Politics: Labour hides relief at Paisley result

Labour yesterday struggled to put a gloss on its narrow victory in the Paisley South by-election. Stephen Goodwin reports on a campaign which left both Labour and the Scottish National Party with awkward questions.
"There are no prizes for second place in politics," Douglas Alexander, the relieved Labour winner said, resorting to a truism as he tried to claim the party's share of the vote had held up in Paisley.

Labour's share was "almost identical" to that achieved on 1 May, he told a press conference yesterday. But that was not quite the full story. While the party's share of the vote at 44 per cent was just under the general election share across the whole of the UK, it was well down on the 57 per cent it took in Paisley South. The Edinburgh lawyer had been caught out being economical with election statistics and his party minders were clearly irritated.

Mr Alexander, 30, won with a majority of 2,731 compared to the 12,750 secured by Gordon McMaster, whose suicide in July caused the by-election. The 42.98 per cent turn-out was so low that Mr Alexander's vote was less than his predecessor's majority. Mr Alexander secured 10,346 votes; Ian Blackford (SNP) 7,615; Eileen McCartin (Lib Dem) 2,582; and Sheila Laidlaw (Con) 1,643.

Voter fatigue at a third visit to the polls in seven months was accepted by all parties as the main reason for the dismal turn-out - the lowest at a by-election in Scotland for 30 years. But cynicism over the behaviour of politicians in the Paisley area was also a factor.

The Labour leadership is conducting an inquiry into the running of the party in Renfrewshire. Neighbouring MP Tommy Graham, who was attacked in Mr McMaster's suicide note, remains suspended along with two councillors.

Though SNP leaders were expressing "delight" at having got so close in a Labour heartland seat, privately questions will be asked about the lack of bite in the campaign. Issues such as student tuition fees, spending cuts and cold weather payments did not capture interest.

Sleaze was also a double-edged weapon for the SNP. The party's councillors have a reputation for disrupting meetings and one, Richard Vassie, was suspended for his involvement in a newspaper story alleging Mr McMaster had a relationship with a 17-year old youth. None the less, the SNP were able to take some comfort from the result. Mr Salmond said the swing to the SNP of 11 per cent would deliver more than 40 seats in a Scottish Parliament.

There was scant comfort in the result for other parties. The Liberal Democrats gained a 6 per cent swing in a area of Scotland where they never do well, but the numbers were tiny. And for the Conservatives there was still no sign of any revival north of the border. Full result: Douglas Alexander (Lab) 10,346 (44.15%, -13.36%); Ian Blackford (SNP) 7,615 (32.49%, +9.11%); Eileen McCartin (LD) 2,582 (11.02%, +1.65%); Sheila Laidlaw (C) 1,643 (7.01%, -1.66%); John Deighan (ProLife Alliance) 578 (2.47%); Frances Curran (Scottish Socialist Alliance) 306 (1.31%, +0.92%); Charles McLauchlan (Scottish Independent Labour) 155 (0.66%); Christopher Herriot (Socialist Labour Party) 153 (0.65%); Kenneth Blair (Natural Law Party) 57 (0.24%). Lab maj 2,731 (11.65%); 11.24% swing Lab to SNP; Electorate 54,573; Turnout 23,435 (42.94%, -26.18%). 1997: Lab maj 12,750 (34.14%) - Turnout 37,351 (69.12%).