The constituency of Glenrothes is to be found in central Fife in Scotland. Glenrothes itself was a new town constructed in the immediate post-war period to support the expansion of coal mining in Fife and the planned new super pit, the Rothes Colliery. Unfortunately although the first coal was brought to the surface in 1957, persistent flooding forced the mine to close in 1962, and the local development corporation was forced to look elsewhere and succeeded in attracting a number of electronic and light industrial firms to the area.
John MacDougall, the Labour Member of Parliament for Glenrothes, died early on the morning of the 13th August 2008 at the Victoria Hospital at Kirkcaldy in Fife. He had been ill for some time, having contracted mesothelioma, a form of cancer normally associated with exposure to asbestos, and which may therefore have been related to his former occupation as a shipyard boilermaker. This was of course bad news for the MacDougall family, but it was also bad news for Gordon Brown as the last thing he wanted at the time was yet another by-election, given that his record in the four by-elections held so far in 2008 had been one no-show, two losses and one humiliating fifth place.
MacDougall had represented the Glenrothes constituency ever since it had been created by a boundary reorganisation in 2005, having previously represented its predecessor Central Fife since 2001. He was, or would have been, defending a majority of 10,664 over the second placed Scottish National Party. In normal circumstances this should have rendered the seat as rock-solidly Labour, however the Scottish National Party 'only' required a swing of just over 14% to win at Glenrothes, and at the recent Glasgow East by-election of July 2008 they had overturned a Labour majority of more than 13,000 with a 22% swing. The Times therefore immediately announced that the SNP were "hot favourites to win Glenrothes" and noted that the latest poll carried out in Scotland by YouGov which had been conducted over the 6th-8th August had recorded the largest ever poll lead for the Scottish National Party. Indeed according to Rosa Prince writing in the Daily Telegraph of the 17th August, Brown had already been warned that the battle was "already lost", and that he should "focus on damage limitation", and quoted one "source" as saying that although Labour were "not giving up in Glenrothes" it was "certainly realistic to view the seat as already lost to the SNP".
On the 22nd August the Scottish National Party (SNP) announced that their candidate would be Peter Grant, the leader of Fife Council, where he headed the Nationalist-Liberal Democrat coalition. There was a good deal of speculation over the likely Labour candidate, the names of a number of local councillors were mentioned, and there was even talk that Henry McLeish, the former First Minister of Scotland, and the man whom MacDougall had succeeded at Central Fife back in 2001, might stand. However whilst Henry McLeish confirmed that "he had been approached about standing", he decided not to allow his name to go forward. It was eventually announced on the 2nd September that the Labour candidate would be Lindsay Roy, the headmaster of Kirkcaldy High School which was of course Gordon Brown's former school; a decision described by The Independent as "an unusual move" since Roy had "never campaigned for political office before".
The Liberal Democrats had Harry Wills, a management consultant and an elder and member of the Kirk Session of Creich, Flisk and Kilmany Church in Fife, whilst the Conservative candidate was Maurice Golden from Newport-on-Tay who was the campaigns manager for the environmental group Keep Scotland Beautiful (formerly known as Keep Scotland Tidy), and a former chairman of the Dundee University Students' Conservative and Unionist Association, and president of Conservative Future Scotland.
By the time nominations closed at 4.00 pm on the 21st October, they had been joined by Krishna or Kris Seunarine, a member of the Biophotonics Research Group at the University of Dundee and also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, who was standing for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). On the far left there was Morag Balfour, a "local activist" and a practising Quaker, who was standing for the Scottish Socialist Party, and had contested the seat at the previous General Election, together with Louise McLeary another "activist and a campaigner" representing Solidarity. They were joined by Jim Parker for the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party (SSCUP) campaigning on a platform of an index-linked national basic weekly pension of £180 for everyone retiring at sixty-five, with nary a word about how such largesse would be paid for. Curiously, with the addition of the Solidarity candidate, and with an SSCUP candidate replacing one from the Pensioners Party Scotland, the electors of Glenrothes were faced with the exact same choice of parties as at the previous General Election.
