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Friday, September 24, 1999 Published at 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK

UK Politics

By-election blows for Blair

The Hamilton South result was a boost to nationalists

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

The BBC's John Pienaar reports: "Today the party said victory was enough"
There are some ominous signs for Tony Blair in the results of the two by-elections in Hamilton South and Wigan.

Labour held onto the two seats but with vastly reduced majorities and, in Hamilton, came within a whisker of being sensationally beaten by a resurgent Scottish National Party.

[ image: Annabelle Ewing: Nearly repeated mother's victory]
Annabelle Ewing: Nearly repeated mother's victory
The SNP candidate, Annabelle Ewing, very nearly repeated her mother Winnie's extraordinary 1967 victory against Labour in the same Hamilton seat - a swing of just one point more and she would have done it.

So forget all Labour's talk about a win being a win, and their attempts to claim that the SNP are a bunch of losers.

This was a great result for the nationalists and will send Labour bosses into a flat spin as they search for a fresh tactic to take on the SNP.

There is undoubtedly disillusion with Labour's performance in Scotland and voters punished them by voting for some of the other eleven candidates.

They may also have taken offence at the way in which they were landed with the poll.

[ image: George Robertson: Former MP for Hamilton South]
George Robertson: Former MP for Hamilton South
Sitting MP George Robertson is to become secretary general of Nato and, in a controversial tactic, Tony Blair first made him a peer which allowed him to break custom and call the by-election during the summer parliamentary recess and during the SNP conference.

He was accused of trying to manipulate the system to give his candidate an unfair advantage and some voters may have taken exception to this.

But in doing so they have effectively turned Hamilton South into a marginal seat.

The result also suggests that devolution has, to some extent, boosted the standing of the SNP which now claims there is no such thing as a safe Labour seat in Scotland.

The usual health warning must be applied to the result, however. This was a mid-term by-election when voters traditionally like to kick the party in power.

The real test will come at a general election when Labour will be desperately hoping that its supporters will return to the fold.

[ image: Bill Tynan: Majority of less than 600]
Bill Tynan: Majority of less than 600
For their part, the SNP will be praying that the Hamilton performance marks the start of a real movement towards them which will ultimately sweep them into power in Edinburgh.

The result was particularly bad news for the Liberal Democrats - Labour's coalition partners in the Edinburgh parliament.

As they ended a particularly lacklustre party conference in Harrogate under new leader Charles Kennedy, their candidate was slipping to sixth place and losing her deposit with a derisory 634 votes.

The Lib Dems were beaten by the Scottish Socialist Party, which scored a significant success by coming third, the Conservatives, who had little to cheer about in fourth place, and even the local soccer club supporters' party.

The result suggests that the Lib Dems are suffering from their alliance with Labour which lands Mr Kennedy with a new problem over exactly how far he should go in his dealings with Tony Blair.

The result in Wigan also had little cheer for Labour which saw its majority slashed from 22,643 to 6,729.

Only one in four of the voters bothered to turn out for the poll, raising fresh fears that disillusioned Labour supporters are staying at home in protest.

The former MP, Roger Stott, also had a large personal following in the constituency and there were some fears that criticisms by his widow of the way he was treated by Tony Blair - who refused to bring him into government - may have played a part.

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