John McLellan: Triumph and tears but roles reversed

The count in full swing at the EICC. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The count in full swing at the EICC. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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TEARFUL Labour supporters, triumphant Nationalists, dumb-struck Lib Dems and relieved Conservatives; the scenes at the general election count could not have been more different from the referendum climax at Ingliston just eight months previously.

Then, the bewildered shoulder shrugs and head shaking were the mark of independence supporters; by Friday morning at the EICC it was the turn of Labour and Lib Dems.

On a night of triumph for the SNP, only its defeated Edinburgh South candidate Neil Hay cut a dejected figure at the EICC count centre, the one candidate in the Lothians not to be heading to Westminster, undone by ill-judged abuse on Twitter during the campaign for independence.

It handed Labour its solitary lifeline as the anti-SNP/Hay vote rallied behind Ian Murray to return him with a 2500 majority. How ironic Labour’s only Scottish seat was only secured with the help of thousands of Tory tactical voters.

Murray’s acceptance speech was certainly not one of victory, not even of relief, but of stunned sadness which came perilously close to anger for which the pack of Nationalists 
in front of the stage in the Lennox Suite were quick to jeer when he accused the SNP of hiding from its promises.

And it was a mark of an abject night that he even conceded defeat for Mark Lazarowicz in Leith and Sheila Gilmore in East before their results were made official.

And so the Edinburgh victors – Deidre Brock, Joanna Cherry, Tommy Sheppard and Michelle Thomson – all got their moment in the spotlight to deliver their well-choreographed acceptances.

They promised to serve all constituents, to create jobs and all railed against austerity, obscene nuclear weapons and inequality. Cherry’s speech was virtually identical to that delivered an hour earlier in Paisley by the conqueror of Douglas Alexander, the 20-year-old Mhairi Black, with the exception of an attack on the “ruling elite”, which was a bit rich coming from a QC.

Whether they had any idea how all their fine words were going to become reality, given at the same time the Tories were heading towards a working majority, was presumably for another day, but the scale of the task facing them was perhaps why there was an atmosphere of restraint around the halls.

Yes, there was an understandable amount of fist-pumping, but it wasn’t in the goalscorer, in-your-face kind of celebration which often marks such occasions. There was joy at the demise of Jim Murphy, but the ta-ta waves were at television screens and there was a notable absence of gloating in the main hall as the results were read out.

This was a very Edinburgh coup, but be in no doubt this revolution in Scottish politics will reverberate for years.

“Where’s MI5 when you need them?” said a forlorn man with a Labour rosette. It was, of course, a joke referring to the conspiracy theories which followed the referendum, but it did capture the helplessness the party felt in the face of the avalanche which had swept them from the mountains they once dominated.

The most immediate implication in Edinburgh is a by-election in the Leith ward of the city council to replace Deidre Brock and yesterday morning the opposition didn’t look like they had much fight left for it.

And amidst all the excitement and the despondency, city politicians need to gear up for the crucial local development plan debate next week which will set the framework for the city’s growth for the next ten years. At the heart of that decision is planning chief Ian Perry, who until Friday morning was Sheila Gilmore’s agent.

At least the prospect of immediate constitutional mayhem and a second general election this year has been averted and attention will turn to the Scottish Parliament where Labour’s deputy leader Kez Dugdale will have the job of her life to galvanise her shattered party into some sort of fighting force if they are to avoid another disaster next May.

And it will fall to Dugdale because Jim Murphy cannot possibly carry on as leader with any authority.

The Scottish Parliament electoral system will prevent a repeat of Thursday’s wipe-out but who would bet against another overall SNP majority or an even greater one? Constitutional negotiations will dominate Scottish politics for the foreseeable future, and it will allow the SNP to be seen as a party fighting to bring power home to Scotland which will only enhance its electability.

Calls for Scottish Labour to become autonomous from London began yesterday morning before most people were at work, led by Johann Lamont’s former communications chief Paul Sinclair, and it’s a decision which needs to be taken quickly one way or another. As Ian Murray said, constitutional wrangling never built a school or a hospital.

But if Labour is in intensive care, the Lib Dems are the walking dead. Not so long ago they were running the city, Edinburgh West was their fiefdom and Edinburgh South was next on the hit-list. Now there is nothing.

Can they rebuild? Who knows, but there is no room on the political spectrum for three parties claiming to be moderate left-of-centre. For the Lib Dems it will be back to a base of local activism on local causes: with few local councillors, few MSPs and now no mainland MPs, the Lib Dems as a national movement are dead for now.

For the Conservatives, the question of whether the Scottish party needs further separation from London will no doubt flare up, but any doubt about Ruth Davidson’s leadership vanished in the referendum and now in her and Nicola Sturgeon Scotland has two of Britain’s brightest political stars.

Davidson’s future was further secured when news of one of the night’s surprises came through – that David Mundell had beaten an estimated 11-point deficit in the final week of the campaign to hold Dumfriesshire. It means the uncharted territory of a Tory government with no Tories in Scotland has been avoided and the relief of the Conservatives at the EICC was palpable.

And thanks to the SNP the dreams of some of the more extreme Southern Tories have come true with the eradication of Scottish Labour MPs. Suddenly delivering “English votes for English laws” has become easier and if they are so minded the Conservatives can devolve as much power as they want and leave the SNP at Holyrood to it, and leave the 56 new Nationalist MPs to face a future of thumb-twiddling.

But it would come at a price; not only could Scotland become responsible for a £7bn deficit on top of what already exists but George Osborne is likely to accelerate his pet Northern powerhouse project.

The brain behind the plans to develop Manchester and Leeds into new economic boom towns is brilliant young Treasury civil servant Neil O’Brien who also happens to be well acquainted with Scotland and a Scotland with more responsibility for its own economy is going to face intense competition less than two hours down the M6.

So Scotland has a mandate to end austerity? The SNP needs to be careful what it wishes for.

SMOOTH EXIT FOR SUE

An early flurry of activity set alarm bells ringing for another tortuous Edinburgh count, when the agents were summoned to meetings with Returning Officer Sue Bruce about postal votes, some of which hadn’t arrived at the count centre by 1.30am.

It turned out that there were suspicions of voter impersonation and it was quickly agreed to leave the investigation till later and not to delay proceedings. And despite fears of a recount in Edinburgh South, in the end all five Edinburgh seats were declared by 5.30am.

It will be Dame Sue’s last election as Edinburgh’s RO and it was a fitting sign-off that it all went smoothly.