As the candidates lined up it certainly seemed as if Labour were doing their best to lose the seat. On the 19th September it became known that Frank Roy, the member for Motherwell and Wishaw and a Government Whip, who had had been due to act as campaign manager for the Glenrothes campaign, had told the Party that he was stepping down in "dismay at the lack of local organisation and support". He further made it known that any talk of him being sacked was nothing more than "black propaganda" emanating from the "Prime Minister's allies". Since Roy was said to have "worked closely" with his fellow whip Siobhan McDonagh who had only recently been sacked for requesting a Labour leadership contest, there were "suspicions" that this was simply part and parcel of the alleged concerted coup attempt said to have been orchestrated by John Reid. Perhaps this was why The Herald of the 20th September was quoting a "senior source" within the Labour Party as stating that there was "no campaign in Glenrothes" and that "no-one believes we can win."
The Glenrothes Campaign
In previous by-elections called by Labour under Gordon Brown the strategy had been to present the writ for the by-election as soon as possible in order to give the opposition as little time as possible to get organised. Since this strategy clearly hadn't worked, this time round Labour Party did not appear to be in so much of a hurry and the writ for the by-election wasn't moved until the 13th October with the date set for the 6th November.
Naturally the Conservative candidate Maurice Golden said that he was fighting "to win", although he did admit that it was an "uphill battle", and the Liberal Democrats similarly claimed that they were "in by-election running". However although the Liberal Democrats could point to the fact that they had managed to overturn an 11,000 Labour majority in nearby Dunfermline and West Fife some two years ago, no one really believed that they had much of a chance of winning this time round, and the by-election contest was generally seen as a two-horse race between Labour and the Scottish National Party.
The SNP largely campaigned on the issue of the cost of living, as Alex Salmond claimed that the "most powerful leaflets in this campaign are the ones from gas and electricity boards" and that a win for the SNP "would mean a cut in energy bills". Presumably on the basis that a suitably chastened Labour Party would then feel obliged to throw some money at the issue. Much of the Labour campaign on the other hand was focussed on attacking the local SNP run Fife Council which it claimed was planning to charge more for care services and cut education spending, which at least had the virtue of killing two boards with one stone, since the Liberal Democrats were junior partners in the coalition that ran Fife. During one of his visits to Glenrothes Brown also took the opportunity to "savage" the SNP for making the "wrong decisions" for Scotland whose policies had "proved to be inadequate" since they were "totally reliant on a volatile resource, oil". There were also the odd pointed references to the prior claims by the SNP that an independent Scotland would be part of the "arc of prosperity" of small independent European countries such as, well Iceland for example.
Both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates attacked Labour over the issue of post office closures, an issue which attracted some intention when Mervyn Jones, the president of the National Federation of Sub-Post Officers, claimed that the Government was deliberately delaying an announcement over the future of the Post Office Card Account because of the Glenrothes by-election and that 700 out of 1,120 post offices in Scotland were at risk. There were also arguments over the SNP's proposals to replace the Council Tax in Scotland with an additional levy on Income Tax, although curiously enough this much lengthier campaign failed to attract much in the way of national (as in British) coverage, as the media were concerned about more important things such as the coming end of the world.
One Global Banking Crisis Later
Whilst a Labour victory in Glenrothes might have seemed an impossibility in August, it seemed far more likely two months later. Faced with yet another building society turned bank on the verge of collapse in the form of the Bradford and Bingley, the government learnt from the mistakes of Northern Rock, and promptly nationalised it rather than dither around for months. And when it subsequently appeared that almost every bank in the country was about to go the same way, the government came forward with a multi-billion pound package of financial support that at least averted the crisis for the time being. Of course, the Great British bank bail-out plan did not meet with universal approval, but never mind that, the point was that at least the Government appeared to be doing something and actually taking action that might possibly avert the end of the civilised world as it was then known.
Indeed it was instructive how one global financial crisis could change both the public mood and indeed the mood of the Parliamentary Labour Party, as those Labour MPs who once appeared to believe that Brown would be toast by Christmas, were now heralding him as the nation's saviour. This was helped along by the efforts made to present the more 'human' side of Brown at the Labour Party conference, efforts which largely consisted of publicising the existence of his wife Sarah Brown who, as a former public relations executive, presumably knew a thing or to about making a favourable impression on the public. The net result was a steady recovery in support for Labour from the depths of 24-26% to around 32-34% as there was talk once more of a 'Brown bounce'.
