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30 October 2008

Sarah on the stump

The Prime Minister's wife has been out pressing the flesh and leavening the Brown brand as Labour st

By James Macintyre

Unlocking his car in Carden Castle Park, John Martin had no idea that the Prime Minister’s wife, Sarah Brown – together with her entourage of supporters and minders – was about to descend on this small, quiet estate on the edge of the Fife constituency of Glenrothes in Scotland. And yet, unprompted, he suggested that a visit from Mrs Brown might just make the difference in a seat that Labour had held since 1950 but was in danger of losing to the Scottish National Party (SNP) at the by-election on 4 November. “Gordon’s a bit stony-faced,” said Dr Martin, a lifelong Labour voter. “If his wife comes up she’ll open a few doors for him. There was something about that speech she gave at the Manchester conference; she’s got something about her.”

Soon afterwards Sarah Brown was walking down this same street, together with the Labour candidate, Lindsay Roy, the present headmaster of Brown’s old school of Kirkcaldy High (motto: “Usque conabor“, or, in Brown’s translation, “I will try my utmost”). Wearing a blue skirt, black boots and a jacket pulled close to her against the bitter wind, she was smiling as she knocked on doors and introduced herself to bewildered locals. Meanwhile, from adjoining houses, people were watching what was going on from upstairs windows. Opening the door of 99 Carden Castle Park, Joni Doig, 34, could only say, “Oh my God” as she was confronted by Mrs Brown, Roy, and Iain Gray, the leader of Scottish Labour. Her son, Kori, had once met Gordon Brown at a Raith Rovers match, she said. “He’s a good man,” was Mrs Brown’s quiet response.

Later in the week, the Prime Minister himself arrived in the constituency, which Labour held at the last general election with a majority of more than 10,000 (19,395 votes to the SNP’s 8,731). With a population of just under 40,000, Glenrothes, a former coal-mining area, is, or at least once was, a working class Labour stronghold. It borders Brown’s own constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.

The daughter of a Scottish father, who was a publisher, and an English mother, who was a teacher, Sarah Brown (née Macaulay) went to Camden School for Girls in north London and studied psychology at Bristol University. After graduating she worked in marketing and public relations, and set up the firm Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications with her school friend Julia Hobsbawm. It was while organising Labour events in the 1990s that she met Gordon Brown. Such was their deepening friendship that, at the 1998 Labour party conference, John Prescott, then deputy prime minister, said, while speaking on stage: “Gordon, forget prudence and name a date for Sarah. She’s a lovely lass.”

Two years later, they married in Fife. Although Sarah Brown “never does interviews”, according to a Downing Street spokesman, she is suddenly seen as an electoral asset after an emotional introduction to her husband’s speech at this year’s Manchester conference. “We want to get her out more, but Gordon and she are reluctant,” says a party source. “She will probably have to do an interview at some point, but not yet.”

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That Sarah Brown was out in Fife last week is a reminder of just how high the stakes remain for the upcoming by-election, which is necessary because of the death in August of the MP John MacDougall, and it follows the traumatic loss of Glasgow East to the SNP in July.

Brown has regained some of his personal standing in the country in recent weeks, and the most recent poll in the Independent put the Tories’ lead at just 8 per cent (they were 20 per cent ahead before the Manchester conference). Lots done, in other words, but lots more to do.

However, it remains a delicate situation for Brown, summed up by Marina Stewart as she emerges from Clydesdale Bank in the Kingdom Shopping Centre in the centre of Glenrothes. A middle-aged nurse with red hair, Stewart says she has been a Labour supporter all her life. And now? “I’m a bit fed up. I really liked Brown when he was chancellor and thought he would be a really good prime minister but he has not been authoritative enough.” What about his handling of the economic crisis? “He has done well on that. I might change my mind. He has time.”

Stewart is a resolute unionist and suggests that the popularity of the SNP is the result of people’s wider disillusionment with politics rather than the result of renewed zest for independence. “I don’t like the look of Alex Salmond; he’s slippery,” she said. “I don’t think we should be separated. I did years ago but I don’t now.”

