Don't however get carried away with the belief that Labour are back in election winning form. The real story from Glenrothes is that playing the anti-incumbency card can prove to be very effective. Labour mercilessly targeted the SNP candidate who happened to be the leader of Fife Council. Labour's challenge to the SNP focused on charges being introduced for services for the elderly. They ignored the fact that many of their own authorities have similar charges. And they hammered away at the same issue, attacking both the SNP led council and the SNP Scottish government. In other words, they used incumbency against the SNP despite being incumbents themselves. A very clever move that worked. There are clear lessons for us all in by-election campaigns: nail your opponents on their record.
Some of what happened in Glenrothes is a reflection of what is happening across Scotland generally. The SNP can now be held to account for their decisions and I also suspect there was a reaction to their arrogance.
The Glenrothes scenario however does not translate well over to the UK wide political agenda. There is no equivalent English dimension in England and in Wales, the Labour party (supported by the Welsh Nats) are the incumbents. Come a general election, attacking the Tories on their record in office over a decade ago may have some sway over voters, but not a great deal. The Tories' incoherent and rudderless approach to the financial crisis will have some sway as well. But the Labour government will not be able to use anti-incumbency. They are, after all, the government and there is no English government led by another party which can conveniently be blamed for unpopular political decisions.
Labour will therefore have to fight the next election, amongst other things, on their record. And that's why I feel there will be no election next year. Unemployment is set to exceed 2 million by next year, repossessions will be up, bankruptcies up, business collapses up. The recovery is more likely to happen in 2010 and Brown will need that to start kicking in before he risks an election.
Parallels are often drawn with the 1992 election where people opted for devil-you-know by voting back in the Tories despite their having been in office during the recession. But the Tories were defending a very comfortable majority of 100. They went on to win in 1992 but with a majority cut heavily to less than 30. And they didn't have millions of pounds of bad debt hanging around their necks, unlike the current Labour party (no doubt built up during what Brown calls the "Age of Irresponsibility". Labour's local organisation in large parts of the country has been shot to bits. It's not just in the marginals in the south where Labour's grassroots have rotted away. In their heartlands as well, they have organisations that are thin on the ground. I hear on the grapevine that Labour were canvassing in Glenrothes in the by-election without any previous canvass having been done in large parts of the constituency. The constituency was dependent on the national party to swing in to action to run the election campaign. Whilst Labour may not be troubled too much by weaknesses in their organisation in safe seats, in those where other parties are fighting them hard, Labour may not yet be able to sustain sufficient local activity to ensure the seat is held at the general election.
Organisation on the ground is one of the keys to winning a particular seat. Labour do not yet have either the grassroots organisation or the money to fight an election in 2009. The only scenario that would see an election next year is one in which Labour builds up a very large lead and sustains it for long enough through the summer for Brown to risk going in the autumn. And I cannot see circumstances which would create such circumstances.
Sent via BlackBerry