It’s a measure of how much Scottish politics has changed in the past year that a constituency with a Labour majority of 11,000 is s now regarded as a safe seat – for the SNP. But such is the case with the Westminster constituency of Glenrothes in Fife. The nationalists require a 14% swing here to seize this Labour bastion, held by the popular MP John MacDougall http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7558573.stmwho died of cancer on Wednesday, but everyone assumes that the nationalists will walk it. The bookies already have them four to one on.
This is ideal territory for the Scottish National Party. They have been canvassing the constituency for most of the last year and have a strong local base. The SNP lead the coalition on Fife council and hold the Holyrood parliamentary seat which is largely contiguous with Glenrothes. It was much harder for the nationalists to win in Glasgow, where there is no real tradition of Scottish nationalism. Fife is on the other side of the country and has a very different political complexion from West Central Scotland.
Glenrothes itself was an invention of post war Labour regional policy -a new town built to compensate Fife for the loss of its coal industry. Even the name is new, having been created by adding “Glen” to the name of the old Rothes Colliery. Now the administrative centre of Fife, successive Labour councils had a good deal of success in attracting electronics and services into the area in the 1980s and 1990’s and today Glenrothes looks prosperous if a little soulless.
But Fife people have a proud and independent history. This was the area that elected Britain’s only Communist MP in the 1940s, and you still find echoes of the past in Fife street names, like ‘Gagarin Way’ celebrating Soviet achievement. The Scottish playwright, Gregory Burke, used the street as a setting for his acclaimed play of the same name at the Edinburgh Festival six years about the collapse of working class industrial culture and the dangers of political nihilism. But the decomposition of the old Labour vote in Fife appears to be benefiting, not anarchists and other political extremists, but the Scottish National Party, which has succeeded in capturing the imaginations of the aspiring middle class children of old Labour Fife.
There seems little prospect of Alex Salmond failing in Glenrothes, and he will dominate the campaign just as the SNP leader dominated Glasgow East last month. Which means a further hammer blow for Gordon Brown, who sits in parliament for the neighbouring constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and who, in accordance with parliamentary tradition, will be taking on the parliamentary duties of the late Mr MacDougall. Following the Glasgow East by-election, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/7522153where the SNP achieved a 22 swing against Labour, the party is in desperate trouble in Scotland. A YouGov poll commissioned by the SNP http://www.snp.org/node/14146 this week suggested that Labour could lose up to 20 seats in Scotland at the next election, including that of the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, and the Defence Secretary, Des Browne.
The impact of Glasgow East was muted because of the holiday season, but the Glenrothes by-election will probably take place in the full glare of autumn, just after Brown’s conference relaunch and his much-heralded cabinet reshuffle. It will be a devastating verdict on his time in office that even in his heartland in Fife Gordon Brown cannot hold onto one of the safest Labour seats in Britain. David Miliband remains unapologetic about his recent Guardian article in which he staked his claim as a future Labour leadership contender, and it is easy to see why. Labour simply cannot go on losing by-elections like this. Something will have to be done; and Miliband looks like the only something around. We could have a new Prime Minister by Christmas.
But could Labour defy the forecasts and hold on here? Might Brown suddenly rediscover his form and hurl himself into a contest which he can scarcely avoid becoming a part of? Well, there is a strong Liberal Democrat presence in Glenrothes. They hold the neighbouring seat of North East Fife and share the council with the SNP. The Liberal Democrats were first to discover Gordon Brown’s political unpopularity back in 2006, when they won the Westminster seat of Dunfermline and West Fife from Labour in a by-election, on a 16% swing. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7492927.stm Brown’s
Scottish home home lies in that constituency and it came as a profound shock to Labour in Scotland to discover that the then Chancellor, apparantly at the height of his powers, was such a vote-loser.
But the chances of the LibDems splitting the anti-Labour vote and allowing allowing Labour to come through the middle look remote. Scottish voters are primarily motivated right now by a deep hostility to Labour and a sense – almost palpable in Glasgow East – of betrayal. In the midst of a credit crisis, when inflation is reaching 5% while public sector workers – and most workers in administrative Glenrothes are employed by the state – are being held to pay increases of 2%, people are feeling very sore. They want to send a message, and they will use the most appropriate vehicle so to do. The Liberal Democrats just don’t cut it, in this regard, and were squeezed into fourth behind the Tories in Glasgow East.
No – the target of their antipathy will be Gordon Brown who faces yet another humiliation, possibly his last as Labour leader. Fife has turned against its favourite son. The final tragedy of Brown’s short reign is that he is likely to meet his political end in his beloved “Kingdom of Fife’ where he was brought up and where his political career began.