- Is this the way to minimise another humiliating defeat?
The Guardian writer Martin Kettle is one of many commentators to say that the timing of the Glenrothes by-election would be a major factor in determining whether or not Brown lives to fight another day.
Since the death of John MacDougall, the Labour majority of 10,664 has been assessed and found to be unsafe in the face of the likely challenge of the SNP. It requires a smaller swing than Glasgow East and the SNP did well there in the Holyrood 2007 elections.
There are suggestion that the SNP could take this seat with a majority of up to 5,000 – this would be humiliating coming, as it does, in the constituency that neighbours the Prime Minister’s own.
There are specific rules around moving a writ of election, but substantially (though the Speaker is given some latitude under certain circumstances during the Recess) the choice lies with the Government. Writs must either be moved unopposed, or supported by a Parliamentary majority if opposed at all. The choice of when to hold this election therefore ultimately lies with the PM.
So what are the feasible dates? Martin Kettle:“The rules that govern such matters are elastic but, broadly speaking, Labour can call the Glenrothes byelection any time between now and the middle of November.Once the election writ is moved, the campaign normally takes around three weeks. In practice, therefore, polling day in Glenrothes could currently be on any Thursday between September 11 and December 4.”
Kettle then goes on to explain why he believes that the election should be held at the earliest possible juncture (Thursday September 11th), apparently because Labour is still haunted by losing Brent East in 2003 and isn’t going to win this time so best not delay the inevitable. I think this is unbelievably wrong-headed.
For this is the final day of the TUC Conference. Not only will half the left-wing political activists from the unions be otherwise engaged and unable to support the campaign, but the other half will be talking about nothing but an about-to-be-lost by-election and whether it means the end of the PM’s time in office. As if that wasn’t excruciating enough, Brown would then have to face the Labour Party Conference in Manchester only eight days after seeing his neighbouring constituency overturn a five-figure majority.
There is no way that this by-election should be held before, during, or shortly after the Labour and TUC conferences. The SNP conference and school holidays make October a difficult month to schedule a by-election, even without the clocks changing on the 26th. Brown might want to avoid another by-election humiliation just before a recess (when MPs can plot away from the public eye, as they have done this summer), so late November might be too close to Christmas holidays.
- If I were the PM, there is only one date I would choose for the Glenrothes by-election: November 4th, 2008 – the day of the US Presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain.
The event would be completely starved of oxygen in the political media. It is after all the conferences, and not too close to Christmas. It will become a complete non-event, overshadowed to greater extent than any by-election since Paisley North and Paisley South (29th November 1990 – Thatcher had resigned, Major became PM, impending Gulf War, and the Channel Tunnel break-through all within 36 hours).
If the convention (and it is only convention) was kept of holding elections on a Thursday, then November 6th would suffice, as journalists will still be obsessed with explaining the consequences of the Presidential election. In fact, events that threaten to overshadow elections have been one of two reasons for not holding them on Thursdays (the other being Bank Holidays). The last by-election not to be held on a Thursday was in Hamilton (31st May, 1978) to avoid the start of the FIFA World Cup.
So I would recommend the first week of November as the PM’s best hope of ‘surviving’ another defeat. It is telling that it has come to this. Gordon Brown must wish that this by-election wasn’t happening: unless he somehow pulls off a suprise win, the best he can hope for is that nobody notices that he lost.
UPDATE: Apparently, this article had a bit of an impact