The constituency of Glasgow East was first contested at the General Election of 2005, having been formed as the result of a boundary reorganisation and comprised of all the former seat of Glasgow Baillieston together with about half of the former Glasgow Shettleston.
As one might imagine Glasgow East comprised the east end of the city, and although it included the relatively affluent Mount Vernon area, most of the constituency would merit the description of being deprived, including the almost infamous Easterhouse estate, once described by Billy Connolly as "deserts wi' windaes". Glasgow East was therefore regarded as solid Labour territory, the kind of seat where the Labour vote was weighed rather than counted, and since its inception the constituency had been represented by David Marshall, who had previously been the member for Glasgow Shettleston from 1979 until 2005, and was described by the Daily Telegraph as an "archetypal Glasgow machine politician".
It was on the 27th June 2008 that the Daily Telegraph reported that David Marshall would be standing down from the House of Commons. He had apparently been ill for some time, whilst it was "understood" that his illness was "related to depression", although there was also talk that he had "felt under pressure" because he had employed his wife and daughter on his Commons payroll. Certainly the Daily Mail of the 5th July felt obliged to report on how Marshall had spent almost £500,000 of taxpayers' money over the past six years, most of which had gone on salaries paid to his wife.
Confirmation of the Telegraph report duly arrived on Monday 30th June, with the news that Marshall was indeed resigning on grounds of ill health, as HM Treasury announced Marshall's appointment to the nominal post of steward and bailiff of the manor of Northstead. Labour duly moved the writ for the by-election and selected the 24th July 2008 as the poll date, being another "quick dash to the polls" with the apparent intention of allowing their opponents as little time as possible to get themselves organised.
As far as Glasgow East was concerned the main threat to Labour came from the Scottish National Party (SNP), and following the announcement of the upcoming by-election there were reports of "Labour fears" that the SNP would select the comedienne Elaine C Smith as their candidate, since she lived in the constituency and was well known for playing the character of Mary Nesbitt in the comedy series Rab C Nesbitt in the 1990s. All hopes and fears were however dashed when Elaine C. Smith wrote in her Sunday Mail column of the 29th June that there was "No chance of me standing as an SNP candidate", and in the event the SNP eventually chose John Mason, who represented Baillieston on Glasgow City Council where he was the leader of the SNP opposition. Somewhat ironically (as it turned out) the Labour Party reacted to this news by seeking to make political capital of the claim that Mason was the SNP's "fourth choice".
The Conservative Party did have a candidate already in place in the form of a North Ayrshire councillor named Pat McPhee, but she decided that she didn't have "the time or the energy" to fight the by-election. Forced to look elsewhere, they chose Davena Rankin who it must be said was not a stereotypical Conservative candidate, being both female and black as well as being an active member of the trades union Unison, who had actually being born in the constituency.
The Liberal Democrats revealed their candidate on the 3rd July, being Ian Robertson a thirty-year-old mathematics teacher, whilst the so-called 'smoking rebel' Hamish Howitt also indicated his intention to stand. Having admitted that he had "no chance" of winning in Haltemprice and Howden, he believed that he might have a better chance in Glasgow East since his mother had been born there and that his "loyalty" was "with working class people". They were joined by an Independent named Chris Creighton, who had previously contested the Glasgow Cathcart by-election in 2005. Described by the BBC as a "mature student studying politics at the University of Glasgow" he was "standing on a ticket of constitutional reform, particularly the abolition of the monarchy".
It also became apparent that the voters of Glasgow East would be given a choice of at least two avowedly socialist candidates in the form of Frances Curran for the Scottish Socialist Party and Tricia McLeish representing Solidarity. There was naturally not the slightest trace of any socialist fraternalism between these two candidates, as the Scottish Socialist Party once held six seats in the Scottish Parliament, until it was wiped out in the 2007 election following a rather acrimonious split which saw founder Tommy Sheridan walk out and form a Solidarity. Since it also turned out that both Curran and McLeish had been at school together that gave both even more reason to hate each other more than they hated anyone else that was standing.
And that that was it, as nominations closed on the 9th July with no sign of any candidates from the Official Monster Raving Looney Party or indeed the Miss Great Britain Party, and sadly no sign of Disco Dave, the dolphin who'd recently swam up the Clyde with a Disco crisp packet stuck to its fin. It would have to be presumed that the attractions of campaigning in what was described as "one of the most deprived constituencies in Britain" failed to compare with the leafy affluence of Haltemprice and Howden.
