Both of the Scottish parliamentary constituencies involving Argyll saw drama and uncertainty as the election process rolled to its conclusion yesterday (6th May 2011).
The background to the election was the serious and ongoing UK financial crisis following the international collapse of financial institutions in the Autumn of 2008.
The local background was the profound unrest across Argyll and the Isles of the competence and conduct of Argyll and Bute Council, relating to financial management and a series of controversial school closure proposals.
Both the national and the local context were also informed by deep dissatisfactions with the Liberal Democrats. They were under attack by their own supporters for going into coalition with the Tories in the Westminster government; and locally they had lost the trust of constituents for their conduct in the school closures. The alienation from the electorate caused by this matter also affected the Conservatives, for reasons discussed below.
Argyll and Bute
The Argyll and Bute seat had a very experienced field of candidates, two recent MSPs including a senior government minister; three with local government experience, two currently and one a former Leader of Argyll and Bute Council; and a seasoned Independent.
Of the six, only one, the Highlands and Islands MSP and Conservative candidate,, had stood for the constituency before. The sitting MSP, the SNP’s Jim Mather, who had served as Enterprise, Energy and Tourism Minister in the SNP’s first administration at Holyrood from 2007, was standing down.
It was all to play for.
The result was a magisterial win from the SNPs Michael Russell. He saw his majority of 8,543 multiply his party’s 2007 majority by more than ten times; with a 16% rise in share of the vote, taking 50.6% of the overall vote in a field of 6 candidates.
The area the columnist John MacLeod called ‘the mighty Argyll’ in the aftermath of the 2007 election spoke again on 5th May 2011.
This story was Scotland’s story on election night – but with a local accelerator.
On a disastrous night for the Liberal Democrats, the collapse of their vote in Argyll and Bute was the greatest in Scotland at 19.6%. Interestingly, it was the then Party Leader, Tavish Scott’s vote – with a 19.2% loss – that came closest to taking this unenviable wooden spoon.
Where Scott had a massive enough majority to ride out this scale of loss and still keep his seat, Councillor Alison Hay, a first time candidate and fighting to retake the seat for her party from the SNP, would have been facing a tough challenge anyway.
As a member both of the ruling coalition of Argyll and Bute Council and of its Executive, Alison Hay had personally voted twice to send forwards to statutory consultation each of two successive sets of school closure proposals that were clearly unable. The latest one is currently in process.
This was a catastrophic failure of judgment and an indefensible set of personal priorities, for both of which she has not been forgiven in what became and remains an Argyll-wide set-piece confrontation.
The problem was never her stance per se but her willingness to set aside the evidential requirements of the law which had not and have not been met; and her parallel willingness to disregard clearly competent evidence of the fundamental flaws in the proposals. These should have rendered them unfit to proceed.
It is this local and personal situation that created the additional scale of LibDem vote loss in Councillor Hay’s low fourth place in her party’s single worst result in the country.
This has been a sad episode because Alison Hay is neither an incompetent nor a dishonourable person. She was guilty, under pressure, of very poor judgment on an issue that determines the very survival of the rural communities that are the stuff of Argyll; and she has paid for it.
There is no doubt whatsoever that others guilty of the same misjudgment and worse, will themselves be brought up short by the Argyll and Bute electorate at the 2012 local government elections.
The Conservative candidate, the experienced Highlands and Islands List MSP, Jamie McGrigor, personally a long standing supporter of rural schools, fell foul of the reputational damage done to his party by its two local councillors, both, as townsfolk, energetically and irrationally supporting the rural school closure proposals.
It is a hard irony for Jamie McGrigor that these councillors represent Helensburgh, which comes under the Dumbarton and not the Argyll and Bute constituency. The anger of the Argyll-wide electorate on the conduct of this matter does not recognise constituency boundaries.
The proof of the impact of this issue is that, in a year which has seen this energetic politician deliver tangible benefits to constituents – like, for example, the British Gas funding he initiated and facilitated for the Mid Argyll Swimning Pool – he lost 1% of his share of the vote. Rather than challenge Michael Russell, this saw him drop further back in his vote while – given the size of Russell’s majority, still taking his party into second place.
New to Argyll, the Labour candidate and Cowal resident, Mick Rice, who has served on Birmingham City Council, maintained the surprise third place for his party won by his colleague, David Graham, in the Westminster election of 2010.
With Labour utterly uninvolved in the school closures controversy by virtue of having no elected councillors in Argyll and Bute, Mick Rice added 0.8% to his party’s share of the vote compared to its last performance in fourth place in the Scottish Parliamentary election in 2007.
What now for Argyll and Bute?
With this emphatic victory, Mr Russell has proved both his own strengths for this constituency and the trust for his party built by his predecessor, Jim Mather.
Argyll and Bute will now be getting to know its new constituency MSP, discovering where his personal style takes him on the accessibility ladder, what his ideas are for Argyll, how doughtily he will fight for its interests. Argyll has never wanted favours – but it is mightily interested in justice and fairness – not always the same thing.
Argyll has grown to trust Mr Russell’s clarity of position on the issue of rural school closures. He reinforced how constructive this is in the offer he had made earlier and repeated to Argyll and Bute Council in his acceptance speech yesterday – which was heard on national television. He is happy – keen indeed, to sit down with councillors and staff to help to develop a strategy for the crucial rural schools in the area. Argyll feels it needs its new MSP to remain as Education Secretary.
The first local test of the new SNP Government, with its historic overall majority will come on this very issue. There are several ways of looking at the issue.
