Britain’s Liberal Democrats, despite being in the middle of a
leadership contest that has brought them oodles of negative press
coverage, delivered a shock to the British political landscape last
week by winning a seat from Labour in a by-election.

Thursday’s by-election
in the Scottish seat of Dunfermline and West Fife produced a two-party
swing of 24% to the Lib Dems, giving victory to their candidate Willie
Rennie in what had been a safe Labour seat. The Scottish Nationalists
were third with 21%, and the Conservatives a distant fourth on 7.8%.
The Lib Dems’ campaign organiser described it as “the worst first by-election result for a new Conservative leader since the 19th century.”

There is food for thought in this for each of the three major parties.
For the Tories, although their own vote was poor (it usually is in
Scotland), it is an encouraging sign of Labour’s vulnerability. For the
Lib Dems, of course, it’s even more encouraging: if they can do this
when their upper ranks are in turmoil, what might they do with a proper
leader in place? Further evidence that sometimes there’s just no such
thing as bad publicity.

But the party with most to learn is Labour. Dunfermline and West Fife
is home to Gordon Brown, Labour’s chancellor of the exchequer and heir
apparent to Tony Blair. The anticipated transition from Blair to Brown
has been under intense scrutiny lately, and a loss in his own backyard is not what Brown needed. His local political strategy, which basically consisted of throwing huge sums of public money at Scotland, now looks rather threadbare.

On the other hand, if Labour nationally is seen to be in trouble, that
just increases the pressure for change, and for the present Brown is
still the only likely beneficiary. Just as Winston Churchill became
prime minister partly on the strength of an operation that he’d bungled
as first lord of the admiralty, so Brown’s own misstep might help
rather than hinder his path to the top.

Peter Fray

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