Alex Massie

Glenrothes By-Election Stunner!

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It's all very well and good getting excited about the American elections. But let's face it, they were but the appetiser before today's Westminster by-election in Glenrothes. The Kingdom of Fife is a strange place indeed, a sentiment confirmed by the whispers we now hear that Labour have managed to hold the seat.

On the face of it, defending a seat against the 14 point swing needed for you to lose is no great triumph. And yet on this occasion it is, in fact, a rather spectacular victory for Gordon Brown. True, it's his back yard (he represents the neighbouring constituency) and both he and his wife have campaigned in Glenrothes. In such circumstances it would be highly embarrassing for Labour to lose. Worse still, it would have confirmed the sense that the Prime Minister has benefited from the global financial crisis. Perhaps the voters really do think of El Gordo as some kind of economic superhero?

Well, maybe. But I hae ma doots. Labour have lifted themselves off the floor, but they're still a long way from persuading anyone that they deserve another term. Tellingly, their campaign in Glenrothes was almost exclusively concerned with local issues, blaming the SNP-controlled Fife council for, well, just about everything.

But of course Labour didn't need to rely on national issues when the financial crisis was the backgound music to the entire campaign. And in that respect outside events do indeed seem to have damaged the SNP. Salmond's unfortunate past praise for Iceland came back to make him seem foolish in the extreme, while the government bailouts of HBOS and, in particular, the national champion, RBS dented the idea of Scotland and Scottish success - the kind of tartan brio that was supposed to float all boats upon a nationalist tide.

I actually think the financial turbulence ensured that Brown would have survived a defeat, even if a loss in Fife would necessarily have terrified every Labour politician south of the border. That being so, the PM is going to be unbearably smug if Labour have held on, albeit with a reduced majority. There will be mch talk of the "Brown Bounce" about which I remain extremely suspicious.

However, this result would seem to be calamitous for Alex Salmond. The SNP honeymoon at Holyrood - which, with Labour in power at Westminster,  permitted votes for both Labour and the SNP to be counted as "protest" votes - has come to an abrupt end. Salmond co-opted Barack Obama's slogan, vowing the other day that "Yes we can, yes we will". I suspect that some voters will have seen that as Salmond over-reaching himself. Just a little too clever, just a little too pleased with himself.

Still, perception matters. This is therefore a terrific result - if confirmed - for Labour and a terrible night - their first in more than 18 months - for the SNP. That's something Unionists in other parties can cheer. But it's too soon to suppose - partly because of the nature of the SNP-Labour relationship - that it's clear that a Labour victory in Glenrothes tells us very much about the future prospects for Labour's fight with the conservatives in England.

In other words, David Cameron is another of tonight's winners.

UPDATE: The final result shows a feeble 5% swing to the nationalists. That's a very disappointing result for them. Hubris is rewarded.That said, it's the LibDems and the Tories whose support has plummeted. Between them, the two partis garnered fewer than 2,500 votes. I'm guessing many of their voters hopped over to Labour, partly because of the financial crisis and partly because of local issues.In any case, they voted against the SNP rather than for Labour, I should say.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.