If the new administration and Mr Russell are determined to confront the efforts of Argyll and Bute Council and their representative body, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) to subvert the express purpose of the 2010 Schools Act, he will return as Education Secretary. (Argyll and Bute Council are not, of course, alone among local authorities in this subversion, although their behaviour has been the most flagrant.)
If the new government, despite its overall majority, is minded instead to make some compact with the institutional Scotland that simply kept stalling, sitting out the SNP’s first term of office in the certainty that it would be its last, then Mr Russell will be given a different post.
On the other hand, having an MSP – who will be a senior minister in some department in any case – who is not primarily responsible for education at government level could be a decided advantage. An Education Secretary would be constrained by the need to demonstrate at all times that he/she is objective and has no personal vested interest in the result.
If Argyll’s MSP were to be free to fight its case from the position of a department other then Education, it could be a decided advantage. He would be free to lobby and to dispute in a way that, as Education Secretary, he could not be. He would have his expertise from his time as Education Secretary to draw upon in Argyll’s interests. He could not, in these circumstances, be accused of listening to special pleading or of favouring one area because it happens to be his constituency. He would and could be single-mindedly working with the community – and not be accused of vested interest.
All of us, the school campaigners, Argyll and Bute Council and COSLA will soon know the answer to the direction of Mr Russell’s ministerial career.
The Dumbarton result
The Dumbarton constituency and its sitting Labour MSP, Jackie Baillie, who was her party’s Health Spokesperson in the last parliament, had a manic final few days before the vote on Thursday 5th May 2011.
By this time, her party’s polls – and those of her competitors – were showing the coming meltdown of the Liberal Democrat vote.
As we reported at the time, on the east coast and in the north and north west Highlands and Islands, this was largely going to the SNP, but in Dumbarton it was all over the place.
These votes were there to be fought for and without at least her share of them, Jackie Baillie, facing a popular SNP competitor who was fighting an energetic campaign, was all but certain to lose her seat. Her party, whose strategic use of the regional list, was one of the factors in its loss of so many MSPs, had not put her on the West of Scotland regional list for the second vote. If she lost the constituency, she was out of Holyrood.
The result of the election in her constituency proved Jackie Baillie’s mettle. She took the seat – with an increased majority and must have won most of the freefall LibDem vote from her SNP competitor.
The Conservatives lost 3.8% of their Dumbarton vote on the night. That will not have formed part of Ms Baillie’s 4.5% increase in the Labour share of the vote. It will have gone towards the SNP’s 5% increased share.
This left the LibDem loss of 8.3% to contribute 4.5% to Jackie Baillie, the remaining 1.2% to the SNP’s overall 5% gain and 1.7% to the Independent.
What now for Dumbarton and the Labour Party?
Jackie Baillie’s last minute digging deep to campaign to win and her success in doing so shows her toughness as well as her respected capability.
When she appeared on the BBC’s results programme during the day on Friday 6th May, it was clear that sleep had been in short supply – but she had done what she needed to do.
The other proof of her independent mindedness came during that programme. While other Labourites were almost competing to beat the mea culpa drum the loudest, Jackie Baillie toughed that out too. She pointed out that the party, as with her own result, has increased its vote in several constituencies. She said that the matter was not a simple one and that no safe conclusions could be drawn until the results were carefully analysed.
We have been working almost nonstop on our own seat-by-seat, list-by-list analysis of what happened in Thursday’s vote and hope to publish on that and on situational analyses on Sunday 8th May.
Iain Gray, Leader of the Labour party in Scotland, did not choose to wait, as Mrs Baillie had done, before making his judgment. He announced on Friday, as the results tally was completed, that he would stand down as leader in September this year, after initiating a review of the party’s performance and its structures.
Along with Malcolm Chisholm, Sarah Boyack and Hugh Henry, it is being said that Jackie Baillie will enter the eventual contest to lead her party.
She should do. She has now also shown the capacity for cool headed toughness under pressure that would play well in what lies ahead for Labour.
But if she is successful and if she is to rebuild her party to make it fit for the purposes of serving the self-confident Scotland we all saw emerge in Thursday’s vote, she will need to temper with vision the pragmatism that saw her toe the Labour line and vote against the SNP government’s proposal to legislate on a minimum pricing of alcohol.
This was designed to combat the binge drinking that is an acknowledged disease in contemporary Scotland. It was supported vigorously by all the bodies representing health professionals and by the police. It was needed.
But the Labour party was seduced by the rich and muscular drinks industry lobby and distracted by its own mantra of doing the opposite to the SNP at all costs. It took the decision to vote against the proposal.
Jackie Baillie voted with her party. Malcolm Chisholm, a former Labour Health Minister at Holyrood, voted against the party line and for the SNP’s proposed minimum pricing of alcohol.
A modern Scottish Labour Party will need to move strongly away from the machine politics that has left it something of a Stalinist dinosaur. Can Jackie Baillie raise her game to this challenge? That will be her test.
On the school closures issue, she has been a buttress against institutional vandalism for the threatened schools in Helensburgh and Lomond for which, as MSP for Dumbarton, she is responsible.
The only school in the area remaining under threat in the current closure proposal list is Luss School on Loch Lomond, Mrs Baillie has said unequivocally – and the parents of the children at Luss are fully aware of her commitment, that she will continue to work with them as she has already done – and that, whatever it takes, they will win. Her performance in saving her own seat and in increasing her majority in the process, against all the odds, is proof that, whatever it takes, she can win. Luss can take heart.