24 October 2013

It's D(unfermline)-Day

Get your lamb's livers out. Strive to discern the prophetic resonance of a cloud of starlings. Take the tarot. Today, the folk of Dunfermline go to the polls to decide who they would like to represent them in the Scottish Parliament. So who will it be? 

Will Fife councillor, Labour's Cara Hilton, prevail? Might the SNP's Shirley-Anne Somerville just sneak ahead? Will a yellow wave heave the Liberal Democrat candidate back into contention, or will James Black, Jacobite, take dirk and targe to everyone else, triumphing in the Kingdom before sweeping south to take the strategically-important city of Edinburgh (and heaven knows, continuing on to Derby and an excellent showing in the imminent Prestonpans by-election)? Will Zara Kitson's Green shoots show any sap, or will they be ground under heel by the blazered pub landlord figure nominated to represent the seat by UKIP? Oh. And there's a callow Tory youth to take account of as well, who has been railing against the flabby "centre left consensus" offered by everyone else. 

At the outset of the race, Bill Walker having been confined to a prison cell with the worst grace conceivable, I thought the SNP were going to get stuffed. Much of this was down to the Walker Factor, though not entirely. Although he demitted office as an independent, in disgrace, I could sympathise with the unaligned Dunfermline voter who felt that the Nationalists had, in some vague sense, let them down by nominating such a man to represent them in the national parliament. If they felt that way, we had to take it on the chin.

But if the SNP vote was going to collapse, the people wreaking their vengeance, you'd expect to see that reflected in the initial round of canvassing.  I'm told by knowledgeable hands on the ground in Dunfermline that this doesn't appear to have happened.  Ian Smart's recent by-election blog corroborated this diagnosis from the other side of the aisle.

A couple of potential explanations for this apparently limited Walker Effect.  One: the ex-MSP's conduct and manner after his conviction as a serial domestic abuser was so outrageous, and so idiosyncratic, that Walker managed to focus minds on his own character and its defects, rather than on the party which made the mistake of nominating him to represent Dunfermline.

Secondly: it has proved more difficult to hang Walker around Shirley-Anne's neck than it might initially have seemed, despite Cara Hilton's zealous early efforts to do so. Shirley-Anne is palpably a different sort of person from the bluff, pompous and domineering Walker. If the SNP had nominated an ashen suit of a certain age, you can wager ten groat that the outgoing representative for Dunfermline would have remained more of an issue in this campaign.

Beyond the Walker Effect, it is important for us remember that Dunfermline was always going to be a very promising seat for the Labour Party. An unexpected gain in the 2011 Holyrood election, the SNP won it, beating Labour by just 590 votes.  In the 2012 local government election, Labour enjoyed a massive lead in first preferences, running 3,710 votes ahead of SNP candidates in Dunfermline wards. Factor into that the prevailing wisdom that incumbent governments struggle with by-elections, and the constituency always looked like a difficult hold for the Nationalists, and a must-win for Johann Lamont's Labour Party. 

To reframe that in a nakedly cynical way, we'll go into tonight with a pocket full of plausible and temporising explanations. By contrast, if Labour comes out anything but top of the heap in Dunfermline, excuses there are none. The ongoing Grangemouth story will knock the by-election result into a cocked hat, but if one of Johann's isn't sworn in in Holyrood, expect a volley of critical questions about the quality of her leadership and her party's current lack of direction.  

Whatever happens, Dunfermline also attests to the bother which Lamont's unfollowed up "something for nothing" speech continues to give her colleagues. Are Labour in favour of or against retaining universally-accessible free prescriptions, an un-means-tested bus pass for the elderly, the state paying for university tuition and arresting additional rises in the council tax across all bands? Bracket the question of who introduced these policies, and whether the Labour Party have supported them in the past. The record speaks for itself in that respect.  Is this the policy platform which Lamont and her colleagues now wish to stand on?

