Leading Article: High stakes in Smith's old seat

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The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH, the Labour Party leader, died on 12 May. On Thursday his successor as MP for Monklands East in Scotland will be elected. Mr Smith had a majority of 15,712. Given the present standing of the Conservative Party, in England let alone Scotland, it looked initially like the safest possible Labour seat. Yet it may well be lost to the Scottish National Party. That would be a defeat of great symbolic significance which would boost the SNP when it is already riding high after achieving its best result in the European elections.

Even if Labour clings on there is certain to be an embarrassing drop in its majority. Yesterday's visits to the constituency by Mr Smith's heir-apparent, Tony Blair, and the acting Labour leader, Margaret Beckett, were exercises in damage limitation. For all the respect and affection with which Mr Smith is remembered, part of the blame for the slump in Labour's fortunes will be laid at his door. For at least two years before he died there were accusations of impropriety against Monklands District Council, which Labour has long controlled. They revolved around the fortunes of its two towns, Coatbridge and Airdrie.

Many of the inhabitants of Coatbridge are descended from Irish labourers who migrated there as manpower for the mills and pits of the industrial revolution. Their predominantly Catholic descendants, the so-called Coatbridge mafia, came to dominate the local unions and the Labour-led council. All 17 of the present Labour councillors are Catholic. They have been accused of employing a disproportionate number of friends and relatives and of favouring Coatbridge against the predominantly Protestant Airdrie with public money.

Mr Smith decided that the party's interests would be best served if he remained above the battle, even though it raged principally within the party. With hindsight, that was a mistake. Once the by- election campaign was under way the accusations inevitably became the focus of the SNP's campaign. The able Labour candidate, Helen Liddell, was forced to change her view that they were mere 'tittle-tattle'. Having called for the figures, she found there had indeed been an imbalance in spending to the benefit of Coatbridge.

All this has been grist to the mill of the SNP candidate, Kay Ullrich. For her party, perhaps even for Scotland's future, the stakes are high. If the loss of Monklands would teach Labour a lesson, for the SNP it would be a great boost. Other Labour seats in which Labour-led councils have grown complacent and over-free with patronage look even more vulnerable.

The correct deduction for Labour from a defeat in Monklands East would be that the abuses of one-party rule must not be allowed to go uncorrected. The wrong conclusion would be that it must match the SNP on home rule by pushing its own platform closer to a maximalist position, giving a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh entrenched powers.