Labour's lost weekend
Glasgow East was the third safest Labour seat in Scotland, and the twenty-fifth safest seat in the country, where the Party had polled almost 61% of the vote at the General Election of 2005, with the Scottish National Party coming in a long way behind in second place with 17%. In normal circumstances it should have been a walk in the park for Labour, however the Scottish Labour Party had recently lost their leader, Wendy Alexander after she'd been forced to stand down after having been found to have accepted illegal donations, and had as yet neglected to elect a replacement, whilst there was also the matter of what one newspaper described as the "epic unpopularity" of both Prime Minister Brown and his government. Therefore while Labour might well have claimed to have put little effort into the Henley by-election campaign because they knew that seat was unwinnable, it was clear they would "have to launch a full blown campaign" to try and hang on to Glasgow East.
According to the BBC the "leading contender" for the Labour nomination was a George Ryan who represented Shettleston on Glasgow City Council. He then failed to turn up for the selection meeting on the 4th July citing "family reasons" and later asked that his name be removed from the shortlist of potential candidates. It turned out that his family had put pressure on him to withdraw after allegations of housing benefit fraud (of which he had previously been cleared) remerged. In the circumstances one might have imagined that the Party would have then made its choice between the other two candidates, but apparently neither Doug Maughan nor Irene Graham were good enough, and so the contest was re-opened. In his search for a viable candidate, it was said that Gordon Brown made four phone calls to Steven Purcell, the Labour leader on Glasgow City Council, in an effort to persuade him to stand, and also approached the Scottish General Secretary Lesley Quinn with a similar offer. Both declined to put their name forward.
The press reacted to this news on the 6th July with headlines such as 'Glasgow East by-election chaos grows for Labour' from The Observer and 'Labour campaign descends into shambles' from The Independent on Sunday. The Scottish National Party was naturally overjoyed with the news as Alex Salmond emerged to claim that the Labour Party was in "complete meltdown", whilst noting that Labour "don't have a leader in Scotland, they don't have a candidate in Glasgow East, and they have a prime minister who refuses to come to the constituency". The Scottish Conservatives similarly took the opportunity to throw the odd brickbat in Labour's directions, as the party's Scottish leader Annabel Goldie proclaimed that the Labour selection process had been a "sham with one candidate walking away, two others ignored, a fourth, Stephen Purcell, apparently turning it down. And now rumours that Margaret Curran has been press-ganged into standing as Labour's reluctant and accidental candidate. You couldn't make it up."
The rumours turned out to be correct as on the afternoon of the 6th July Margaret Curran, who had represent Glasgow Baillieston in the Scottish Parliament since 1999, confirmed that she had put her name forward for the shortlist. At the candidate selection meeting held on the evening of the 7th July to no one's surprise Margaret Curran duly emerged as the Labour candidate.
Due to the prevarications over its choice candidate the Labour campaign had got off to what was generally described as a "disastrous start", or as one commentator put it, Labour was "in a fine guddle". Things didn't get much better for Labour when, during her very first public outing as an official candidate in Shettleston on the 8th July, their candidate announced that she had "worked in the east end all my life" and that she had also "lived in the east end all my life." The Herald newspaper took exception to this statement and pointed out that Margaret Curran had in fact spent the past twenty years or so as a resident of Newlands, Shawlands and Pollokshields, all of which were suburbs to be found in the more affluent south of the city. An "aide to Ms Curran" admitted that she might have made a "slip of the tongue" and claimed that she had nevertheless spent "much of her adult life" in the east end of Glasgow, whilst Ms Curran herself tried to explain that she'd meant to say that she had "either" lived or worked in the east end of Glasgow for much of her life, without necessarily meaning that she'd achieved both objectives at the same time.
Naturally given that the Scottish National Party was regarded as Labour's main challengers, much of the campaign consisted of these two parties taking sideswipes at each other. The SNP candidate John Mason first attacked Margaret Curran for trying to be both an MP and an MSP, being presumably unaware of the fact that his party leader was also both an MP and an MSP as well holding down the job of Scottish First Minister. David Cairns, the Minister of State for Scotland, who had been put in charge of the Labour campaign, claimed that this was "breathtaking hypocrisy", whilst Labour also argued that in any case Curran's Scottish Parliament seat of Glasgow Baillieston lay within the Glasgow East Westminster constituency, whilst Alex Salmond represented two quite separate geographic areas
The sniping duly continued when Angus Robertson, the SNP member for Moray, noted that male life expectancy in parts of Glasgow East was lower than in the Gaza strip and blamed Labour for this situation. Bob Winter, the Lord Provost of Glasgow, and a Labour councillor, complained that this was "just shallow political posturing and insulting to the people of Glasgow East". However Mr Robertson was simply repeating what had already been reported in almost every newspaper who had felt obliged to make the same unfavourable comparisons between "male life expectancy in parts of Glasgow East" and that in the Gaza strip, or indeed the Gambia as was preferred by some.