Lindsay Roy has fought a strong campaign. If he cannot win the seat for Labour, it is unlikely that anyone else could

Yet the feeling remains that six decades of Labour representation is about to come to an end in Glenrothes. In last year’s Scottish elections, the SNP won Central Fife, which covers the same area, by a majority of 1,166.

Labour continues to send its senior ministers up from London. Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, turned up early in the campaign; Brown himself visited on 25 October, and Alistair Darling arrived two days later. In response, SNP activists are frenetically busy on the ground. By sheer force of campaigning, the SNP, whose candidate Peter Grant is a councillor from Fife, appears on course for a narrow victory. “I’m not only telling you that we are going to lose because I am doing my job and playing expectations down,” said one source at Labour headquarters in London. “I’m telling you we are going to lose because we are going to lose.”

Lindsay Roy, who is 59, is widely considered to be a good candidate – and he certainly has the personal endorsement of the Prime Minister. Roy boasts of having had “quite an ordinary” background (his father was a railway signalman and his mother a school cleaner). He lives in the constituency – “a Fifer fighting for Fifers”, his campaign says – and has been a teacher in Fife for 40 years. (Before Kirkcaldy, he was rector at Inverkeithing High.) He has acted as a Church Elder for 35 years, and serves at St Columba’s Church in Glenrothes. He has been married to Irene for 36 years and they have three children. He is judged to have fought a strong campaign. If he cannot win the seat for Labour, it is unlikely anyone could.

In a sign of how close the contest is, Roy has turned his fire on his opponent in recent days, telling him to “get up off his knees” and fulfil the SNP’s promise of free school meals for primary schools – which, according to more than half of Scotland’s 32 councils, cannot be met because of a shortage of funds. “He should go to his SNP bosses in Edinburgh and not come back until he has the money Fife needs to buy the schools meals for these kids,” Roy has said.

If the SNP does indeed win here the impact on Labour will not be as disastrous as some would have predicted, not least because Brown’s premiership is more assured than it was in August, when so many in the party were mutinous. Nonetheless, in the current, fragile climate, in which the media flirts – but only flirts – with turning some of its scrutiny on to the Tories amid a different political mood, a defeat would doubtless be a grave setback for the Prime Minister and a reminder of the battle Labour faces to win the next election.

Also in Glenrothes last week were the former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, still a master campaigner, and David Cameron. The Conservatives have long since ceased to be a truly national party; they have just one MP in Scotland, David Mundell, who represents Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and acts as shadow secretary of state for Scotland. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 the party had 22 MPs. Cameron knows that the Tories are as doomed in Glenrothes as in the rest of Scotland, and the once grandly named Conservative and Unionist Party has become little more than an English national party. Yet the presence of senior opposition politicians was a reminder that by-elections are seen, rightly or wrongly, as indicators of the electorate’s mood and the result is being nervously anticipated by all parties.

Out on the streets, the mood was broadly encouraging for Labour. At 115 Carden Castle Park, Sarah Brown was admiring the luminous green and yellow coat worn by McKenzie Burns, aged one and a half. “It’s a good look,” she said in her gentle middle-class English accent. McKenzie’s mum, Natasha, 18, was excited about meeting the Prime Minister’s wife. “I’m gonna tell everyone about it at the college that I go to,” she said. “This guy said ‘would you like to meet Sarah Brown’ and I was like, ‘yeah, whatever’ . . . I was in a state of shock.”

One afternoon I visited the SNP headquarters on High Street, Markinch. The nationalists I encountered there were relaxed and confident. John Beare, a local councillor, dismissed the suggestion that the SNP’s credibility was damaged by the banking crisis. He blamed everything on Gordon Brown. Inside the office, four loyal party activists were stuffing envelopes with yet another letter to voters from Alex Salmond. Gwen Roths-Williams, Carmen McKay, Shanks Kerr and Jack Thomson all nodded in unison when asked if they were going to win. Asked if the union is not greater than the sum of its parts, they said, emphatically, “No”. Thomson said that he was “fed up” with Londoners. “They tell us they keep us going but they would drop us like a hot brick if they could. Scotland keeps London going.”