Even trying to be fair-minded, I'm not entirely sure. It may be that the Scottish Labour leadership hasn't made up its mind yet. That's grand. Periods between elections are periods for reflection, particularly for a party reviewing its fortunes after two consecutive defeats. But for folk like Cara Hilton, obliged to snatch up the party banner unexpectedly, and to set out and defend a policy prospectus, Lamont's under-explained "something for nothing" speech is an absolute nightmare. You can't make credible policy commitments on any of these core issues "when everything is up for review", but until Labour decides what it makes of the council tax freeze, university funding, prescriptions and bus passes, all of these policies hang under a vaguely-threatening cloud.  

We saw identical wriggling from the Labour candidate in Aberdeen Donside. Neither he, nor Hilton, have their marching orders. And caught in the eye of the camera, subject to the tender inquisitions of Brian Taylor and Bernard Ponsonby, both Hilton and Aberdeen's Willie Young took on the consistency of blancmange, vaguely trembling as they attempted to explain their positions on very basic, well-established issues of devolved policy.  I feel for them.  They're the ones obliged to look like numpties on telly, and in order to shore up their awkwardly indeterminate policy positions, to put out leaflets on these issues in a spirit of creative compliance with the truth. 

If, as most folk predicted on twitter this morning, the numbers stack up for Cara Hilton, and Labour win in Dunfermline this evening, it will be in great part despite, rather than because of the tactical position Johann has abandoned her party to, mid-term.


  1. I have a feeling Labour will win, and the cynic in me suggests it will be reasonably comfortable too. This is Fife and I've long since been surprised at the strangehold Labour has over this part of the country. It's an almost reflex action in spite of everything before them. It really does baffle what exactly the voter believes they are voting for when they tick the Labour box today - I genuinely have no idea what Labour believes in at this point in time.

    The SNP will probably do OK and I think Shirley-Anne has been a robust and pleasing candidate put forward by the party as a replacement for their ill-selection of Walker. She's ran a solid campaign but might fall short. Had Labour known what they stood for, and ran even an average campaign, I think this contest would have been over before it began so there's a chance she'll slip through yet. I can't work out whether that's harsh on Shirley-Anne as a candidate or whether I genuinely believe any candidate was fighting a losing battle here.

    I hope to see Zara Kitson and James Reekie do well. I've heard positive, local feedback on both for the campaigns they have run and the general consensus appears to be that the only thing holding this pair back, is the colour of their rosettes. While it is pretty sad that neither are likely to come close to winning, hopefully both are rewarded with good returns.

    Prediction: Labour WIN (850 maj)

    1. I fear that having "a feeling" Labour will win this is rather like *suspecting* that one will get one's feet wet if one jumps off the side of a cruise ship halfway across the Atlantic. Technically speaking there's a CHANCE you might land on an iceberg or something, but it's awfully remote.

      If Hilton doesn't clear this by 3000-5000 votes (perhaps more), Labour should put up the shutters. They cut the SNP's majority in Donside by 5000, and that was a far more "friendly" seat for the Nats than Dunfermline is.

      The bookies have Labour at 1/4 and the SNP at 10/4, which isn't a perfect science but does suggest they don't have even the tiniest sliver of doubt about it.

      Had the Labour candidate been even slightly less hapless and robotic than Ms Hilton, nobody would be bothering to stay up for the result. Only her palpable rabbit-in-headlights hopelessness is causing anyone to so much as entertain the outside possibility that there's a race on here.

      Labour failing to take the seat would be utterly seismic, to the degree it's all but inconceivable. (We can count on a hefty postal vote on top of everything else, playing disproportionately heavily in what I suspect will be a turnout struggling to hit 35%.) A majority of less than 3000 for Labour would be a pretty good result for the SNP in my book, and I suspect that despite everything it might be rather more than that.