Of course since Glenrothes was literally next door to his own constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Brown had a particular reason to make an effort to retain the seat. On the 14th October Brown despatched a letter addressed 'To all Labour MPs and Peers' which asked them all "to find some time to support the campaign in Glenrothes" and noted that the Whips Office had also been asked to "work with every MP and peer" to see how each one could help. He also announced that he would himself be visiting the constituency during the course of the campaign.
This in itself was notable as it was a British political convention that Prime Ministers did not campaign in by-elections, and the existence of this convention had previously been wheeled out to justify Brown's non appearance at both the Crewe and Nantwich and Glasgow East by-elections. In truth of course, there was no such convention, and there never had been, it was simply the case that Prime Ministers did not campaign in by-elections because governments generally performed poorly at by-elections, and serving Prime Ministers therefore excused themselves for fear of being associated with failure. In Brown's case however, there was good reason to make the effort, and to send his wife Sarah there on at least half a dozen occasions to further the cause.
The Final Weekend
On the 2nd November the Scottish Sunday Express published details of an "exclusive" poll which showed that Labour had "moved ahead of the SNP for the first time". Their figures showed Labour on 26.5% and the SNP on 23%, with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats trailing far behind on 4% and 2% respectively. The Express compared this with an identical poll some six weeks ago where the SNP had been thirteen points ahead, but was nevertheless of the opinion that the SNP were still the most likely victors, since it believed that the majority of the 25% who were still undecided would plump for the SNP.
Certainly the pattern of betting seemed to suggest that the Labour Party had at least closed the gap, as although the SNP had been the early 4-1 on favourites, by the weekend prior to the poll the odds had narrowed. Betfair had the SNP at 4-6, with Labour at 6-5 whilst SportingBet had the SNP at 3-5 and Labour at 6-5. Ladbrokes even had both parties at 5-6 to win, and a Ladbrokes spokesman was on hand to explain that recent betting had been a "one-way traffic for Labour" and that the "momentum" was now "with the Government" and their "latest price change" simply capped a "remarkable turnaround in the betting"
It was however unclear as to the extent to which the turnaround in the betting was actually the product of genuine sentiment, as it appeared that Labour and SNP were fighting a betting war as well as political one. The Scotsman of the 31st October reported on how the lobbying organisation Mediawatch2008 had sent out an e-mail to nationalist supporters "urging every one of them to put a £10 bet on the SNP to take the seat", and claiming that the only reason that the odds had only recently swung in Labour's favour was because Labour activists had been betting on a win for their own party. It certainly seemed as if many heeded the call made by Mediawatch2008, as there was a "flurry of bets on an SNP victory over the weekend" and by polling day the SNP had been re-installed as the bookies' favourite. William Hill put the nationalists at 3-1 on, compared to Labour's 9-4, whilst Betfair similarly quoted the SNP as the 3-1 on favourites with Labour out at 13-5.
The SNP appeared to be of the same opinion as Alex Salmond dismissed all reports of a "Brown bounce" as nothing more than "Labour spin" and claimed that the Labour Party simply did not have the "strength on the ground" to challenge the "organised and motivated support" possessed by his own party, and hence the headline "Salmond predicts crushing victory" from Scotland on Sunday on 2nd November. Presumably in an effort to enthuse their supporters, the SNP revived the 'Yes we can' slogan his party had first used in their General Election campaign of 1997 (and which had recently been adopted by one Barack Obama during his US presidential election campaign)
The considered view of "Labour Insiders" was that although party had been "within striking distance" of victory during the past week, the SNP had since moved ahead having flooded the constituency with 1,200 volunteers over the weekend. Nevertheless Brown had pledged to "fight for every vote" and former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was despatched to conduct a last-minute campaign as the party distributed some 20,000 leaflets between 5.30 am and 9.00 am on the morning of the poll.
On the day of the poll the Daily Telegraph reported that Gordon Brown was bracing himself for defeat in Glenrothes by-election, whilst The Times was predicting "another election earthquake" and the Daily Mail claimed that Labour were "heading for by-election defeat" Even The Guardian noted that Labour was "downbeat" over its chances of victory, whilst the Daily Express expected a "closely fought by-election" and only The Independent made any real effort to hedge its bets as it noted that Gordon Brown was facing "the biggest electoral test of his premiership".
