Page last updated at 19:23 GMT, Friday, 10 February 2006

Activists' gloom over by-election

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter at Labour's spring conference

Dennis Skinner
Skinner said it was the biggest by-election upset he had seen
The sun may have been shining outside but there was a distinct air of gloom about Blackpool's Winter Gardens as Labour activists digested Thursday night's shock by-election defeat.

Veteran left-winger Dennis Skinner described the loss of Dunfermline and West Fife to the Liberal Democrats by 1,800 votes - overturning an 11,500 Labour majority - as the biggest by-election upset he had ever witnessed.

The Labour party had simply not seen it coming.

"It was the silent revolution," said Mr Skinner. "I made over 300 calls on the phone in the constituency and nobody mentioned the Liberal Democrats."

Mr Skinner's theory is "that people were voting for Menzies Campbell", who represents a neighbouring seat.

But he conceded the Lib Dems had been "quietly cultivating" the seat.

'Difficult seat'

There were dark mutterings from others about Liberal Democrat tactics, with the party accused of campaigning while Labour's Rachel Squire - whose death triggered the contest - was on her death bed.

"It was a bad result," said Nick Forbes, who as deputy Labour leader on Lib Dem-controlled Newcastle council knows what it feels like to lose to the third party.

He said Dunfermline and West Fife was "a difficult seat, in terms of not being a traditional Labour seat".

Gordon Brown
Brown put his personal stamp on the Labour campaign

But he said lessons had to be learned ahead of the local elections.

"It means we have got to redouble our efforts in the May elections."

'Local issues'

And he urged Tony Blair to set a date for his departure, to end speculation about it and ensure a smooth handover of power to Gordon Brown, the man widely expected to be the next Labour leader.

"I think he will go in the next 18 months but he should make sure everyone is clear about his intentions."

Most activists in Blackpool were trying to put a brave face on the Dunfermline result - and refusing, publicly at least, to read too much into it.

The consensus was that "local issues" dominated the poll and there was no national message - even though Gordon Brown had put his personal stamp on candidate Catherine Stihler's campaign.

Councillor Ken Audin, of Bury South, said: "We are now beginning to move into a mid-term situation and there were a lot of local issues, which the Lib Dems exploited.

"I am sure the party needs to look at learning lessons from it."

Alan Matthews, also of Bury South, agreed, but like Mr Audin, was against the idea of handing power to Mr Brown without a contest.

Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden put the result down to devolution.

"The Lib Dems in Scotland are seen as a party in the own right. They are not associated with the leadership issues", he argued.

But he said the party would have to "redouble its efforts" in May.

Ann Russell, of Rotherham, said the result was a "sympathy vote" for the Liberal Democrats.

Others wrote off the result as a "typical by-election".

Sir Jeremy Beecham, who was acting as Mr Blair's warm-up man in the main hall, thanked Mrs Stihler and her campaign team, eliciting a ripple of applause from the hall.

But in his keynote speech, Mr Blair did not mention Dunfirmline and West Fife at all.

Labour defiant after shock defeat
10 Feb 06 |  UK Politics
In quotes: Lib Dem election win
10 Feb 06 |  Scotland
Taking stock after the upset
10 Feb 06 |  UK Politics
Rousing end to tense by-election
10 Feb 06 |  Scotland
Hundreds mourn Rachel Squire MP
03 Feb 06 |  Scotland
Kennedy joins by-election drive
02 Feb 06 |  Scotland

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