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In the Fife two-horse race what could go wrong?

IT WAS in 1973 the good Fifers of Ballingry and Lochore elected Willie Clarke, the Communist candidate, as their councillor.

CAMpAIGN TRAIL: The SNP candidate Natalie McGarry in Crossgates, speaking to Elizabeth Mackenzie and Margaret Laming. Picture: Steve Cox
CAMpAIGN TRAIL: The SNP candidate Natalie McGarry in Crossgates, speaking to Elizabeth Mackenzie and Margaret Laming. Picture: Steve Cox

He remains the councillor for the area to this day.

Local authorities and parties have changed names, he is an independent now, but the bottom line is this is an area where the citizens are happy to continue voting into office someone who is in effect a Communist councillor.

So the Cowdenbeath constituency has among the most left-wing electorates in Britain, often comprising miners or more likely their sons and daughters, full of political self-awareness and hatred of the Westminster Tory/LibDem coalition, and surely the most rock-solid of Labour seats.

Well, up to a point. For who is the judge of what is left-wing these days? This is also at the heart of the area that did not rebel against New Labour at the time of the Iraq War, because it was intensely loyal to Gordon Brown.

Loyalty to Mr Brown also translates as loyalty to his right-hand man Alex Rowley, leader of Fife Council, who was meant to ascend to the Scottish Parliament in 2011 in Dunfermline until the bizarre redistribution of collapsing LibDem votes saw Bill Walker win the seat for the SNP, with all the fall-out after he was unmasked as a wife-beater.

That resulted in a by-election late last year which saw Labour's Cara Hilton re-take the seat.

Which takes us to the current Holyrood by-election, following the death of Helen Eadie, MSP for the constituency since 1999.

Labour will surely hold this seat comfortably. A well-respected incumbent, an experienced successor, what could possibly go wrong?

At their high water mark in 2011 the SNP put on 13% to their vote and came within 3.4% of taking the seat - the last held by Labour above the Clyde-Forth line.

Alex Rowley remains bruised from the experience of failing to hold the neighbouring Dunfermline seat and will be nervous right up until the declaration next Thursday night. He really has to win this one.

He has developed a tightly focused set of spiels for the campaign, highlighting youth unemployment and building on the achievements of Fife Council under his leadership.

But therein lies his problem. Incumbency. At by-elections incumbency is always the issue, an easy line of attack for the failures of those in office. But in the Cowdenbeath contest both the front-runners carry the burden of incumbency - the SNP's Natalie McGarry has to answer for the record of Alex Salmond at Holyrood, while Mr Rowley carries the burden of his administration's record.

You could go further and mention the parties of power at Westminster. Tory candidate Dave Dempsey is a highly self-aware 62-year-old councillor who has represented the coastal part of the constituency for six years. He is fighting the fight, but not kidding himself. Jade Holden is a different kettle of fish. She thinks everything is going swimmingly and insists that no-one on the doorsteps has made an issue of the LibDems being in coalition with the Tories at Westminster. Apparently all these mining families are queuing up to reward coalition achievements. Hmm.

There is also a Ukip candidate, Denise Baykal, whose final hustings performance did not indicate her party is making much progress, although the European elections will be the proof of that.

There are two other candidates, one building on a single issue involving a family tragedy and the right to demand an inquiry into suspicious deaths, and the other by a party attempting to bridge pro-business nationalism with Euro-scepticism.

But this is about as two-horse a race as you will ever encounter. Mr Rowley is firm favourite, nervous, but for no obvious reason. Ms McGarry, by contrast, is confident, but for no obvious reason. Only a catastrophically low poll could put the issue in doubt, and no-one really wants that.

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