SNP feels the earth move in West Fife

ON NOVEMBER 2 next year Winnie Ewing will, I hope, pop the cork on a bottle of champagne and spend the day indulging in watery-eyed reminiscence. In the evening the SNP, if it has any class, will throw her a lavish party. It was on that date in 1967 that Ewing won the Hamilton by-election, depriving the Labour Party of its sixth safest seat in Britain and serving notice that the Scottish National Party had arrived as a political force. It was then, and remains 40 years later, the party’s crowning achievement.

There have been other highlights along the way, of course, notably the capture of Glasgow Govan in 1973 by Margo MacDonald – although she was ousted a year later – and, in 1988, the recapture of the same seat by her husband, Jim Sillars. These were giddy times for believers: those bandit raids deep into Labour territory threw up a spicy trail, a teasing whiff of independence lying just round the corner.

But it is now nearly 20 years since Sillars’ Govan redux, and it has been more than a decade since the Nationalists have pulled off anything to give the good Unionist much cause for concern. Ewing is approaching 80, Sillars will be 70 next year; his estimable wife is in her 60s. The SNP’s soul-stirrers are ageing, and if I were a party footsoldier I would be musing on the following: where are the heroes to follow in their stead? And why has what once seemed a corner turned into a roundabout?

Last week’s by-election triumph for the Liberal Democrats in Fife is the kind of thing the SNP used to do. It was a staggering achievement, almost unthinkable in its chutzpah; to walk into Gordon Brown’s house and steal the title deeds. It was one of those political moments. As a parent to two under-fives, I am now physically incapable of post-midnight finishes, and so it was early on Friday morning that the first item on the Today programme made me, quite literally, sit bolt upright in bed.

Ever since, I have been pondering two questions. Why is it that the Lib Dems can suddenly do what the Nationalists can’t any longer – that is, cause Labour thumping upsets in its heartlands? And what, if anything, does it mean?

This is a new phenomenon. Across the UK, between 1950 and 2001, the Liberals in their various incarnations managed to take just five seats from Labour, which averages out at one a decade. Last year they managed 11 in one general election, including East Dunbartonshire, where, helped heavily by boundary changes, 25-year-old Jo Swinson turned a Labour majority of almost 12,000 into a Lib Dem one of more than 4,000. In a 2003 by-election they helped themselves to Brent East and, in 2004, Leicester South. Now, in 2006, they have Dunfermline and West Fife, and the Chancellor has Willie Rennie as his MP.

There were, of course, many reasons for last week’s victory, which have by now been well rehearsed. Rennie was the best candidate. Lord Rennard and Paul Rainger, who orchestrated the Liberal campaign, are crack by-election strategists. The party had what the academic James Mitchell calls “first mover” advantage – that is, they were seen as the main threat to Labour and therefore scooped up the anti-government protest vote. Locally, there were the bridge tolls, the state of the town centre and the fate of the local hospital. There was also the collapse of the relationship between reserved and devolved Labour, the arrogance of Gordon Brown and the petulance of Jack McConnell, which undermined the incumbent party’s campaign.

However, there is a wider lesson to be drawn from Dunfermline, and it is not just about the fate of Gordon Brown/Labour. Rather, it is this: the tectonic plates are shifting under Scotland’s opposition parties. The effect is that the Lib Dems are gradually replacing the SNP as the choice of the middle-class, non-Labour voter. They have momentum: at the last general election, on the back of the Iraq war and tuition fees, the party became the second largest in Scotland in terms of both seats and votes. And it continues to pick up the anti-establishment vote even though it is a junior partner in a largely unimpressive devolved government, which is a gravity-defying trick.

It is where the Lib Dems are winning seats, as much as the number they are winning, which matters. Traditionally a rural party of Highland and Borders redoubts, they are becoming a force to be reckoned with in Scotland’s urban centres. Between Westminster and Holyrood they have picked up seats in Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh.

They now have control of the affluent Glasgow suburbs which form much of the East Dunbartonshire seat. The Dunfermline win should be seen in that context: it is not a district of disgruntled ex-miners and industrial decline, but rather of Edinburgh commuters who regard themselves as living in a suburb of the capital. As such, last week represented the latest stage of the Lib Dem march on urban Scotland.

The Lib Dems are succeeding where the SNP have repeatedly failed. Nicola Sturgeon has been “set to win” Govan for as long as I have been covering politics. Last September the Nationalists failed to take Livingston from Labour, in similar circumstances to the Dunfermline by-election. They also proved themselves unable to win Cathcart, even though the Labour MSP had been sent to prison. Who believes Alex Salmond can reach his target of 20 new seats in 2007? The SNP cannot turn second place into first.

The question is, why? It is a matter, I think, of tone, timing and tactics. There is an interesting contrast to be drawn between the performance of Nicol Stephen and Alex Salmond in the by-election. This weekend the Deputy First Minister’s aides were speaking glowingly of how he spent almost every night of the last two weeks in the constituency, and of how he urged Lib Dem activists, MPs and MSPs from around Britain to come and do their bit; they came, willingly.

As for Salmond, it emerged during the campaign that the SNP leader had sent a letter to more than 100 people on the party’s approved candidates list, warning that if they and their local activists did not get to Dunfermline “it has been suggested… that we should publish a record of attendance on the approved register”. This kind of arm-twisting does not testify to a unified, energised party. And how did Salmond’s followers judge his own performance? Well, according to one MSP, “Alex is past the time when he is willing to take the risks and just go for it. I don’t think he has got the hunger for the leadership any more.”

The Lib Dems undoubtedly benefit from their public image of positivity, of being the good guys in politics – and it now seems clear that their recent troubles will not change this in Scotland, at least. Stephen is youngish, moderate and attractive. Salmond, in contrast, wears a sullen air, which, when added to his party’s non-negotiable central belief and the perception that they have failed to develop as an alternative government, makes him, and them, an unattractive prospect to too many comfortably-off, happily-British Scots. Until the SNP understands this new world – and it may already be too late – their triumphs are fated to remain sepia-tinted.

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