - a devastating blow to the SNP. This reversal of fortunes calls into question Alex Salmond's prediction that the SNP can win 20 seats in the general election, while Labour hopes it represents a change in voters' attitudes that might see a recovery in time for a general election that must be held by no later than June 3 2010.

Glasgow North East is one of the safest Labour seats in the UK, but the Labour Party was not taking any chances. After receiving a kick up the backside from its traditionally loyal supporters in Glasgow East, Labour certainly could not afford to lose such a seat so close to a general election. It threw vast amounts of money and resources into the campaign, bringing in 450 activists from across the country to go out on the streets and get traditional Labour voters out to the polling stations.

While the result is a massive victory for Labour, it remains to be seen if the party can make a sufficient recovery in time for the 2010 general election. If David Cameron successfully leads the Tories to power, then Holyrood would not be the only place where Labour finds itself in opposition. With the prospect of a Conservative administration in Westminster with next to no support in Scotland and a pro-independence party heading the Scottish government, the national question could be at the forefront of British politics over the next few years.

The SNP would probably have had a more successful result had the by-election been called in August, as had initially been expected. Then, they would have been able to make more political capital out of the media furore surrounding the expenses scandal. As it was, the SNP's campaign got off to a rocky start - David Kerr, a former BBC journalist, was only selected after two previously nominated candidates had to step down in controversial circumstances; and there is disquiet among SNP ranks over suggestions that Kerr did not get full backing from his own party.

Furthermore, many SNP activists are reported to be angry at decisions that have been taken by their party's leadership, which are perceived to be anti-Glasgow, such as the scrapping of the Glasgow airport rail link. Former leader Gordon Wilson has openly criticised the SNP for having misplaced priorities - he claims the party has become too focussed on the Scottish parliament and is not devoting enough time to attacking Labour and winning support on the streets. It seems the SNP's image is beginning to tarnish a little.

The Labour Party ran its campaign as an opposition party, portraying the SNP as Edinburgh-centric bureaucrats with no concern for the plight of impoverished Glasgow North East. Candidate Willie Bain adopted a left stance - talking about fighting poverty and putting more resources into child benefit - and made a point of being out on the picket lines in support of the postal workers.

Labour was one of only two parties to come away from the by-election in a stronger position. While the Nats suffered a crushing defeat, the Tories - in third place with 5.22% - came close to losing their deposit. Of course, the Conservative Party hardly expected to do well in this traditional Labour constituency. Similarly in the Glasgow East by-election the Tories achieved only 6.3%. The only other party to have emerged stronger was the British National Party, though this should not be exaggerated. BNP support went up from 3.5% in 2005 to 4.9% in a low turnout, but the increase in its actual vote was lower - from 920 to 1,013. Nevertheless, there seems to have been a real Nick Griffin effect in Scotland following his controversial appearance on BBC's Question time in October.

As for the far left, it was not a pretty sight. Solidarity's Tommy Sheridan came off best with 3.86%, beating the Liberal Democrats into fifth place. The Socialist Labour Party did very badly indeed, gaining only 0.23% of the vote. This proves (if there was doubt in anyone's mind) that the respectable 14.2% polled by the SLP in 2005 resulted from a case of mistaken identity (or at least 14% of it did). Many people who put their cross next to 'Socialist Labour Party' had mistaken this for 'Scottish Labour Party' - Michael Martin stood as 'speaker' and, as is the tradition, was not opposed by the Tories and Lib Dems.

The Scottish Socialist Party received a humiliating 0.74%, down from 4.9% in 2005. Given that the combined left vote was appalling, the various organisations will now either have to undertake a sober assessment of the situation or put a hell of a lot of creativity into trying to spin this into something positive.

Interestingly, for the first time there is a significant difference between the results of the SSP and Solidarity - not that either has anything to write home about. Since Solidarity split from the SSP in 2006, the two organisations have been waging a battle to pull in the higher vote. Half a percent here or there has produced smugness on the one side and recrimination on the other. In this case Solidarity's 'success' can be attributed entirely to the celebrity status of Sheridan himself, as compared with the SSP's unknown candidate, Kevin McVey (although it has to be said that before Sheridan's defamation case against the News of the World he surely would have expected at least double the support he got last week). When Solidarity stood Trisha McLeish in the Glasgow East by-election, the SSP and Solidarity gained a similar, meagre share of the vote.

The SSP's poor result has led to questions being raised within its ranks as to whether it is worth continuing to contest elections. While some claim that the response on the doorstep had been positive and had led to contacts and recruits, this was not reflected in the vote itself. Such poor results publicly demonstrate the SSP's demise as a viable organisation - once it could envisage recruiting a significant membership, court trade union affiliation and gain a respectable return in the polls.

The Socialist Workers Party will see the electoral failings of the left (and slight gains of the far right) as an argument for an electoral unity agreement across Britain. And, if Respect was anything to go by, the SWP would likely let the trade union officials, left reformist personalities and petty bourgeois careerists set the political agenda rather than push for socialist politics to be brought to the fore.

Despite the split with John Rees, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham, this continues to be the case. Alex Callinicos recently tried to justify this on Facebook. The SWP as the SWP has opposes immigration controls and stands for open borders. Yet when it enters a 'coalition of the broader left' such as Respect these principles go out of the window. They 'would have been unacceptable' to those who came from 'a non-revolutionary background'. This apparently, 'is the kind of compromise' that is 'unavoidable' when one is trying to build a so-called 'united front'. Despite such miserable opportunism neither Bob Crow, Peter Taaffe, Robert Giffiths nor George Galloway sees the SWP as trustworthy.

In fact, because of the split in and collapse of the SSP, Scotland has been entirely marginalised when it comes to the wider politics of the far left. Sheridan and his remaining handful of followers, along with the International Socialists (the Committee for a Workers' International in Scotland), are praying for a trade union-inspired electoral coalition to rescue them by the time of the general election. Meanwhile, the SSP has refused to get involved in any left unity initiatives until the 'Sheridan issue is resolved' (in other words, if Sheridan has been jailed or otherwise removed as a key player). With the perjury case against Tommy and Gail delayed until the spring due to his change of lawyer, it is therefore very little chance of a left unity platform that includes the SSP in time for 2010.

However, with the left in such disarray and having conducted itself so badly over the past few years, it barely deserves the support of the working class. Unless there is meaningful unity around a partyist project based on Marxism, not the opportunist politics of separatism, the left in Scotland looks set to continue down the path to extinction.