A far more serious allegation was however put forward by John Mason himself when he said that he did "not see a difference between what the Conservatives were doing under Margaret Thatcher and what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are doing". Now whilst Gordon Brown might well have invited Thatcher to Downing Street, praised her recognition of the "need for change", and claimed that "I am a conviction politician like her" back in September 2007, but this was clearly taking things a tad too far as Labour were concerned. David Cairns popped up again to complain that such assertions were "unbelievable" and suggested that Mason had "taken leave of his senses". In any event it led Labour to issue a campaign leaflet which asked of Mason "Whose side is he on?" and claimed that "He doesn't care if we go back to the Thatcher years".
One of the significant features of the Glasgow East constituency was that it possessed a significant Roman Catholic population, and indeed the constituency included Parkhead, the home of Celtic FC within its boundaries. It would therefore be one of the few areas in the country where religion often became a factor in politics. Of course Labour had long relied on the Catholic report, although there were signs that such reliance might have become a thing of the past as on the 13th July it was reported that Joseph Devine, the Bishop of Motherwell and president of the Catholic Education Commission, had written a letter to all Scottish Labour MPs to complain about the government's Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill, and claim that the Labour Party had "lost its ethical credibility in the nation at large". As it turned out the Report stage of the Bill had originally been timetabled to be debated on the 14th July, before Harriet Harman announced that it was being out back to the autumn, a decision that was widely seen as an attempt by Labour not to offend Catholic sensibilities during the by-election campaign. It was also no doubt with such considerations in mind that John Mason (a good Presbyterian apparently) made certain noises about how he was "extremely uncomfortable" about the research proposals in the Bill and how he was in favour of lowering the time limit for abortion.
There was also a certain amount of moral fervour attached to the announcement by James Purnell, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, that he intended to implement the recommendations of the Freud Report in full as he previewed his department's green paper on welfare reform, No one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility. Since this included "tough new sanctions for scroungers who play the system" it naturally pleased some people and generated such headlines as "Labour blitz on dole scroungers" in The Sun (18th July) and "Get clean or lose your benefits, junkies told" from the Daily Mail (22nd July). Although perhaps someone should have told Purnell that Glasgow East had the greatest number of benefit claimants of any constituency in the country, and that perhaps one or two of them might well have disapproved of some of the proposals being outlined. As it was The Times was "told by informed sources" that the government had planned to announce a "multimillion-pound government funding package to help the jobless in Glasgow back into work" only for it to be vetoed by the Cabinet Secretary; it being a long-established constitutional convention that governments should not give the impression that they are trying to bribe voters in a by-election.
Naturally this story was denied by official sources, just as the same sources denied that Gordon Brown's announcement of the 16th July that the planned 2p rise in fuel duty scheduled for the autumn would now be delayed until some other time had anything to do with the Glasgow East by-election.
Far away from the main Labour-SNP battle the entire Liberal Democrat campaign appeared to be based on protesting about plans to close the Parkhead Fire Station, whilst the Scottish Green Party didn't even get around to launching their campaign until the 15th July, at least a week after anyone else had got started. As far as the Conservative Party was concerned they appeared to be focused on getting out their core vote and keeping their deposit, and although the likes of David Cameron duly made scheduled visits to the constituency, there were few signs of them making any major efforts to make electoral headway. As Philip Hammond, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury explained at one point, "Glasgow East is not actually top of the Conservative Party's hit-list".
Following The Money
At the beginning of the contest on the 5th July Ladbrokes was quoting the SNP and Labour as joint favourites at 5-6 on, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at 100-1. That was however until the Sunday Telegraph of the 13th July published an ICM poll which showed Labour on 47%, the SNP on 33%, the Liberal Democrats on 9% and the Conservatives on 7%. By the 16th July the papers were reporting that William Hill now had Labour as the 2-5 on favourites, with the SNP at 7-4, the Conservatives on 33-1 and the Liberal Democrats 50-1. Betfair showed the same trend with SNP and Labour starting as joint favourites, with the odds then lengthening on an SNP win, and by the eve of polling the market had settled on Labour at 2/5 on, with the SNP at 2-1, and everyone else at a 1000-1.
