Saturday, 15 June 2013

By-Elections

My first was my favourite. As with so many things in life.

On the 13th of April 1978, Donald Dewar won the Garscadden By-Election for the Labour Party.

I was nineteen, full of the energy of youth, and Chairman of the Glasgow University Labour Club.

It's indicative of a different age that I was two months from getting my degree. From a similar comfortable middle class background today, at that age,  I would probably have had a Sixth Year and then a gap year and only have just been starting out at University.

But exams were more important then as well, in the sense that you were expected to pass them at the first time of asking, Accordingly, until about a week before polling I'd been limited in the time I could spend along Great Western Road, being engaged in my final class exams.

But., by some miracle, for the discipline has never been my forte, I already had my "class ticket" in Conveyancing, the final class exam due to take place the day after Garscadden polling. So for the last week or so of the campaign I was there every day.

And, be in no doubt, Labour was worried. For all that Garscadden had been a safe Labour seat at the October 1974 General Election, by the 1977 District Council elections the Nationalists had won all six Council seats in the constituency. More importantly still, in every local government by-election since October 1974, Labour couldn't buy a win. Nationalism was on the rise and indeed somebody (my memory is Richard Kerley but I wouldn't want to embarrass him) had recently written an influential book suggesting that perhaps Labour should resign ourselves to independence being inevitable.

Three things changed that.

The first was that we had an exceptional candidate in Donald Dewar.. Enough said in some ways but it shouldn't be forgotten that the person he beat for the Labour nomination, in the person of  Alf Young, was also pretty exceptional. When the chips were down Labour realised that this was not the time to reward time serving. Hopefully that will be remembered in 2016. September 2014 won't be enough. We need to complete the rout.

The second reason Labour won at Garscadden however was because the SNP also had an exceptional candidate. I have since known Keith Bovey for more than thirty years as a professional colleague. He is a great lawyer who, were he so inclined, would surely have been recognised by the British state for his command of the law on the misuse of drugs. And he is also a man of great integrity. So when asked during the campaign what the consequence of Independence would be for the Yarrows warship yard, then the constituency's largest employer, he was not prepared to dissemble. It would inevitably close, he admitted, but that was a price worth paying for independence. Parties have long memories. Any SNP candidate since has been drilled to deny that there would ever be ANY downside to independence, The strategic consequence of that thirty-five year old tactical decision has brought much reward since. Perhaps only now  is it being tested to the full.

The third reason is a bit related to the first. Never underestimate the survival instincts of the Labour Party. At the time I thought the number and dedication of the activists at Garscadden was, presumably, typical, but in time experience taught that was far from the case. I have fought many by-elections since where the mood was one of going through the motions; where we seemed indifferent to the outcome where even, if there was any point to democracy, we (whisper it) might deserve to lose.

But Garscadden was special.

It rained all day and we worried all day, but at tea time the weather improved. Legend has it that it was at this point the late great Jimmy Allison observed that "The sun is coming out.....and so is the Labour vote" although my recollection is that I first heard these words on the day from Georgie Rogan, one of the assistant organisers. Perhaps Jimmy had suggested she pass it on.

By close of poll we knew we had won. Afterwards, and before the result was announced,  there was a "Question Time" type format debate and Bill Speirs wangled him and I a ticket. I have no recollection of any of the participants except Winnie Ewing, who spent the entire programme on the point of tears. I later had the privilege of recommending Winnie for life membership of the Law Society but on that night I would be lying if I didn't take some pleasure in her distress. Politics is politics.

And then we partied, Believe me, we partied, Until, at about 4am, like a guardian angel, Nancy Allison turned up to take Jimmy home and also offered me a lift back to Paisley. Then, the next day, still high on elation, I miraculously secured an exemption from the conveyancing degree exam. Which enabled me to spend the day I would otherwise have been sitting that exam helping George Robertson see Margo off even more comprehensively in Hamilton.

Happy days.

I recollect all this because there is of course another by-election taking place in Scotland this coming week. If we're being honest, "down here", none of us are entirely clear what's going on, not least because it is taking place in one of the few places in the Country with a genuine local media. I've not been. I could plead personal circumstance but in all honesty, I'm long past an age which would enable me to drive for two and a half hours, spend a day knocking doors, and then drive back. Were it but 1978 again.

Given that they got 55% of the vote in 2011, that they have an excellent candidate and that they have thrown the organisational kitchen sink at the seat, it would be extraordinary if the SNP lost Donside. Indeed it would be that rarest of things, a watershed political event. It probably won't happen.

But hope springs eternal.


1 comment:

  1. 'Nationalism was on the rise'

    Militant was also on the rise and Sheridan's wolves had targeted Garscadden Labour - my admittedly vague recollection is that the constituency was on the verge of deselecting Dewar until Kinnock intervened.

    You are right about the SNP being in lock down these days - but Scottish Labour are no' bad at it also!

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