Page last updated at 10:02 GMT, Thursday, 14 August 2008 11:02 UK

Life after unknown Labour soldier

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

The Kingdom of Fife has lost a loyal servant. But no one in the capital, Glenrothes, seemed to know that.

John MacDougall
John MacDougall died on Wednesday aged 60

I must have asked 20 people if they'd heard of John MacDougall but only four had and none of them knew much about his lifetime's work on their behalf.

This was in the heart, the strange concrete heart, of Glenrothes, the bus station, the shopping mall and the car parks around Fife Council headquarters.

Perhaps if I'd asked people in Burntisland, where John MacDougall was the local councillor for 20 years, I'd have got a more positive response.

John MacDougall was a square-jawed man of the people. Born in Dunfermline, brought up as a boilermaker in the oil rig yard in Methil, he joined the trade union and the Labour Party and eventually became leader of Fife Council.

That was when Fife was a Labour fiefdom. The council is now led by the SNP.

'People's servant'

In 2001, when Henry McLeish stood down as the local MP to concentrate on being first minister, John MacDougall was chosen as his safe successor.

Alas, just over two years ago, the boilermaker fell victim to mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer of the lung.

At times he appeared to be making a recovery but on Wednesday morning at 6am, he died, aged just 60 in hospital in Kirkcaldy. He leaves a wife, Cathy, and two grown up children.

Gordon Brown had been to visit him at the weekend. On Wednesday he said he'd lost "a good personal friend" and Fife had lost a "true servant of the people".

So here was a man who'd worked his heart and lungs out for the people of Fife - pioneering policies like free bus travel for pensioners and free personal care for the elderly - for a quarter of a century and almost nobody had heard of him.

Fife Council HQ
The Fife MP also served as the leader of Fife Council

Is democracy dead in Fife? Perhaps that's why Labour has lost touch with its people.

At Westminster, John MacDougall was known as a loyal, silent "Brownite".

He left his sick bed to travel to the Commons in June to support the government in the narrow vote on the 42-day detention bill.

Labour have been rallying round their unknown soldier. Alex Rowley, the Labour group leader on Fife Council, said it was too early to speculate on who might replace John MacDougall.

"Today, our thoughts are with John's family," he said.

But for Labour it's not just a sad day. It's an anxious day. Is the party about to lose another seat in its own backyard - indeed, Gordon Brown's backyard - as they did in Dunfermline West in February 2006 and more recently in its third safest seat in Scotland, Glasgow East?

John MacDougall's majority was 10,644 - less than in either Glasgow East or Dunfermline West.

In the 2005 election, he got 19,395 votes. The SNP came second with 8,731 votes. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives were some way behind.

For Labour it's not just a sad day. It's an anxious day. Is the party about to lose another seat in its own backyard?

The by-election is not likely to take place till the late autumn, after the party conference season.

But everyone is now wondering what the democratic folk of Fife will do to Labour. Will they swing to the SNP? Will they stay at home?

We shall all get to know Glenrothes a little better. It's a 1960s new town, of course, with large green lawns, interspersed with roundabouts like crop circles.

Rows of little neat box-houses now have more prosperous looking estates surrounding them. The constituency also stretches across the farmlands of Fife and down to the coast at Methil.

The miners, shipyard workers and farm hands have been replaced by new Fifers, commuting, service industry Fifers.

How angry will they be about the credit crunch, the 4.4% inflation, the 2.5% pay limit, the slow housing market, the gloomy economic outlook? And will they they blame Labour and its unknown soldiers for it?

The answer, as Jimmy Shand would say, is blowing in the wind.

MP MacDougall dies after illness
13 Aug 08 |  Scotland


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