x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Glasgow voters could decide Brown's fate

Losing this long-time parliamentary seat in today's by-election is 'simply unthinkable', but if it happen it would be a huge blow.

LONDON // The voters of Glasgow North East go to the polls today with the fate of Gordon Brown at their fingertips. Should the ruling Labour Party fail to hold the seat it has won by huge majorities for the past three quarters of a century, it would almost certainly sound the death knell for the prime minister's days in office.

"We have lost by-elections in the past, but every ruling party does," said a senior Labour Party activist yesterday. "But losing Glasgow North East would be an overwhelming disaster - simply unthinkable." In fact, party workers were quietly confident last night that they would be able to fight off the challenge of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which has caused Labour so much grief in recent years, both in parliamentary by-elections and in voting for the quasi-independent Scottish assembly.

Although prime ministers do not traditionally dirty their hands by campaigning in by-elections, Mr Brown - along with a never-ending stream of senior Labour ministers - has been on the stump in Glasgow North East, a traditional working-class area that has suffered badly in recent times with the decline of shipbuilding and other heavy industries. But there is a deeply ingrained loyalty towards Labour in the area, despite the government's recent political woes, particularly over the state of the economy. This loyalty is reflected in an opinion poll this week that put Labour comfortably in control with 39 per cent, well ahead of the second-placed SNP with 25 per cent.

Should opinion poll be translated into actual votes today, even on the expected low turnout, it would be hailed by Mr Brown and his cohorts as evidence that the Labour Party was on the road to recovery, at least north of the border. In fact, politicians from all the mainstream parties appeared preoccupied yesterday about how well the anti-immigration, far-right British National Party might fare. There are even concerns that it could take third place, which would represent an unprecedented performance, particularly in Scotland.

During elections to the European Parliament this year, the BNP managed to secure two UK seats, and Nick Griffin, the party leader, received a warm reception from many voters when he campaigned on the Glaswegian streets this week. Canvassers in the constituency report that the BNP has been tapping into locals' fears over the competition for jobs that they have been encountering from eastern European migrants and over the high number of asylum-seekers being housed in some areas.

Alan Johnson, the home secretary, campaigning in Glasgow this week, said there was a danger that the major political parties were giving the BNP a free ride by failing to discuss such issues as immigration. "It would help counter the BNP threat if we had the debate the moderate majority of people in this country want to see around those issues, and we did not shy away from it because we were concerned of it leading to the extreme right," he said.

Alistair Darling, the chancellor of the exchequer, reflected the political nervousness over the likely support for the BNP, when he said during a visit to the constituency on Tuesday: "People should be under no illusion as to how unpleasant and nasty the BNP is. "I think their policies are deeply unpleasant and I hope people will reject them." The by-election became necessary after the resignation of Michael (now Lord) Martin, who was forced to stand down as speaker of the House of Commons over his handling of the MPs' expenses scandal.

He became the first speaker to be ousted in more than three centuries, but the voters in Glasgow North East appear to have put the incident largely behind them in their considerations of whom they should vote for today. Initially, Labour was concerned that it might lose a seat it held with a majority of more than 10,000 at the last election, to the SNP. But the SNP's campaign has scarcely been stellar. James Dornan, the party's first choice as candidate, had to withdraw after it was claimed that he had served on the board of a charitable trust while an undischarged bankrupt.

Mr Dornan's last-minute replacement, David Kerr, subsequently ran into trouble because he did not seem to know where he was born. In SNP leaflets, he describes himself as being born in the constituency in the Dennistoun area. Yet Scottish newspapers have discovered that, when he stood unsuccessfully in the Falkirk West by-election in 2000, he claimed to have been born in Cumbernauld, just outside Falkirk. Then the Labour Party got hold of his birth certificate and proved that he was actually born in Govan, several miles from Glasgow North East.

Willie Bain, the Labour candidate, who really does come from Glasgow North East, said: "This is the kind of two-faced politics that turns people off. If the SNP man is prepared to lie about where he was born, what else is he prepared to lie about?" Mr Kerr has also had to defend his links with Opus Dei, a secretive Roman Catholic sect, and had to retract detrimental comments he made about the educational standards at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Overall, the past week has been a pretty good one for Labour and Mr Brown in Glasgow. Just how good will only be known when they read out the results tomorrow. @Email:dsapsted@thenational.ae