However despite such favourable indications, it seemed as if the Labour Party had decided to leave nothing to chance, as the Sunday Times of the 13th July ran the headline 'Labour MPs told to invade Scotland ahead of Glasgow East by-election' as it reported that every Labour Member of Parliament had been ordered to campaign in Glasgow East as a result of what the paper described as "mounting panic that the party could lose the by-election". It also claimed that these visits were being "strictly monitored" by the Party in order to ensure that the MPs actually did "the 'donkey work' of canvassing" rather than treat the whole thing as a "jolly". The Scotsman further revealed on the 14th, that a long succession of Labour Party heavyweights such as Harriet Harman, Des Browne, Douglas Alexander, and Jim Murphy, "as well as a succession of whips and junior ministers" had already been busy knocking on doors in the constituency, although their visits had been unannounced in order to avoid the attentions of the press; which was certainly a rather novel method of campaigning as normally speaking parties go to great efforts to attract media coverage.
It certainly appeared as if all this frenetic activity was having some effect as The Scotsman of the 17th July claimed that "insiders in all parties" were privately saying that the SNP had "over-hyped" their chances. Evidence supporting this contention arrived on the 19th with news of a poll carried out by Progressive Scottish Opinion for the Scottish Daily Mail which put Labour on 52%, seventeen points ahead of the SNP on 35%, with the Conservatives on 7% and the Liberal Democrats on 3%. Nevertheless The Sunday Times of the 20th July claimed that the Labour party in Scotland was "in almost complete disarray" with "no leader and no sense of direction" and that their campaign was "floundering". For once the paper might well have known what it was talking about as they'd had a reporter "working undercover on the Labour campaign" who had found nothing but "disorganisation and panic". One of the apparent problems being that Labour had brought in software to manage their campaign that was unable to deal with the complexities of Scottish tenement addresses.
On the eve of the poll The Scotsman, together with a number of other papers, reported that the official line from Labour headquarters was that they believed they would win by about 1,000 votes, but just to make sure they were planning to have four hundred activists on the ground to get the vote out on the day. Only Alex Salmond appeared to be of a different opinion as he told the media that the race was "neck and neck" and that "the earthquake is coming and will arrive on schedule tomorrow".
And The Earth Shook
The polls closed as always at 10.00 pm on the appointed day, and attention shifted to the Tollcross Park Leisure Centre near Shettleston Road where the count was being held. The turnout was soon confirmed at 42.25%, a reasonably high figure for a by-election particularly when compared to the turnout of 48.2% at the General Election of 2005. However as the count progressed the rumours began to circulate that the SNP had just shaded it.
The returning officer was ready to announce the result at 1.25 am, but Labour demanded a recount, being concerned that some votes for their candidate Margaret Curran might have been miscounted as votes for the SSP candidate Francis Curran. Everyone had to wait until 2.20 am when it was announced that the SNP had indeed just shaded it by 365 votes, as John Mason received 11,277 votes against 10,912 for Margaret Curran. The Conservative Party came in third place with 1,639 votes, a respectable result in the circumstances, as their vote largely held up despite the considerable temptation to vote tactically, whilst the Liberal Democrats trailed in badly in fourth place, having lost some two-thirds of their support and their deposit to boot.
The newspapers greeted this news with such headlines as 'Catastrophe for Labour as SNP triumphs in Glasgow East' (The Guardian), 'Humiliation for Gordon Brown as Labour loses to SNP' (Daily Telegraph), 'Humiliation for Brown as Labour loses by-election' (The Times}, 'Glasgow by-election disaster for Brown' (The Independent), 'Gordon Brown in crisis as Labour loses Glasgow East by-election' (Daily Mirror), 'Scotcha! Poll agony for PM' (The Sun), 'Brown has 'two months to save premiership' after Labour's crushing by-election defeat' (Daily Mail). Only the Daily Express appeared out of step as it ran with 'Defiant Brown: The Tories Would Wreck Britain'.
The loss of Glasgow East was variously described as "nightmare result" and a "devastating blow", whilst it was noted that the swing of 22% that the Scottish National Party achieved in order to win Glasgow East was actually marginally more than the swing they would need to win Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. Which just happened to be Gordon Brown's own seat. The Guardian in particular decided to amuse itself by reporting that this sort of anti-Labour swing would leave the party with only twenty seats in the whole country, and proceeded to name the lucky Labour MPs who would survive the deluge.
'A cut that keeps bleeding'
Gordon Brown himself spent the 25th July at the National Policy Forum, where he was trying to do deal with the unions, otherwise known as Warwick Two, whereby the Labour Party would agree to implement some of their political demands, in return for which the unions would return the favour by giving the party large amounts of money. Brown duly addressed the assembled delegates and announced that, "I'm getting on with the job. My task and my focus is to get on with the job. We'll continue to get on with the job."
