By-elections are good fun. They get politicians out of the debating chamber and out onto the streets talking to the people who matter rather than each other. They can also give us a clue as to what people are thinking, as they involve real people voting in large numbers, rather than a thousand people responding to an opinion poll. So what can we take from the by-election in Aberdeen Donside yesterday?
Well, we can use it so extrapolate what the result of a Holyrood general election would be. Bernard Ponsonby, on the other hand, seemed determined to convince us last night that it was very wrong to do just that, though. Strange – I thought that was what journalists, pundits and politicians have been doing at every by-election for years! I bet the papers reporting after the City of London by-election in 1833 when the Tories beat the Governing Whigs did just that – and so shall I.
But just how does the result in Aberdeen translate across Scotland? While it is easy to say that there was a 9% swing to Labour from the SNP, the picture is more nuanced than that, and indicates that while we have indeed made good progress, there is still more work to do.
I think one of the big shocks on the night was the increase in the Lib Dem vote. It certainly caught me by surprise, and meant my entry in the North East Scotland Young Labour prediction competition should be considered a donation rather than an investment. UKIP did well, and will have surprised some, although I admit to having predicted a bigger surge. Our vote was bigger than it had been in this constituency since 1999, when in predecessor seat Aberdeen North it had been 37.2%.
A straight 9.1% swing from SNP to Labour would give us 56 seats against the SNP’s 51. Everyone else stay the same, except the Tories who lose a list seat in the Lothians to the SNP. But politics is complicated in Scotland, and entrance of UKIP makes it now a real 6-party system, albeit with 2 major ones and 4 minor ones. The SNP didn’t just lose votes to Labour – they went back to the Lib Dems after they were punished in 2011. They also must have gone to UKIP – a part of the SNP’s vote has always been the “none of the above” party, and since the SNP is in Government they now have found an alternative. The Conservatives lost a little – one assumes to UKIP, although their loss was less than I had thought.
Factoring in all these numbers results in a swing to Labour of only 5.8% – not great but not to be sniffed at. So a disaster for Labour? Not quite. By-elections to the Scottish Parliament are rare beasts, but there have been a few that we can compare this to, and Glasgow Cathcart is probably the best comparison. The seat had been held by Labour with a large majority and the party had been in Government for 6 years. The SNP opposition under their new leadership put in a strong challenge, but only managed a swing to them of 3.7%. Despite this, they went on to win the general election 18 months later. So a swing of 5.8% is actually rather better than the SNP were doing at this point when they were in opposition.
How does that translate into seats? Well, although our seat total will be down to 53, the SNP also do less well, winning 45. Slightly perversely, the Labour majority over them is increased. UKIP gain 5 list seats, all at the expense of the SNP, albeit that some of these would have fallen to other parties given the fall in the vote of the SNP. The Lib Dems also do well, gaining 3 seats overall, Edinburgh Western, North East Fife and Aberdeenshire West. Here in the North East, we will re-take Aberdeen Central, and retain 3 list seats, for a net increase of 1.
So no, Mr Salmond, we haven’t failed to make significant progress, we’re actually halfway to regaining our 1999 share of the vote, improved enough to beat you in other parts of the country and there is still 3 years to go.