Scottish vote: Once-safe Labour seats tumbled like cards

Even the SNP itself initially seemed taken aback by the scale of its feat


In the end it was swift and brutal. Douglas Alexander, the hardened career politician who had engineering Labour’s national election campaign, stood awkwardly on the stage, peering out at the banks of cameras and the crowds of enthusiastic activists in yellow, all awaiting his dispatch.

To his left was Mhairi Black, an earnest, self-confident politics student who was three years old when he first won the seat in 1997. It was 2.20am. The numbers, when they came, were emphatic: faced with a dizzying swing of 26.9 per cent towards the SNP, Alexander had no chance. He was out, replaced by the youngest MP since 1667 in a rout neatly reflective of the broader drama unfolding across Scotland. It was, he said in a gracious concession speech, “a very difficult night” for Labour.

It was more than that. The disorienting events of recent days in Scotland, far from being a mere turn in the political cycle, felt like a fundamental upending of basic assumptions about how Scotland functions and how it sees itself. It took Thatcherism a generation to finish off the Conservatives in Scotland. Now, in the space of one night, Labour – whose traditional route to Downing Street has always passed through these sympathetic heartlands in the north – was being run out of town. All through the night, one by one, Labour incumbents in once-safe seats tumbled like cards.

2.55am: Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, one-time bastion of Gordon Brown.

3.10am: East Renfrewshire, home of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy

3.27am: Glasgow East, where the victim was Labour’s shadow Scotland secretary, Margaret Curran.

And on it went, all through the night. Everywhere was in play. Edinburgh, the Highlands, Aberdeen, Dundee. Seat by seat, the map of Scotland turned bright yellow. By 3am the party had already surpassed its best ever result – the 11 seats it won in 1974. Some of the reversals seemed scarcely plausible: in Glasgow East, Curran was swept away by a 39 per cent swing – so freakish that the BBC’s swing-ometre could barely fit it in.

Along the way, former party leader Alex Salmond won in the Aberdeenshire seat of Gordon, overturning a 7,000-strong Lib Dem majority in an area that voted 60-40 against independence last September. “There’s going to be a lion roaring tonight, a Scottish lion, and it’s going to roar with a voice that no government of whatever political complexion is going to be able to ignore,” said Salmond to cheering supporters after being declared elected.

The next morning, in a speech so eloquent you wondered if it had been prepared before polling day, Murphy spoke of Labour being “overwhelmed by history and circumstance”.

Playing it down

Even the SNP itself had initially seemed taken aback by the scale of its feat. When the Thursday night exit poll put the party at 58 seats, Sturgeon’s response was to play it down. But by 2am, when she arrived at the Glasgow count centre to loud applause from party members (the SNP won seven out of seven in the city), the pretence had been dropped and she began to speak of “seismic shifts”, of history being made.

But it was striking that, for all the euphoria the result provoked, the party’s celebrations were relatively subdued. No street parties or rallies broke out in Scottish cities, and Sturgeon was noticeably keen to manage expectations as she prepared to go to London to join David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg at the VE Day commemoration.

A big unanswered question is whether the SNP intends to use its newly enhanced leverage to press for another independence referendum. As Sturgeon acknowledged in interviews, many people who voted for the party on Thursday voted No last September. During the campaign, the party leadership was at pains to stress that a vote for the SNP was not a vote for separatism but for a stronger Scottish voice in Westminster. But it hasn’t said whether a referendum pledge will be included in its manifesto for next year’s Scottish assembly elections.

The party would only press for another referendum if something “material” changed, Sturgeon said during the campaign. The question is, would a seismic re-ordering of the political landscape qualify as a material change?