Unfortunately as he 'got on with the job', there was more bad news to come on the 26th July when The Independent published the details of the latest ComRes poll which showed the Conservatives enjoying a "record 22-point lead", whilst on the following day many of the papers reported on the news of a poll of thirty key marginal constituencies carried out by CrosbyTextor on behalf of the lobbying group FlyingMatters. This showed the Conservatives on 41%, with the Liberal Democrats on 18%, and Labour in third place with only 17%. A similar poll carried out a year before in the middle of the 'Brown Bounce' had shown Labour ahead by 32% to 26%.
With the Labour Party therefore facing an electoral meltdown of epic proportions, speculation regarding Gordon Brown's very future as Party Leader and Prime Minister was re-ignited, as the papers considered the possibility that a new civil war was about to break out in the Labour Party. Although the likes of Jack Straw, Harriet Harman and indeed John Prescott made various public protestations of loyalty, and asserted that Brown was the only man qualified to lead the country in these 'difficult times', this did not prevent such headlines as 'Labour turns on Brown as MPs fear poll wipeout' (The Observer), 'Plot to dump Brown' (The Independent), 'MPs campaign to make Straw PM' (The Sunday Times), 'Labour plotters tell Jack Straw: get Brown out' (Daily Mirror)
Although the leading article in the Independent on Sunday was curiously supportive of Brown, and referred to him as a politician of "experience, judgement and seriousness of purpose" as it warned the Labour Party to think twice before dumping him, elsewhere there was talk of a "deadly cabinet revolt" as various rumours of plots and counter-plots made their way into the pages of the newspapers. There were reports that there was a 'Lancashire mafia' working to make Jack Straw the next leader, and that George Howarth, an "arch-Blairite" and a "close friend" of Straw, was going around asking Labour MPs to add their names to a list of people who wanted Brown to stand down. Such talk may or may not have been the same as the "secret plan" other reports claimed that some Blairites had hatched, which would supposedly culminate with the resignations of certain "junior ministers and parliamentary aides" planned for the 8th September. Harriet Harman was also said to be "sounding out colleagues about her chances", whilst James Purnell was rumoured to have cut a deal with David Miliband. There were however also reports that Brown was busy shoring up his support, and that he had brought the loyalty of the Chief Whip Geoff Hoon by offering him the chance to succeed Peter Mandelson as European Commissioner in due course.
The papers were full of much the same thing on the weekend following the defeat at the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, and there were some that sought to downplay the brouhaha by claiming that such defeats are not that unusual for a government and Tony Blair lost the Brent East by-election in 2003 after an even bigger swing of 29%, but had nevertheless still won the General Election held some twenty-one months later. Nevertheless the papers were full of quotes from various anonymous Labour insiders who claimed that under Brown the party had "moved from a one nation to a no nation party" or that the party was now "unelectable everywhere", and that Brown had "been rejected by every part of the country". The problem being that Glasgow East was not an isolated event, but merely the latest in a long line of electoral setbacks. After all, to lose one safe seat might be a misfortune, but to lose two began to look like carelessness.
Of course there was no likelihood of anything much happening for a month or so, as even politicians feel entitled to a summer holiday, and Gordon himself was scheduled to spend the next fortnight at his holiday home near Southwold in Suffolk. No doubt Gordon will be spending his time planning his next 'fightback' and his survival strategy for the next party conference due in the autumn. All of which was wonderful news for the Conservative Party, as from their point of view, or indeed that of the Liberal Democrats, there could be nothing better than the sight a beleaguered Brown facing fire from within his own party, limping his way to the seemingly inevitable disaster that awaits.
Glasgow East by-election results in full
- John Mason, Scottish National Party - 11,277 (43.08%)
- Margaret Curran, Labour Party - 10,912 (41.69%)
- Davena Rankin, Conservative Party - 1,639 (6.26%)
- Ian Robertson, Liberal Democrat - 915 (3.5%)
- Frances Curran, Scottish Socialist Party - 555 (2.12%)
- Tricia McLeish, Solidarity - 512 (1.96%)
- Dr Eileen Duke, Green Party - 232 (0.89%)
- Chris Creighton, Independent - 67 (0.26)
- Hamish Howitt, Freedom 4 Choice - 65 (0.25%)
The above article is drawn from a variety of reports in the British media including BBC News, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and their Sunday equivalents, as well as The Sun, Daily Mirror and the News of the World as well as sundry political blogs of a semiofficial nature such as Liberal Democrat Voice and ConservativeHome. In this case reference was also made to The Scotsman and The Herald for obvious reasons. See also;
- Glasgow East: Candidate profiles, BBC News, 16 July 2008
- Glasgow East byelection - live, The Guardian