It’s happened at last – a newspaper has finally challenged Labour on its bizarre claim that Iain Gray has "beaten Alex Salmond three-nil" since he became leader. The bad news is that the newspaper in question is the Larkhall Chronicle. Still, it's a start, and in the forlorn hope that it might shame the national papers into doing their job properly, I thought I'd post Steven Brodie's article here in its entirety (it's only available in the print edition of the paper).
A local Labour councillor has launched an astonishing attack on his own party chiefs – for being too MODEST. Gavin McCulloch, elected to South Lanarkshire Council for the first time in 2007, reckons that Scots Labour leader Iain Gray's claim to be leading the SNP’s Alex Salmond 'three-nil' in elections doesn't go far enough.
"The 'three-nil' basically just refers to national elections, like the general election, and the Glasgow North-east by-election a couple of years back," explained Councillor McCulloch at the weekend. "As a local representative I find it typical that local elections are getting scrubbed out of the picture yet again, and I’m slightly ashamed that my party are the culprits! The truth is that if you take local by-elections into account, the score is a sensational eight-nil to Iain Gray. He's a phenomenally popular leader."
Councillor McCulloch later drove the point home by taking to the streets of Larkhall, and handing out stickers featuring a picture of Iain Gray – who didn't appear to be smiling – along with the slogan "Go Go Gray, let's make it nine in a row".
But since then the Chronicle's minions have been doing some ferreting, and have discovered that the 'eight-nil' claim may not be all that it appears. Armed with a dossier of facts, dates and figures, I paid a visit to Labour's headquarters in the town to challenge the councillor on some of his facts. First of all, I put it to him that even the original suggestion that Mr Gray had beaten Alex Salmond three times in a row since becoming leader doesn't really make sense.
Councillor McCulloch seemed bemused. "I was anticipating that people might not be ready to take local by-elections seriously, but even the Larkhall Chronicle can't deny the wonderful results Labour have been enjoying at national level since Iain first electrified us with his visionary leadership."
But, I replied, doesn’t the 'three-nil' claim airbrush from history the European elections of June 2009, which the SNP won by a significant margin? That, after all, was a national election, and therefore surely more important than by-elections. It also took place in between Labour’s victories in Glenrothes and Glasgow North-east, which on the face of it would make it impossible to truthfully claim that Gray’s successes had occurred 'in a row', or indeed that Alex Salmond was on a score of 'nil'.
Councillor McCulloch paused. "Look, Stevie. I’m a local man, I’ve got my roots in this area, I live and breathe Larkhall. I’m not steeped in these strange international elections that involve other countries."
But, I persisted, the European election was a national election, it took place when Iain Gray was leader, every single person in Scotland was entitled to vote, and the SNP won.
Councillor McCulloch sighed. "Well, of course I'd dispute that."
Dispute what, I asked? That the SNP won, or that the election took place when Iain Gray was leader?
"One or the other, Stevie," he replied with a laugh. "As I said, I’m not steeped in these international elections."
In that case, I went on, how could he possibly be sure that the Chronicle had its facts wrong?
"Because Labour are three-nil ahead in national elections, that's something we all know. I'm more interested in making sure we update that figure to take into account how local people up and down Scotland have been saying Yes to Iain and No, No, No, No to that snake-oil salesman Salmond."
But, I countered, people only 'know' that the three-nil figure is correct because Labour keeps repeating it. The Chronicle's dossier has just shown that it isn't true.
"Scottish Labour don't make mistakes, Stevie."
I could see we had arrived at something of a stalemate, so I decided to change tack and ask about the councillor's own claim in relation to local by-elections. I put it to him that, while it was quite true Labour had won a number of contests since Gray became leader, so had other parties, including the SNP. Again, it was hard to see on that basis how Labour could seriously claim to have won eight elections in a row, or that the SNP’s score was 'nil'.
Councillor McCulloch seemed incredulous. "I’d be interested to know which by-elections you think Labour haven't been winning!"
With as much nonchalance as I could muster, I flicked through the pages of the Chronicle’s dossier to find a couple of choice examples for the councillor’s perusal. One was Maryfield, gained by the SNP from Labour six months after Gray became leader, and the other was Kilbirnie and Beith, also an SNP gain from Labour on a huge swing. The latter contest took place just weeks after the very different result in Glenrothes.
Councillor McCulloch tutted. "I've never even heard of Kilbirnie and Beith!"
It's in North Ayrshire, I replied.
"Well, there you go."
It was my turn to be slightly dumbfounded. Was the councillor seriously suggesting that results in North Ayrshire don’t count?
"No," he sighed. "Look, Stevie, what I'm saying to you is that you've come up with a local election result in North Ayrshire. No disrespect to the people there, but it's a bit of a stretch to put that on a par with Labour’s sensational win in Glasgow North-east."
I was confused. Wasn’t the councillor's whole point that local by-elections should count for just as much? And if that wasn’t the case, surely all of Labour’s local by-election wins had to be discounted as well?
A flash of anger crossed Councillor McCulloch’s eyes. "Frankly, I find that suggestion insulting. And, no, It’s not an insult to me, but to the thousands of decent, hard-working people across Scotland who have turned out in local by-elections to show their support and love for Iain, and to send Salmond homewards tae think again."
Except for the 'hard-working' people who had voted for the SNP in Maryfield, Kilbirnie and Beith, and other wards?
"Kilbirnie and Beith is in Ayrshire."
Was the councillor really sure that made such a difference?
"Scottish Labour don’t make mistakes, Stevie."
A strange realisation began to dawn on me. Although the councillor's claims simply didn't tally with the facts, his conviction that what he was saying made sense seemed absolutely sincere. And perhaps that's ultimately what really counts?
I wouldn’t be surprised if the editorial staff of the Record, the Herald and the Scotsman all agree with that closing sentiment. They do seem to regard Labour’s 'conviction' as far more important than the actual facts. The difference is that at a national level it seems somewhat less likely that the conviction is in any way 'sincere'.