The Glasgow North-East by-election was held on the 12th November 2009 as a result of the resignation of Michael Martin and his elevation to the House of Lords.
The constituency was described by UKPolling as a "grim slice of north-east Glasgow, scarred by gangs, deprivation and hard drugs" that included "some of the most degraded, deprived and crime-ridden parts of the UK" including the "heroin-ravaged Possilpark", and was therefore naturally considered the safest Labour seat in Glasgow. The seat had only been in being since 2005, when the old Glasgow Springburn constituency was expanded to include the most deprived parts of the old Glasgow Maryhill seat. Indeed the constituency of Glasgow North-East had never previously been the subject of an open contest, since Michael Martin had stood in both the 2001 and 2005 General Elections as the 'Speaker Seeking Re-Election' rather than under the banner of the Labour Party, and so neither the Conservatives nor Liberal Democrats had put forward candidates in 2001 or 2005.
However the convention that the Speaker of the House of Commons should be returned unopposed was not one that met with universal approval, as the Scottish National Party took not notice of such things and put up a candidate in 2005, as indeed had the Scottish Socialist Party, the Scottish Unionist Party, the British National Party, and the Socialist Labour Party, all of whom were joined by an independent named Joe Chambers. None of which prevented Michael Martin from romping home with 53% of the vote, whilst the fact that the Socialist Labour Party candidate achieved over 4,000 votes, was put down to the confusion of some voters thought he was the Labour candidate.
101 Uses for a Dead Speaker
Michael Martin was the Speaker of the House of Commons before he was obliged to stand down on the 19th May 2009 as a result of the considerable criticism he faced over his handling of the MPs' Expense Scandal. Martin formally resigned as Speaker on the 21st June 2009, an act which left the Labour Party in something of a quandary, since as the 'Speaker seeking re-election', he hadn't been elected as a representative of the Labour Party, and so couldn't return to his former position as a Labour backbencher. Labour considered whether Martin could remain in the Commons as an independent, but decided that the idea was "too controversial", and so the plan was for him to resign his seat and promote him to the House of Lords as soon as a new Speaker was chosen.
Whilst all this was going on, Ian Gibson, the Labour member for Norwich North, also decided to throw in the towel on the 5th June 2009, having been disqualified from standing again as the Labour candidate by the special endorsements panel of the National Executive Committee, as a result of his allegedly questionable expense claims. The writ for the Norwich North by-election was moved on the 30th June with the by-election to be held on the 23rd July 2008, but no mention was made of Glasgow North-East. As The Scotsman reported on the 1st July 2009, it "had been expected that the by-election ... would be held on the same day as in Norwich North". However the simple fact was that Labour had simply no intention of holding a by-election in Glasgow during Glasgow Fair fortnight. That was the mistake it made in 2008 with the Glasgow East by-election, which it duly lost, and the Party had no intention of repeating that mistake.
Given that there was no actual obstacle to holding the by-election in July, some people were naturally annoyed at the delay. Including for example Stewart Hosie, the SNP member for Dundee East who had been picked to run his party's campaign in Glasgow North-East, and who told The Herald that it was "outrageous" that the people of Norwich North would be getting their new MP fairly soon, but that Glaswegians would have to wait a whole five months before they got theirs and accused Labour of "running scared". Naturally this made no difference whatsoever, and so the SNP attempted to move the writ themselves on the final day of the 2008-2009 parliamentary session, only for the move to be rejected by 111 votes.
Whilst the Commons was on its summer holiday, on the 28th August 2009 it was announced that the Queen had approved of Gordon Brown's recommendation that Martin be created a life peer as the Baron Martin of Springburn, despite the fact that the House of Lords Appointments Commission had complained that his elevation would damage the reputation of the second chamber; which was presumably why the decision was slipped out in the middle of the Parliamentary recess when no one could complain. But as far as the by-election itself was concerned it wasn't until the 8th October 2009 that it was finally confirmed that Labour would move the writ for the Glasgow North East by-election for a contest to be held on November 12th.
It was certainly believed in some quarters that Michael Martin had hoped that his son Paul Martin, who co-incidentally was the Scottish MSP for Glasgow Springburn, would 'inherit' his Westminster seat, and that his general reluctance to relinquish the post of Speaker was explained by his desire to hang on until the following General Election so that he could manage the hand over to his son with the minimum of fuss. However in the circumstances, it appeared unlikely that Labour would repeat the mistake of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election and open itself to the accusation of operating an hereditary selection process, and on the 29th June 2009 the local Glasgow North East Constituency Labour Party selected a law lecturer named William Bain as their candidate. He was very much the local boy, having been born and raised in Springburn and was currently secretary of the aforementioned Constituency Labour Party.