    2. RevStu, Baffie,

      As I say, going into this, I assumed that Dunfermline was almost certainly a write-off. Talking to some folk recently who are involved in the campaign, there are some signs it won't be a massive setback. We'll see. We're almost certainly talking about second place for the SNP, at worst. It is also worth remembering,this was a Liberal seat until relatively recently. From his wee traipse up to Fife, Ian Smart suggests that these voters may be more stubborn partisans than they have proved elsewhere in the country. The Liberal candidate didn't do shamefully badly here in 2011, despite the coalition.

    3. Oh, Labour and SNP in 1st and 2nd, I don't think there can be any sensible doubt about that. The Lib Dem vote might be sturdy but their candidate is a complete numpty, I suspect they'll stay home rather than defect. As I say, it's about the majority for me. Below 3K is really solid mid-term firefighting from the SNP in a challenging spot, 3-5K is the range I'm expecting, and 5K+ is a real fillip for Labour.

    4. We shall see! No doubt there'll be a decent blog post for us all, peering through the entrails of whatever the good folk of Dunfermline decide to do...

  2. I really despise by-election campaigns. Each side making outrageous claims, either that their candidate will somehow single-handedly force the entire direction of parliament to change, or that voting for their candidate is the only way to stop cataclysmic change. "Only a vote for [candidate] will stop [bad thing] happening!" Really? When the people of Dunfermline revert to type and elect Cara Hilton, nothing will change in Holyrood, other than another fist to bang the tables when Lamont attacks Salmond at FMQs.

    Of course, what else can they do, other than doing away with by-elections altogether in favour of something else? Folk have mentioned that other parliaments have nominated deputies, who take the elected member's place if the seat becomes vacant. That's fine in most cases, but how would that have worked in this situation, with the former member resigning in disgrace? Should they really be able to hand-pick their replacement? And what if they change party allegiance, as happened here?

    So instead, I suppose we just have to put up with the rather unedifying spectacle of even respectable people having to resort to speaking utter keich in order to get elected. Hmmm, maybe not that different to general election campaigns after all...

    I hope Shirley-Anne overcomes the odds, and I really, really hope Zara has a good election for the Greens. They've certainly had far more luck getting media coverage this time than they did in the Aberdeen Donside election, and she didn't waste it.

    1. "I hope Shirley-Anne overcomes the odds, and I really, really hope Zara has a good election for the Greens."

      I rather suspect those two things are mutually exclusive.

    2. I should have stood. I have a rich platform of unachievable Good Things which I could have claim I would have fixed. Mobile phone use in the quiet carriage on trains, executed. Lonely couples in loveless marriages, sitting in passive-aggressive silence in restaurants, banned. Dr Starkey excluded, by law, from any edition of BBC Question Time broadcast...

    3. Too wishy-washy on crime. Executions for ALL of those or I'm voting UKIP.

    4. Following Doug's advice, as a trimming and triumphant by-election candidate, it is my clear duty to promise to agree to enact your demands, however homicidal.

    5. Well, you certainly have MY vote. Now you just need to wait for my MSP to do something daft so a by-election gets called.

  3. I fly no party flag but a win's a win and I'm sure the Rev will take the same view if the referendum is won by a single vote.

    1. Context is everything. If Yes won by a single vote, then that's the issue settled and they've managed to overcome the odds. If No win by a single vote, then all they've done is delay the inevitable for a few months. Considering we're always being told support for independence is low, it would be like a team being given a 10 goal head start in a football match and managing to draw 10-10, with the referee blowing the whistle just as the ball was an inch away from crossing their goal-line for the 11th time.

  4. 'Get your lamb's livers out. Strive to discern the prophetic resonance of a cloud of starlings.'

    It;s a murmuration of starlings LPW, a collective noun well suited to Scottish blogs! Look forward to your analysis.

  5. I*('m a bit behind the times with this one. But if the Dunfermline result proves anything it must be that the biggest problem in politics is convincing the voters the life the have experienced could have been so much better.