Page last updated at 16:10 GMT, Thursday, 23 October 2008 17:10 UK

Gauging the mood in Glenrothes

By Iain Watson
BBC political correspondent, in Glenrothes

The Glenrothes Recreation and Social Club is housed in an austere building that looks more like a social security office, perched at the edge of a windswept car park which serves the town's main shopping mall.

But inside the atmosphere is far from grim.

During my visit a band played country music classics to a packed audience in a back room, while the busy main bar resounded to the recorded sound of the Eagles.

Labour candidate Lindsay Roy
Labour's Lindsay Roy says he is fighting a positive campaign

The music may have evoked images of sunny California, but the clientele here were more worried about their heating bills on this cold crisp autumn day.

It is the sort of place that is usually referred to as a "working man's club" but that description would be inaccurate for two reasons - it is as popular with women as men and, following the collapse of Fife's mining industry, a fair proportion of the male customers are either retired or unemployed.

Many of the regulars, once upon a time, could have been described as core Labour voters - apart from those that saw that party as a sell-out and voted Communist instead.

But tribal loyalties in Fife have been breaking down.

Prognosis 'not good'

In 2006 the nearby 'safe' Labour seat of Dunfermline and West Fife fell to the Lib Dems.

Here in Glenrothes, the Scottish Parliament seat was snatched by the SNP last year.

And in a recent visit to the social club, during Labour's conference week in September, the Scotsman newspaper reported that "the prognosis overall is not good for Mr Brown or for Labour. If their support cannot be won back in a working-class social club, then where can the recovery begin?"

Well, the answer appears to be right here after all.

Morag Balfour, Scottish Socialists
Maurice Golden, Conservative
Peter Grant, SNP
Lindsay Roy Labour
Kris Seunarine, UKIP
Harry Wills, Liberal Democrats
Louise McLeary, Solidarity
Jim Parker, Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party

A lot has happened in a month - a global financial crisis, the British bail-out of two big Scottish-based banks and an improvement in the prime minister's personal ratings - though, overall, Labour still trails in the opinion polls.

Sarah Brown visited the constituency this week and, in a break with tradition, her husband will campaign here himself before polling day on 6 November.

So I came here to ask if all this had made any wavering voters return to the Labour fold and if Scottish independence looked more risky in a time of economic pessimism, not optimism.

But it just goes to show that you should not get bogged down by the weight of your assumptions.

Care charges

Instead of wanting to talk about global issues, quite unprompted, some of the club regulars mentioned a little local difficulty for the SNP. They weren't too keen to give their names publicly, but did not hold back on their opinions.

"They want to charge people for care services. They are not looking after the old yins. I've no time for them," said a club member in his forties.

A woman who looked as though she herself might be approaching retirement age told me: "They want to take their alarms away and charge for deliveries.''

SNP candidate Peter Grant with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
SNP council leader Mr Grant has been campaigning hard

A retired ex-miner added: "They will be taking away free prescriptions next - I can see it coming.' (The SNP, for the record, plan to extend the scope of free prescriptions, not restrict them.)

What I'd stumbled upon was the result of a key element of Labour's campaign in the constituency.

It was not all about the prime minister being the man to lead us through difficult times. It was instead much more focussed on attacking the SNP-led local council.

Catching up with Labour's candidate - secondary school headmaster Lindsay Roy - as he canvassed a nearby housing estate, he told me what he thought would be the big difference between the campaign here and in Glasgow East in the summer, which saw Labour's 13,500 majority wiped out by the nationalists.

'Wedge issue'

He said: "Here, the SNP have a track record to defend. They run the local council. People don't trust them - they are imposing charges on the elderly.'

From my limited experience, it seemed like these campaign messages were hitting home with some voters.

Labour accuse the SNP-led administration of charging more for care services such as helping the elderly with their shopping.

Harry Wills, Willie Rennie and Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott
The Lib Dems' Harry Wills blamed Labour 'innuendo' for scaring voters

The SNP says only those who can afford to do so will pay more and that the over-65s will still get free personal care.

But what is not in dispute is the imposition of a 1-a-week charge for "community alarms" - pendants which elderly people who live alone wear around their neck and can use to activate an alarm if they need assistance.

Labour is using this as "wedge" issue to say that, while the sums are small, the SNP is making the elderly pay for their commitment to freeze council tax - an otherwise popular measure.

And the SNP candidate in the by-election, Peter Grant, is none other than leader of the local council.

'Fears and smears'

I asked him whether he had given Labour a political stick with which to beat him.

He accused his opponents of hypocrisy and said the outgoing Labour administration in Fife would have imposed a charge too, as do many other councils, and he was proud to stand on his record as council leader.

But Labour is also hoping to inflict collateral damage on the Lib Dems who are junior partners to the SNP in running the council.

Their candidate, businessman Harry Wills, admitted some old people would pay more "but only those who could afford it" and blamed "Labour innuendo and rumour" for scaring older voters.

The SNP have their own term for the Labour campaign -"fears and smears".

David Cameron and Maurice Golden
Conservative candidate Maurice Golden is a green campaigner

But, sniffing blood, Labour have widened their attack on the council. They say education spending is being cut, while the SNP say it increased by 10% last year. So I challenged Labour's Lindsay Roy on his party's tactics.

He said he was fighting a positive campaign and justified the education claim by pointing out that his school had to make considerable efficiency savings.

But, asked why he was saying that education budgets overall were going down, his response was that he had "seen no evidence" of budgets going up.

'Uphill battle'

The Conservatives came fourth here last time round and do not control the Scottish government (SNP minority administration), the UK government (Labour) or the local council (SNP/Lib Dem) so are staying somewhat above the fray.

Their candidate Maurice Golden, an environmental campaigner, is offering a council tax cut but it is not clear how his party would deliver it any time soon.

He says simply: "It's an uphill battle here but we are trying to set the agenda - we are hoping to form the government after the next election and I think we will."

But back at the social club, it was not all good news for Labour.

While their local attacks appeared to be paying dividends, global events could still prove to be more of a vulnerability than a strength.

In this far-from-affluent corner of the constituency, Gordon Brown's handling of the banking bail-out was not universally popular.

Certainly some people said that because he was a good chancellor, he will now be a good prime minister but others questioned his priorities.

"I don't trust him. How can he spend millions bailing out the banks?," said one former merchant seaman.

Nearby, a pensioner and her friend were just as sceptical: "Where are we finding the money from - we can't find 15,000 to pay for a wheelchair for a wee boy I saw on television the other day and we find all this for the banks."

"Some of these bankers are getting bonuses to leave - bonuses to leave! And we are paying the money."

Labour has a majority in excess of 10,500 - smaller than in Glasgow East.

So if they hold on by even one solitary vote, they will claim it as a famous victory.

But it is still far from clear that a robust local campaign will pay dividends against a backdrop of voters' concerns about their homes and, for those who have them, their jobs.

It seems likely at the very least Labour will concede considerable ground since the 2005 election - so, win or lose this seat, their heartlands remain under sustained attack.

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