Leadership Implications of The Glasgow East by-Election

July 25, 2008

The SNP snatches a victory in Glasgow East. There are leadership implications reaching far beyond the constituency. However, a call-in programme suggests that Gordon Brown’s problems do not reveal widespread acceptance for David Cameron

John Mason’s triumph deserves more comment than I can give it, without closer acquaintance with the local (and complex) issues. Bryan Taylor points out, for example, that the newly elected MP is a fierce supporter of Scottish independence.

Consensus from the outset was that Glasgow East by-election would be very bad for Labour. Their campaign was rocky from the start, while Salmond continued to rock for the SDP. There are important implications for Scotland which are also significant for both Gordon Brown and David Cameron, and their parties in faraway Westminster.

And so it came to pass.

Labour voters administered a kicking.

A phone-in on BBC’s five live [25th July, 2008] invited comments on the result. After about an hour, host Steven Nolan began issuing requests to hear from someone prepared to defend Gordon Brown.

Eventually, the first Labour party loyalist came on-air. I am assuming the phone-lines to viewers were primed to welcome any such a call and to rush it on-air lest someone somewhere would accuse the programme of utterly biased presentation.

What, the caller asked, should Brown have done differently. And more to the point, if not Brown as leader, who else would do better?

His challenge was put to subsequent callers. There were many suggestions of what should have been done differently:

not funding Blair’s [Iraq] war
calling a national election on his succession after Blair
not spending £50 billion on rescuing Northern Rock
not penalizing the poor through the abolition of the 10% tax rate changing the Government’s fuel taxation policies
not ruining the economy during his time as Chancellor …

The list is understandable, even if Gordon seems to have been the recipient of collective anger that might just have been shared around a bit more widely.

But the replies to the second question were even more surprising. I expected mention to be made of Alan Johnson by former Labour supporters. Or maybe David Miliband?

About the Five-Live phone-in

Before taking the story further, here is a little context. Radio Five Live phone-ins in the UK are a well-established tradition through which callers are encouraged to ‘make a point’.

In practice ‘the point’ seems often about the unfair way in which the caller has been treated by more powerful institutions or individuals. A secondary theme is that of courage in the face of adversity. In search for something extra, the story is sometimes literally of someone in extremis, demonstrating the courage of a terminally-ill person.

What’s my point? Just that the format and respondents match pretty well, providing a window into a world of individual courage, sorrow, and intensely held beliefs. The views while sometimes fascinating, sometimes painful may be thought-provoking, although unreliable material for assessing voting intentions of the wider electorate.

So ‘Who Else’ ?

Getting back to the ‘who else as leader?’ question, Salmond was mentioned as a major influence behind the SDP success.

But the phone-in was targeted at Gordon Brown. The question was who else could do a better job as PM?

Callers seemed unprepared for this. Brown? Rubbish. But who else? Duh!

Strange, don’t you think?

There was a few ‘who not’ suggestions (David Milliband, Jack Straw).

More prompting from Nolan. How about David Cameron? This produced another response I had not expected. Cameron was no more in favour from the callers than was Gordon Brown.

‘Brown’s a worm’, one lady spat out, recounting her post-budget tax burden.

How about Cameron? [slight pause].

‘He’s a worm too.’

This was a view that had remained uncontested when I exercised my democratic rights by switching off.

‘They are all the same’

What I was hearing was a collective howl of frustration against a personal enemy. Brown, New Labour, The labour party, and even politicians. ‘They’ are all the same.


Meanwhile, In Germany, the crowds that turned out to hear Barack Obama yesterday had demonstrated the mirror-image of despair. They roared approval of his beautifully executed charismatic style, and his offer of audacious hope. They were young and old, black and white, in search of a politician who ‘wasn’t the same as the rest’.

But don’t ask me what they would have told Stephen Nolan about the experience.