Thursday, 23 January 2014

By-Election Preview: Cowdenbeath

Scottish Parliament; caused by the death of Labour MSP Helen Eadie at the age of 66.  One of the Scottish Parliament's original Class of 1999, Eadie had originally sat for the Dunfermline East constituency, moving to the successor seat of Cowdenbeath in 2011.

Cowdenbeath High Street
  © Copyright Colin Kinnear and licensed for
reuse under this 
Creative Commons Licence.
This is a long, thin constituency running down to the Firth of Forth.  The main town in the constituency is Cowdenbeath itself, a Victorian-era town which grew thanks to coal and iron mining; the population of Cowdenbeath doubled between 1890 and 1900 and, as the centre of the Fife coalfield, the town became host to several related institutions such as the Fife Mining School.  The mining industry also led to a boom in several villages in the area: Kelty, Lochgelly, Lochore and Cardenden, turning them into towns.  With the death of Scottish coal-mining the economies of these villages are changing; Lochgelly in particular is dependent on a large ethylene plant, while Kelty is turning into an Edinburgh commuter village thanks to its proximity to the M90 motorway.  This is not the only Edinburgh commuter area in the constituency, as we see by going down the M90 to the Forth shore and three communities which are rather detached from the rest of the constituency: the medieval port town of Inverkeithing, the railway suburb of Dalgety Bay and the village of North Queensferry, on a promontory in the shadow of the Forth Bridges.

The Fife coalfield had a reputation for radicalism, and the West Fife constituency which covered this area until 1974 was represented from 1935 to 1950 by the Communist MP William Gallacher; even in 1955 the Communist Party could save its deposit in the constituency, when they had long since collapsed into oblivion everywhere else in the UK.  However, the West Fife constituency only covered the countryside, with the towns of Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly (joined by Inverkeithing in 1950) being part of the Dunfermline Burghs contituency which remained safe Labour throughout this period.  In 1974 the area was split, with Inverkeithing and its hinterland joining the Dumferline constituency and the coalfield area transferred to the new Central Fife seat.  Fife gained a fifth seat in Parliament at the 1983 election in Dunfermline East, with very similar boundaries to the modern Cowdenbeath constituency.  Dunfermline East never contained any part of Dunfermline town; the name came about because it was one of two seats covering the then Dunfermline local government district.  All of these were of course very safe Labour seats.

The lucky beneficiary of the new seat was a 32-year-old partially-sighted TV journalist and ex-Edinburgh University rector called Gordon Brown, who had stood for Labour in an Edinburgh constituency in 1979 and lost to the Conservatives.  With a secure political base in his new safe seat, Brown's political career flourished.  Whatever you may think of his political legacy, Brown deserves some respect for his sheer staying power: nearly five years as Shadow Chancellor under Smith and Blair turning into over ten years as Blair's Chancellor of the Exchequer and nearly three years as Prime Minister, when the economic music stopped in 2008.  That game of Pass the Parcel didn't end well, and Brown is now trying to adjust to life on the backbenches as constituency MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, having moved to that seat after the Westminster seat of Dunfermline East was abolished in 2005.  One candidate he defeated at the 1987 election was the SDP's Evan Harris, who went on to have a parliamentary career in Oxford.

All of these were of course very safe Labour seats, and it took until the late noughties for things at the ballot box to get interesting; first the Liberal Democrats gained the Dunfermline and West Fife parliamentary constituency (which includes the Inverkeithing area) at a 2006 by-election, then the SNP surge of 2011 very nearly delivered them the Cowdenbeath seat, the Labour majority being cut from around 4,000 votes (after boundary changes) to 1,247.  Cowdenbeath was the only constituency that Labour held in the Mid Scotland and Fife electoral region in 2011; the SNP won the other eight constituencies, although they have since lost Dunfermline to Labour in a by-election.

At Fife Council level the Cowdenbeath constituency contains the whole of three wards (Cowdenbeath, Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay, and Lochgelly and Cardenden) and part of a fourth (The Lochs).  In the 2007 election Labour carried all of those wards except for Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay, where the SNP were top of the poll; over those four wards Labour won five council seats to four for the SNP, one each for the Tories and Lib Dems (both in Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay) and two independent candidates in Cowdenbeath and The Lochs wards, both long-serving councillors who were originally elected as Communists.  At the 2012 local elections the independent councillor in Cowdenbeath stood down and his seat went to Labour, who also gained the Lib Dem seat in Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay.

This is likely to be the last major electoral test in Scotland before the European elections and then the independence referendum later this year, and with the Labour majority being small there is a lot at stake.  Defending for Labour is Alex Rowley, the leader of Fife council who fought Dunfermline in the 2011 Holyrood election.  The SNP have selected Natalie McGarry, a political commentator from Glasgow who co-founded Women for Independence.  The Tory candidate is their local councillor in the seat, Dave Dempsey, while the Lib Dem candidate is Renfrew-based IT worker and European candidate Jade Holden.  UKIP have selected Denise Baykal, who gives an address in Perthshire; Stuart Graham stands for the newly-formed Victims Final Right party, which is campaigning for the 2007 death of a local man to be re-investigated; and Glasgow-based James Trolland, undaunted by fighting two Glasgow council by-elections last year for a combined total of 7 votes, continues to appear on ballot papers for his Scottish Democratic Alliance.

Denise Baykal (UKIP)
Dave Dempsey (C)
Stuart Graham (Victims Final Right)
Jade Holden (LD)
Natalie McGarry (SNP)
Alex Rowley (Lab)
James Trolland (Scottish Democratic Alliance)

May 2011 result Lab 11926 SNP 10679 C 1792 LD 997 Land Party 276

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