Glenrothes: The other political earthquake

With the aftershocks from across The Pond still being felt, Brian Brady and Jane Merrick assess the impact of Labour's unexpected Glenrothes victory
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Indy Politics

Unfortunately for Gordon Brown, most of the world was too immersed in Barack Obama's afterglow on Tuesday to notice his own piece of history, achieved two days later.

A governing party clinging on to a seat it has held for more than half a century should not make headline news; nor should a Labour Prime Minister, Scottish or otherwise, hyperventilate about rebuffing a challenge from the Scottish National Party. But, for Mr Brown, the result of the Glenrothes by-election was about more than maintaining the strength of Labour ranks at Westminster; it was a question of political survival.

Six weeks ago, as Labour MPs and opponents alike were predicting that Glenrothes was a "lost cause", they were delivering judgement on Mr Brown's premiership as much as his party's chances of holding the seat. The situation was deemed so critical that the PM's wife, Sarah, regularly travelled the four miles from their home to campaign on his behalf.

When the returning officer announced the result shortly before 1am on Friday, he did not simply trigger the start of Lindsay Roy's political career; he also confirmed the most spectacular resurrection in recent British politics. "At the time the by-election was called, it looked the worst possible time to have one and the worst possible place – just down the road from Gordon's own constituency," sighed one veteran of Labour's last Scottish by-election campaign, the excruciating reverse in Glasgow East in July. "Ironically, somehow it has turned out to be exactly the right thing, right place, right time."

The Labour leader stumbled into the summer slowed almost to a standstill by a series of political predicaments. His early honeymoon had given way to a furious public response to mistakes such as the abortive election, the 10p tax rate and the proposal to raise vehicle excise duty on older cars, as well as doubts over whether Mr Brown was the right man to steer the country clear of the likely recession.

The depths of the public's disapproval was laid bare in the surrender of the Crewe and Nantwich seat to the Tories, followed by the loss of Glasgow East – one of Labour's safest seats – to the resurgent nationalists. Mr Brown narrowly avoided a rebellion in the run-up to the Labour conference in September, but by then Glenrothes had been elevated from a troublesome obstacle to his autumn relaunch to the likely start of a full-scale move against a man apparently leading the party towards crushing defeat at the next general election.

At the start of the Glenrothes campaign, bookmakers quoted the nationalists at 9/2 on to win the seat, and the first opinion poll gave them a 13-point lead in a seat Labour won with a 10,664 majority in 2005. Last weekend's final poll gave Labour a 3.5 per cent lead. However, right up until the polls closed on Thursday night, "experts" were still predicting an SNP majority of at least 2,000 – although it has since emerged that five of the Labour team knew they were on the brink of victory.

In the hours after Mr Roy's 6,737 majority, the Prime Minister observed: "What I have learned from this by-election is that people are prepared to support governments that will help people through the downturn and offer real help to people in tough times."

It was the statement of a leader who has managed to use near-economic meltdown as the basis for recovery. Mr Brown may have handled the financial crisis competently so far – and responded to adversity by reorganising the team charged with leading Britain out of it – but he has also taken full political advantage of the opportunity.

Glenrothes has itself suffered from economic adversity. It is a new town in a heavily industrialised region, but its future was cast into doubt when the coalmine that was to be its hub closed in 1962, five years after opening, following a lost battle against flooding. The town has since reinvented itself as "an economic focus point for central Scotland".

However, those who spent time trudging the constituency's streets will be aware that the real drivers of Labour's victory were Fife issues, and its homespun campaign was so "local" that it could only have been conceived at national HQ. Posters proclaimed Mr Roy, headteacher at the Prime Minister's old school, as "A new voice for Fife", and even his Labour minders freely admitted that he wasn't a "polished, professional politician".

The snootiness of the commentariat was not reflected in voters' responses. Mr Roy's personal manifesto – "Lindsay Roy's Action Plan for Fife" – pledged to tackle issues including anti-social behaviour, opportunities for young people and public transport. Labour did, however, find political gold with the claim that the SNP-run local council had raised care charges from £4 a week to £11 an hour.

Perhaps equally important was Mr Brown's status as a born-and-bred Fifer, who commanded support from voters who were often indignant at his treatment by outsiders. It was an extension of the frustration felt by many Scots over the "bullying" of Mr Brown. Hamish Lindsay, a pensioner, proclaimed after meeting the PM at Cardenden: "The people of Fife will not be part of this Alex Salmond ego trip."

The by-election was a two-horse race in which both the main parties were national government incumbents but claimed the role of underdog. Labour won a remarkable victory but, as the elections expert John Curtice pointed out, "it was a victory secured not as a government, but as an opposition".

The result reinforced Mr Brown's position at the head of his party, but it does not make an early election any more likely. According to Ladbrokes, Labour remains 5/2 to win the next election, with the Conservatives still favourites at 2/7.

There was, however, renewed confidence among Labour MPs – the same ones who were panicking only two months ago – that the party could turn its fortunes around by polling day. Labour insiders now confide that party membership, for years in decline, is increasing by 1,000 a week as the Conservative threat becomes more vivid.

The outcome depends on how the Prime Minister continues to handle the economic crisis, and how serious the recession becomes. But there is growing speculation in Westminster that Mr Brown could call an election next spring timed to coincide with the European elections on 4 June, to maximise turnout. Yet spring 2009 is exactly the time when the electorate can expect the recession to hit home: with higher council tax bills issued for the new financial year, repossessions continuing to rise and unemployment having topped two million at Christmas. The Budget in March or April could bring more bad news.

Within hours of the Glenrothes result, Labour MPs were calling for an early polling day to give Mr Brown a mandate to tackle the economic crisis. Although governing parties are typically unpopular mid-term, Labour has now won four by-elections since the 2005 election, a third of the total. In the 2001-05 parliament, Labour won four out of six before going on to win the general election.

For the other parties, Glenrothes could also mark a watershed. Alex Salmond's own honeymoon appeared to be at an end after he suffered the embarrassment of claiming that his SNP had victory in the bag.

Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates lost their deposits. For David Cameron in particular, it raised questions over his ability to transform the Conservatives into a truly national party. The Tory leader can console himself with the knowledge that Scottish elections are very different, and therefore a poor guide to national trends.

However, the result has presented Mr Cameron with a strategic problem: an emboldened Labour Party has suddenly taken greater control of the political agenda. Tories believe their leader must now regain the initiative from the Government and come up with a new narrative and tough economic policies with which to help the country survive the recession.

Glenrothes by numbers

6,737 Labour majority (18.6 per cent)

52.38 per cent turnout

4.96 per cent swing from Labour to SNP

1/4 SNP odds to win Glenrothes, 14 August

5/6 SNP and Labour odds, 1 November

10/11 Odds on next UK general election taking place at any stage in 2009

1/3 Conservative odds to win the next election

9/4 Labour to win