And the earth shook in an unexpected fashion
The count began at the Fife Institute in Glenrothes at around 10.00 pm that evening with the result expected sometime shortly before 1.00 am in the early hours of the following morning. A glance at the newspapers that appeared later on the 7th November served to illustrate the nature of the political earthquake, with headlines such as 'Shock victory puts the bounce back into Brown' (The Guardian), 'By-election triumph boosts Brown' (The Independent), Surprise Labour win in Glenrothes boosts Gordon Brown's recovery (The Times), and 'Labour wins shock victory in Glenrothes' by-election (Daily Telegraph). It turned out that although there was indeed a swing from Labour to the SNP of 4.96%, and Labour's majority was reduced from 10,664 to 6,737, it managed to comfortably hold on to the seat.
What was particularly notable was that the turnout of 36,195 was only slightly down on the 37,366 that voted in the General Election. In fact the Labour Party had actually increased its vote by 551 whilst its share of the vote had increased from almost 52% to just over 55%, a particularly unusual result, as incumbent governments do not normally succeed in increasing their vote in a by-election. Indeed having won 55% of the popular vote, it scarcely mattered how the remaining 45% was distributed amongst the remaining parties, as victory was assured. But as far as the other parties were concerned, the Conservative vote was halved, although no doubt they would have claimed that they had been squeezed by the SNP-Labour battle, and that many of their supporters had voted tactically for the SNP in the hope of defeating Labour. Whether the same excuse could be applied to the Liberal Democrats who saw their share of the vote collapse from 12.65% to 2.62% was debatable, and the remaining four candidates could only manage to scrape together a few hundred votes.
Lindsay Roy was naturally delighted at his election to Parliament, which he declared was "a victory for the people of Fife", "a victory for Gordon Brown" and "a victory for the Labour Party", whilst Alex Salmond pronounced himself "disappointed". The answer to the obvious question of how the press could have got it all so wrong turned out to be quite straightforward. It was because Labour Party sources were telling them that they expected to lose Glenrothes by 1,500 votes, whilst SNP sources expressed confidence in their party's victory.
The consequences of this apparently unexpected result were twofold. Firstly, given that Gordon Brown had made the effort to defy 'convention' and campaign in Glenrothes, it was very much a personal victory for Brown, and one that very likely put paid to the 'Brown Must Go' brigade and virtually ensured that he would indeed be leading the Labour Party into the next General Election. Secondly, it suggested that perhaps the recent upsurge in Scottish nationalism might have run its course. It was perhaps worth noting that back in July at the time of the Glasgow East by-election, it seemed that the big problem facing Britain was that Brent Crude had just hit a record high of $147.25, and that the soaring price of oil was driving up the cost of living. In such circumstances it might have appeared that an oil-rich independent Scotland would have been better able to cope with such economic difficulties. However by the time of the Glenrothes by-election, Brent Crude was down below $60, and with the advent of a new phase of the Global Banking Crisis it appeared that an entirely different set of economic challenges was facing the nation. Given what had happened to Iceland, perhaps being a small independent nation wasn't that attractive an idea after all.
The Glenrothes by-election results in full
- Lindsay Roy, Labour Party - 19,946 (55.11%)
- Peter Grant, SNP - 13,209 (36.49%)
- Maurice Golden, Conservative Party - 1,381 (3.82%)
- Harry Wills, Liberal Democrats - 947 (2.62%)
- Jim Parker, SSCUP - 296 (0.82%)
- Morag Balfour, Scottish Socialist Party - 212 (0.59%)
- Kris Seunarine, United Kingdom Independence Party - 117 (0.32%)
- Louise McLeary, Solidarity - 87 (0.24%)
The above article is drawn from a variety of reports in the British media including BBC News, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and their Sunday equivalents, as well as The Sun, Daily Mirror and the News of the World as well as sundry political blogs of a semiofficial nature such as Liberal Democrat Voice and ConservativeHome. In this case reference was also made to The Scotsman and The Herald for obvious reasons. See also;
- Fife Council, Glenrothes by-election - previous results and media accreditation, 10 Oct 2008
- About Glenrothes
- Glenrothes at
- Tara Womersley, Labour's Glenrothes by-election chief Frank Roy walks out, Daily Telegraph, 19 Sep 2008
- Andy McSmith, Embattled Prime Minister scents unlikely victory on his home turf Saturday, The Independent, 11 October 2008
- John Prescott to lead last Labour's last push in Glenrothes, Daily Telegraph, 06 Nov 2008