Scottish Labour fractured by Tory win in Ayr

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Indy Politics

The Labour party's unity in Scotland was fractured yesterday after its disastrous performance in the Ayr by-election for the Scottish Parliament.

Labour lost the seat to the Conservatives, who celebrated their first by-election victory north of the border since 1973 and their first directly elected seat in the Scottish Parliament.

Worse still, a resurgent Scottish National Party cut heavily into Labour's share of the vote, which fell from 38 per cent in 1999 to 22 per cent, pushing Labour into a poor third place.

Together, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who were pushed into fifth place behind the Scottish Socialist Party, took fewer than a quarter of the votes, underlining current disillusionment with the performance of Scotland's Lab-Lib Dem coalition.

The result will have rung alarm bells in Downing St, where concerns about a slump in Labour's traditional heartlands have been heightened by the message from Ayr - that support is also falling away in marginal seats.

Ian Davidson, Labour MP for Glasgow Pollok, was the first to break ranks, saying the party had to realise it was unpopular in Scotland: "Anyone in the Labour Party hierarchy who believes that New Labour is popular in Scotland should get out more. We need to reconnect with our core vote.

"If Labour is to maintain the sort of coalition that brought us to power then you need to ensure that ordinary people feel there's something in it for them and that ordinary Labour Party members feel they are wanted."

Brian Donohoe, Labour MP for Cunninghame South, said that the Scottish Executive had mishandled the repeal of Section 28 - the law banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools which the executive plans to repeal. Mr Donohoe said: "I think it was a crazy idea in the first instance to be involved with such an issue. I've always said that. I don't know even at this stage that it needed to become the issue it has become."

Meanwhile, the Labour leadership tried to brush off the result as caused by over-inflated expectations of the new Scottish Parliament, mid-term blues, and the row over Section 28. Donald Dewar, Scotland's First Minister, said: "Yes, I am disappointed ... but there is no way in which I regard this as some sort of cataclysmic event."

William Hague, the Conservative leader, heralded the majority of over 3,000 secured by John Scott, a farmer, as "a superb result". Mr Hague visited Ayr twice in the course of a campaign in which opposition parties pilloried Tony Blair for not attending.

David McLetchie, the Conservative leader in Scotland, said: "The gloss is very much off New Labour. The Tony Blair honeymoon is over. So is Donald Dewar's if he ever had one. This result demonstrates that we are on our way."

However, the SNP pointed out that the Tories' share of the vote had barely increased since the Scottish Parliament election for Ayr last May, whereas the nationalist share had increased from 20 to 29.5 per cent.

Alex Salmond, the SNP leader said: "These results, in a constituency considered poor territory for us, demonstrate that there is not a single area of Scotland that is not vulnerable to a Scottish National Party challenge."

The "Keep the Clause" campaign, backed by Stagecoach tycoon Brian Souter, said that its exit poll showed Section 28 had been a major factor in the Ayr public's voting choice, despite Mr Dewar's claim to the contrary. The campaign said it sampled 1,470 voters and found that 30 per cent of voters were influenced by the Section 28 debate, while 15 per cent changed their voting intention because of the fierce debate.