Worthy to fill Dewar's shoes?

Palm Beach-on-the-Clyde, it is not. One look at Glasgow Anniesland in murky, miserable mid-November confirms that. No one expects a Florida-style electoral muddle, even though it will be the scene of a parallel, unusually complicated double by-election on 23 November, presenting voters with 13 candidates for the late Donald Dewar's seats in the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments.

Old-fashioned pencil-and-paper simplicity will avoid confusion. Voters will be given two ballot papers, white for Westminster and lilac for Holyrood, to be cast into the same box, and the tellers will separate them at the count. In the 20 years that it was Donald Dewar's fiefdom, the process became a formality. It was said they need not have bothered to count, when they could have weighed the piles of Labour votes.

Dewar won the seat, when it was Garscadden, in a famous 1978 by-election that turned the rising tide of Scottish Nationalism. In his last two defences, he had majorities over the Nats of 15,154 at the 1997 general election and 10,993 in last year's vote for the Scottish Parliament.

For the SNP to take the seats this time would need swings of 22 per cent and 19.5 per cent. Post-devolution Scottish politics may be volatile - but not that volatile. In Anniesland, the SNP has always come a poor second.

The latest System Three poll, which had shown Labour slumping below the SNP in recent months, has restored it to a comfortable lead in constituency voting intentions for both parliaments.

Even allowing for Donald Dewar's considerable personal vote, it would take a Labour cock-up of catastrophic proportions to lose the Anniesland seats.

Still, the party is mounting a canny campaign, aimed at turning out its traditional vote without stirring the supporters of other parties out of their fatalist acceptance of defeat. Media descriptions such as "low-key" and "lacklustre" are taken not as criticism, but as signs of success. It has been said that there is more interest on the streets in the US presidential election than in the local contests. Both Labour candidates make the obligatory obeisance to Dewar's memory ("Not fit to fill his shoes, we can only follow in his footsteps"). Labour's Westminster candidate, John Robertson, a telecommunications union activist and Dewar's election agent, says he was approached by Dewar to take his place at the general election.

The question mark hangs over the Scottish Parliament candidate, Bill Butler, a teacher and leading left-wing Glasgow councillor. Is he really the man Dewar would have wanted to succeed him?

Butler is the convener of the Campaign for Socialism, the group founded to fight the repeal of Clause Four, and has been ferociously critical of new Labour. His selection, by 96 votes to 39, over the former Runrig singer and high-profile party spokesman Donnie Munro, was a rebuff for the leadership. However, Butler appeared to have swallowed his socialist principles and enthusiastically embraced private finance for school-building and the transfer of council housing out of local authority control. He niftily sidestepped questions about the stance he would adopt as a Labour MSP: "I am not new Labour. I am not old Labour. I am middle-aged Labour."

Flip - but the few genuine left-wingers on the Labour back benches in the Scottish Parliament expect to be plus one within the week.

The SNP says: "We'll be pressuring Bill Butler on the extent to which he is prepared to change himself to fit the new Labour mould. The people have a right to know what they are getting."

One parallel with the election in the Sunshine State is the size of the senior-citizen vote. Anniesland has the second-highest pensioner population of any Scottish constituency, and Dewar was assiduous in his courtship of the elderly - hence, the countless pictures of Donald tucking into mince and tatties at OAP lunch clubs.

Neil Kinnock said: "I warn you not to grow old." To be old and passing time in a daycare centre in Anniesland is to be a target for canvassers, candidates, pollsters and Cabinet ministers on photo ops, and to have Robin Cook bustle in and jump the queue to play carpet bowls.

The First Minister Henry McLeish describes them as "our priority group", and drops heavy hints about full implementation of the Sutherland Report on the long-term care of the elderly. Labour's most effective campaigner, Gordon Brownm, has scored without yet setting foot in the constituency - within an hour of the Chancellor sitting down after his pre-Budget statement, party workers were distributing a special leaflet detailing his package for pensioners.

The SNP leader, John Swinney, scoffs at the pension increases as "Brown's by-election bribe", and described the increased winter fuel allowance as "a wee bung", but Thursday's vote will be the first clear test of whether or not the Chancellor has done enough to compensate for the 75p pension "insult".

Although Anniesland covers the twee Kelvinside and parts of the trendy West End, two-thirds of the vote is in vast council estates that figure among the most appalling health records in the UK, with infant mortality rates in Anniesland running twice as high as in Surrey. While opposition parties try to capitalise on the discontent this should cause, Labour has to overcome the apathy that results from a feeling of neglect.

All the parties give the impression of simply going through the motions, and all that is in doubt is the size of the Labour majorities.

Even the most hopeful Nationalist does not believe there will be any need for recounts. Another reason why Anniesland won't be looking like Palm Beach-on-the-Clyde.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer