Last week’s Parliamentary by-election in Inverclyde was a moment primarily of relief for the Scottish Labour Party, who held onto the seat with a majority nearing 6,000. The election, called after the tragic death of David Cairns MP, was the first electoral test for Scottish Labour at Westminster level since their disastrous performance in the Scottish Parliament elections in May.
While the by-election provided some amusement for Labour supporters like myself, if only for confirming that SNP supporters are extremely bad losers, in reality there is little cause to be complacent. Labour’s vote share essentially held firm, while Liberal Democrat support collapsed and the SNP surged forward. This was basically the same pattern as observed across Scotland in May’s elections, and it led to the routing we received then. All of the analysis about Scots “split ticket voting” and still being prepared to support Labour at Westminster is premature. Clearly there is much to be done to make Scottish Labour an acceptable home for disaffected Lib Dem voters – especially in the wake of Alex Salmond’s appeal to ex-Liberals to join his party.
More importantly, however, the Inverclyde poll demonstrated again the importance of an effective, positive campaign in winning over Scottish voters. Iain McKenzie’s campaign in Inverclyde emphasised his record as a local council leader and his commitment to securing local jobs, and he was rewarded with a healthy majority over the nationalists. Labour’s Holyrood campaign, by contrast, was all about griping about the Westminster government and the SNP, and conveyed little of a positive vision for Scotland. The result of that, of course, was an SNP landslide.
The importance of a positive campaign in Scottish electioneering is something that needs urgently to be recognised in the run-up to the near-inevitable referendum on Scottish independence. The SNP will certainly phrase the referendum question so that a “Yes” vote is a vote for independence, immediately casting unionists into the negative “No” campaign. The challenge for that campaign will be to argue a positive case for the union. It will certainly not be enough to get tied up in the kind of rhetoric Nationalists use when parodying Scottish unionism – arguments that Scotland is “too wee, too poor and too stupid” to go it alone.
As a supporter of Scotland’s continued presence in the United Kingdom, believing – as I do – that nationalism is an inherently unpleasant, ignorant and dangerous ideology will have next to no relevance when it comes down to an independence referendum. To go on the attack – as the No campaign successfully did in May’s AV referendum, for instance – is not something that will necessarily wash with Scottish voters. Scare tactics, personal attacks and empty rhetoric about “broken promises” can no longer be the linchpin of any campaign.
It is important to give Scottish voters positive reasons to vote both for Scottish Labour and for retaining Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. These lessons should perhaps have been obvious to begin with, but they have been cast into sharper relief by the Inverclyde by-election – and it is to be hoped that, this time, they do not go unlearned.