Page last updated at 12:06 GMT, Wednesday, 13 August 2008 13:06 UK

Don't expect an early by-election

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

Friends and family of John MacDougall will be mourning his loss after a two year struggle against asbestos-related lung cancer.

Nicola Sturgeon, John Mason and Alex Salmond in Glasgow East
The SNP overturned a bigger Labour majority in Glasgow East

Among them is Gordon Brown - a Parliamentary neighbour who had known him for three decades and who visited him in hospital this week.

So it will be all the more galling that political calculation will, sooner or later, have to intrude on personal tragedy.

Following Mr MacDougall's funeral, Labour strategists will have to decide when to call a by-election to elect a new MP.

Early indications from Labour sources is that the by-election will not be called before October.

It would be possible to hold the election during the Parliamentary recess, but this would be tricky for both political and practical reasons.

Earliest date

In theory, a by-election could be held as early as next month.

The process would start with an announcement in the London Gazette.

John MacDougall

Six days later, the writ for the by-election could be moved but the soonest voters could got to the polls would be 15 working days later.

Our understanding is, therefore, that the earliest date for a by-election would be 11 September.

This would place it in the middle of the TUC conference - and with some union leaders privately discussing the merits of a possible replacement for Gordon Brown, it would not be a good time for the prime minister to suffer a defeat.

Voter gifts

That particular date might also invite some lurid headlines about disasters.

If the by-election were to be held in the subsequent weeks, it would coincide with the party conference season - which would deliver a fillip to political opponents if Labour loses.

There are also practical reasons why it would difficult for Labour to "go early" - a candidate has to be approved by Labour's National Executive Committee and it could be difficult bringing them together during the August holidays.

It is easy to see why Labour would not rush into political battle in late summer - but delaying the by-election to the autumn is not without risk either

So it is more likely the by-election will be called when Parliament resumes in October.

By then, it is likely there will have been a reshuffle, an economic recovery plan - and just possibly the Pre Budget Report will take place before polling day.

This would allow the government to go to the voters bearing gifts - with announcements designed to help "hard-pressed families".

Evaporating majorities

Labour would then be able to go on the front foot in any campaign.

Conventional wisdom suggests Labour would hold the seat - they have a majority in excess of 10,000 in a traditional Labour area consisting of a "new town", with a hinterland of post- industrial communities.

But conventional wisdom has been turned on its head in recent months - with the loss in July of Glasgow East to a rampant SNP, and the evaporation of a bigger - 13,500 - majority.

And there is worse news for Labour.

Fife does not seem as solidly Labour as it once was.

At a by-election in 2006, the nearby supposedly safe seat of Dunfermline and West Fife was lost to the Liberal Democrats.

And at the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, the SNP swept Labour from Central Fife, a near-equivalent seat to the Westminster constituency of Glenrothes.

So it is easy to see why Labour would not rush into political battle in late summer.

But delaying the by-election to the autumn is not without risk either.

By then, the stakes will be incredibly high - because a rejection by traditional Labour voters after what will in effect be a relaunch of the government might just put intolerable pressure on Gordon Brown's premiership.

Timing, as always in politics, is everything.

MP MacDougall dies after illness
13 Aug 08 |  Scotland
Lib Dems deliver blow to Labour
10 Feb 06 |  Scotland
SNP stuns Labour in Glasgow East
25 Jul 08 |  Glasgow, Lanarkshire and West


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