The Broxburn by-election yesterday was always going to be a fascinating test, because the SNP had a roughly 12.5% lead over Labour in the ward at the local elections in May, and the national swing suggested by recent polling implied that there should be something close to a dead heat this time. So a big Labour victory might have implied that the polls are underestimating the swing, while a solid SNP win could have given us hope that the Labour surge is not all it's cracked up to be.
Broxburn, Uphall and Winchburgh by-election result on first preferences (1st December 2022):
Labour 39.8% (+10.2)
SNP 35.2% (-6.7)
Conservatives 7.8% (-10.0)
Independent - Horne 6.1% (n/a)
Liberal Democrats 3.7% (n/c)
Independent - Laidlaw 2.8% (n/a)
Greens 2.7% (-1.6)
Alba 1.8% (+0.4)
In the perpetually wacky world of STV by-elections, this is technically a Labour hold, even though Labour have overtaken the SNP on a substantial swing.
So the result is broadly in line with national polls, meaning there's no particular reason for the SNP to doubt that Labour's recovery may be a very significant obstacle to the goal of obtaining 50%+ of the vote in a Westminster election used as a de facto independence referendum. Although the SNP-to-Labour swing will likely show up in polls for every type of election, including Holyrood elections, the point is that in a Holyrood campaign the SNP would have the means to counter the problem by stressing in TV leaders' debates and the like that they are seeking an outright mandate for independence, thus coaxing Labour-curious Yes voters back into the fold. They will have no such means in a Westminster election, where they are likely to be crowded out of the TV coverage, which will focus mainly on the Tory-Labour horserace.
It's obviously of some concern that on this occasion, the SNP-to-Labour swing is not artificially generated solely by movement from Tory to Labour, with the SNP vote remaining more or less static. The SNP vote has actually gone down. However, I'd want to know more about the independent candidates before leaping to any conclusions - it may be that those individuals for some reason had greater appeal to SNP-inclined voters than to Labour-inclined voters.
As far as my own party (Alba) is concerned, this is effectively an identical result to the Linn by-election two weeks ago. We've made some very modest progress, but still remain firmly stuck in the sub-2% zone. I must admit I was quite surprised by the reaction of some senior Alba people to the Linn result - although it was far from a catastrophe, it seemed obvious to me that it fell short of what was being sought, and I thought that might be acknowledged. Instead the verdict seemed to be that it was a decent enough result. That implies that we're effectively settling for remaining in the 1-2% zone for the foreseeable future. The combined results from both by-elections certainly put the kybosh on the narrative doing the rounds a few months ago that Alba somehow already had the level of support that would win us list seats in a Holyrood election. In truth, if there was a Holyrood election right now, the result would almost certainly be the same as eighteen months ago - we'd take approximately 2% of the list vote and zero seats.
To be clear, we absolutely can turn things around and win list seats in 2026 - it's perfectly possible for a party to grow its vote from 2% to the required 5-6% over the course of three-and-a-half years. But that will entail being honest with ourselves that we need a broader coalition of support, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and telling ourselves that the coalition is already there but is somehow being cunningly concealed by the minutiae of preferential voting (no, there is no reason to think somebody giving a low preference to Alba in a local election is a potential Alba list voter). To reiterate my prescription from after the Linn result: we need to stop pandering to ethnonationalists within the party who want to restrict the voting rights of English people living in Scotland, we need to tone down the near-homicidal rage directed against Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, we need to put a stop to the dark hints that we might try to sabotage a plebiscite election conducted under first-past-the-post by standing directly against the SNP, and we should instead concentrate on our positive pitch for much more urgency on independence.
I know some might say that the above steps would in the first instance be noticed more by committed independence supporters than by the wider public. But I don't think it can be underestimated how much we're limiting our own appeal to committed independence supporters by not appearing to be part of the pro-indy mainstream. If we can claim a much firmer foothold among the independence movement, wider public support might follow before too long.
(Before anyone asks, the reason I think Alba could reasonably have been expected to do better in these two by-elections is that smaller parties can compete on a much more level playing-field when they're concentrating on a single locality and can bring in activists from across the country. I know the response will be "but the SNP did the same thing", but the point is that the SNP as a larger party are not stretched so thin in national elections, so there's no equivalent disadvantage for them to overcome. My guess is that Alba would have been privately hoping for 4-5%+ in both Linn and Broxburn.)
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