A nationalist victory in Glenrothes would mark the end of an era for this part of Fife, which has been tribally Labour since the miner’s son Willie Hamilton won West Fife from the Communist Party in 1950. But it may not be over yet. If in these final days Labour can match the force of the SNP’s campaign on the ground, Roy may yet end up at Westminster.

Back at number 102 Carden Castle Park, Janet Anderson, a long-time Labour voter, revealed that she had sent her regards to Sarah Brown’s “old man”, which the Prime Minister’s wife had agreed to pass on. But at that moment her daughter Laura emerged from the house, having missed the doorstep show. “I wouldn’t have minded speaking to her myself,” she said. The 34-year-old added that, as one herself, her main concern was the plight of “young mums” and she was “very disappointed” not to have been able to raise the matter on the doorstep. “It’s important and nobody bothers about it.”

She glanced in the direction of the departing Sarah Brown, who was being driven away with her entourage. “Right, so that’s it,” she said. “She’s gone . . . Let’s hope Labour isn’t, too.”

Swings and surprises in Scottish by-elections

Glasgow East, 25 July 2008: SNP’s John Mason beat Margaret Curran with a majority of 365 – a small margin, but the seat had been considered a safe one for Labour, and Mason’s victory represented a swing of more than 22 per cent.

Dunfermline and West Fife, 9 February 2006: a 16 per cent swing saw Lib Dem Willie Rennie elected to the former Labour stronghold with a majority of 1,800. It was seen as a personal blow to Gordon Brown, as part of the constituency had previously belonged to his neighbouring one.

Kincardine and Deeside (now Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine), 7 November 1991: the seat had been the stronghold not just of one party, the Conservatives, but one man – Alick Buchanan-Smith held it from 1964 until his death in 1991. Lib Dem Nicol Stephen then won the seat on an 11 per cent swing, but the Tories won it back the following year.

Glasgow Govan, 10 November 1988: The SNP won the seat from Labour on a dramatic 33 per cent switch. The candidate, Jim Sillars, is now married to Margo Macdonald, who won the seat for the SNP on a similarly impressive (27 per cent) swing – before promptly losing it back to Labour.

Glasgow Hillhead, 25 March 1982: At a time when the SDP-Liberal Alliance was trailing Labour and the Tories in the polls, Roy Jenkins was elected to this seat, which had been Tory since its creation in 1918.

Hamilton, November 1967: Winnie Ewing won the SNP its first victory in 22 years in this mining area and long-standing Labour stronghold, capturing the seat after the resignation of Labour’s Tom Fraser on a 38 per cent swing.

by-election losses in a Recession

1968: Dudley – a safe Labour seat lost to the Conservative candidate Donald Williams.

1977: Ashfield – Labour deposed by the Tories in a mining stronghold on a swing of 21 per cent.

1990: Mid-Staffordshire – a Conservative loss to Labour, and another 21 per cent swing.

1991: Monmouth – once a safe Tory seat, lost to Labour.

Alyssa McDonald

glenrothes by numbers

In 2005, Labour MP John MacDougall won the seat of Glenrothes. Between 1974 and 2005, Central Fife, which covers the same area as Glenrothes, was a Labour constituency.

The SNP won Central Fife in last year’s Scottish elections, with a majority of 1,166.

The population of Glenrothes is 40,000. In the 2005 general election Labour won the seat with a majority of 10,664. The SNP came second with 8,731 votes to Labour’s 19,395.

In order to win Glenrothes the SNP needs a swing of 14.2 per cent. In the Glasgow East by-election in July the Nationalists won with a swing of 22.5 per cent from Labour.

Glenrothes was established as a new town in 1948 to help compensate Fife for the loss of its coal industry.

The seat combines Glenrothes new town with a section of the Fife coalfield to form a predominantly working-class constituency that stretches inland from the Firth of Forth.

In 1935 West Fife elected William Gallagher, the first Communist Party MP in Britain. He lost the seat in 1950 to Labour candidate Willie Hamilton.

The Liberal Democrats won the Westminster seat of Dunfermline and West Fife from Labour in the 2006 by-election, on a 16 per cent swing.

Liana Wood

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