Grant Thoms was the favourite to be chosen as the Scottish National Party (SNP) candidate, but pulled out of the contest at the last minute, and on the 7th July 2009 the SNP selected a Glasgow City councillor named James Dornan. However on the 12th July the Sunday Herald newspaper revealed that Dornan had signed what was known in Scottish law as a protected trust deed in October 2004, effectively signing all his assets over to an insolvency practitioner as an alternative to formally declaring bankruptcy. Whilst this did not prevent him from standing for and being elected to Glasgow City Council, he had soon after been appointed to the board of Culture and Sport Glasgow, a charitable organisation set up by the council, and Scottish charitable law specifically excluded him from acting in such a capacity. In the face of this revelation, on the 13th July Dornan decided to step aside as the SNP candidate on the grounds that he might have been responsible for a "technical breach of charities legislation"
His replacement was a BBC Scotland journalist named David Kerr who had indeed earlier left the BBC in order to pursue his candidacy but had lost out to Dornan in the selection process. He was at least ready, willing, and able to participate in the contest, and had prior experience as well having fought the Falkirk West by-election in 2000. In August the Conservative Party selected Ruth Davidson as their candidate. She was another former BBC journalist, former Sunday school teacher, and Territorial Army volunteer who was now studying international development at Glasgow University. The Liberal Democrats opted for Eileen Baxendale, a former social worker and a member of South Lanarkshire Council, although at sixty-four she was not far off retirement, whilst the Scottish Green Party plumped for a local employee of a housing charity named David Doherty.
It being Scotland there was the usual plethora of left-wing candidates, with Kevin McVey standing for the Scottish Socialist Party, Louise Mcdaid representing Socialist Labour, and the ubiquitous Tommy Sheridan standing under the Solidarity banner. And it being a by-election there were also the usual independent hopefuls. There was John Smeaton, the former airport baggage handler who claimed to have helped a police officer to restrain the suspects during the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport in 2007. He had since managed to transform himself into a media celebrity, and was standing under the banner of an 'Independent Backed by the Jury Team'. He was joined by another independent named Mikey Hughes whose claim to fame was that he had once been the runner-up in Big Brother 2008, and Mev Brown a project worker for the homeless, who had turned to politics after his experiences as a Territorial Army volunteer. Naturally all three promised that they would 'clean up politics' in some way or another, and that their lack of political affiliation meant that they were better able to truly represent the views of their prospective constituents.
Glasgow North-East also proved to be the first outing for the TILT Party. TILT being an acronym for the 'The Individuals Labour and Tory', which was represented by its co-founder Dr Colin Campbell BSc (hons), MSc, PhD, CPC, MMSAI, but currently unemployed. Mr Campbell made much of the fact that he had been "born and raised near the reputed birthplace of William Wallace" and explained that the TILT Movement was "based on the influences of Keir Hardie and the first and then three time Labour and Tory supported Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald". It was not entirely clear what influences TILT had drawn from the aforementioned, or what they particularly stood for, apart from the fact that they thought that debt was a bad thing.
It must be said that the campaign made little impression on the national, as in British, media, since of course, there weren't that many London based journalists who fancied a trip to a constituency that featured "some of the most degraded, deprived and crime-ridden parts" of the country in the middle of a cold and wet Scottish autumn. Part of the reason might also have been that Glasgow North-East was viewed as the ninth safest Labour seat in Britain, being the archetypal Labour stronghold where the vote was weighed rather than counted, as even in the dark days of 1983, Labour had managed to win 65% of the vote in the old Glasgow Springburn seat. Of course, given their spectacular victory in the Glasgow East by-election of July 2008, the SNP might well have fancied their chances of causing a similar upset, although Glasgow East was always a better nationalist prospect that its North-East neighbour, and it would therefore clearly be more of a challenge to repeat that achievement.
However, right from the beginning the SNP campaign appeared to falter. Apart from their difficulties in finding the right candidate in the first place, their chosen candidate soon began to show signs of suffering from foot in mouth disease. He apparently made the mistake of referring to parts of Glasgow North-East constituting "ghettos", and was so accused of insulting the good people who dwelt there, before stating that the local Glasgow Caledonian University "did not have a reputation to tarnish". He then issued an election leaflet in which he described himself as "Dennistoun-born". This was a surprise to some, as when he had stood in the Falkirk West by-election in 2000, he had claimed that he was born in nearby Cumbernauld, whilst those that had seen his seen his birth certificate said that he had actually been born in Govan, and although that was in Glasgow, it was still several miles from Glasgow North-East itself. He was soon being described as "gaffe-prone" by the Labour supporting Daily Record as he made an appearance at a local ASDA outlet to ask a sales assistant at the fish counter what she was selling. "Fish" was of course, her fairly predictable reply.
Mr Kerr explained the discrepancies in the various claims made regarding his birthplace by blaming mistakes by over-enthusiastic activists without much success, but it did highlight the fact that it turned out to be a rather nasty and negative campaign largely dominated by a series of Labour attacks on the SNP, inspired by the realisation that whilst Labour was in Government in Britain it was in Opposition in Scotland. In particular, Labour focussed on their claim that the SNP led Scottish administration was 'ripping off Glasgow', and contrasted the decision to cancel GARL, the Glasgow airport rail link, with the millions the SNP were spending on the Edinburgh Trams project, and generally suggested that as far as the long-running Edinburgh-Glasgow war was concerned, the SNP very much favoured the former rather than the latter. Such claims naturally played well in Glasgow, although whether or not Labour might later have cause for regret once the electors of Edinburgh were given the opportunity to register their views on the topic remained to be seen.
Nevertheless it seemed that whatever hopes that the SNP might have had of repeating the breakthrough at Glasgow East were receding fast. At Glasgow East it was Labour who made a mess of their candidate selection and then picked someone who appeared unsure of their exact place of birth; at Glasgow North-East it was the SNP's turn to make the exact same mistakes. In any event, all doubts were caused aside on the 6th November 2009 when Gordon Brown "swept into" the constituency to do his bit for the cause. It was rapidly surmised that there was no way that Prime Minister Brown would have risked associating himself with the campaign unless the canvassing returns were pointing to an overwhelming Labour win, and therefore concluded that Labour were home and dry. Indeed Guido Fawkes happily placed £100 on Labour to win at 2-1 on, having decided that a 50% return on an overnight deposit with William Hill was too good an opportunity to miss.
The count took place overnight at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, and any doubts as to the result were soon dispelled when the SNP conceded defeat only an hour and a half after the counting had begun. The result when it finally arrived in the early hours of Friday morning was as follows:-
'Boost for Brown as Labour takes big victory in Glasgow vote' said The Guardian as it hailed "an emphatic victory" and claimed that its majority was "higher than many expected", although presumably that mean that the majority was also the same or less than many others had expected. Elsewhere the headlines similarly displayed a certain lack of creativity with, 'Labour sweeps to victory in Glasgow North East by-election' (Daily Telegraph), 'Labour wins Glasgow North East by-election' (The Independent) and 'Labour poll victory in Glasgow as SNP challenge is crushed'(The Times). 'Labour clinches win amid record electorate apathy' from The Scotsman was perhaps the most meaningful, as it highlighted the fact that the total votes cast of 20,595 was equivalent to a turnout of 32.97%, being the lowest ever recorded in a Scottish by-election, beating the previous record of 36% set in the Falkirk West by-election of 2000, where curiously enough David Kerr was also the SNP candidate.
There was a general sense of relief all round that the British National Party had lost their deposit and failed to make their half-expected 'breakthrough in Scotland' by finishing third, and a general sense of relief emanating from Downing Street as well, as the Labour win was regarded as easing the pressure on Gordon Brown who might now indeed survive to fight the next General Election on behalf of his party. Labour then went around saying that the result was "humiliating" for David Cameron, although it must be said that the Conservatives achieved what Conservatives are generally expected to achieve in such Labour bastions, which is to turn up, show willing, and save their deposit, with the added bonus that they achieved third place this time; a notable success given that they had come fourth in every other seat in Glasgow back in 2005.
The two big features of the result were that the Scottish National Party did not do quite as well as expected, and that the Liberal Democrats did so badly; 474 votes and sixth place behind both the BNP and the far-left Solidarity was perhaps the worst Liberal Democrat by-election performance of recent years. Tommy Sheridan would have been pleased to have come out ahead of all his left-wing rivals, who were all no doubt disappointed that the workers had failed to be inspired by their particular brand of revolutionary zeal, whilst TILT similarly failed to move anything much.
Naturally there were the usual suggestions by the losers that perhaps all was not well with the electoral process, as the SNP called on the Electoral Commission to investigate whether Labour had "abused the postal vote system" as it complained that 1,100 applications for postal votes had arrived less than three days before the deadline. There were also two alleged incidents of voting fraud in the contest, although since they involved a total of three ballot papers overall, they clearly would have had no impact on the result. Elsewhere people was just grateful that this was likely to be the last by-election for a while. At least until the next General Election, expected May 2007, that is.
The above article is naturally 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, although this time around this naturally included the likes of The Scotsman and The Herald. But see also;
- Glasgow North East
- Andrew Grice, Now it's time for the Commons clean-up, The Independent, 20 May 2009
- SNP favourite withdraws from nomination race, The Herald, 25 Jun 2009
- Labour is accused of running scared over delay in by-election, The Scotsman, 01 July 2009
- SNP election hopeful stands down, BBC News, 12 July 2009
- Rosa Prince, Glasgow North East by-election delayed until November, Daily Telegraph, 22 Jul 2009
- Have-a-go hero John Smeaton third favourite for by-election victory, Times September 26, 2009
- Simon Johnson, Labour confident of victory in Glasgow North East by-election, Daily Telegraph, 12 Nov 2009
- Eddie Barnes, Decision time in a seat left to rack and ruin, The Scotsman, 12 November 2009
- Jim Pickard and Andrew Bolger, Labour’s Glasgow win eases pressure on Brown, Financial Times, November 14 2009
- Eddie Barnes, Glasgow North East: Labour clinches win amid record electorate apathy 13 November 2009