THE public's image of Jim Devine is of his haggard face and protective arm around Gaynor Cook as he shepherded her into Raigmore Hospital in Inverness in the aftermath of Robin Cook's sudden death last month.

In this instance, the glancing media spotlight was revealing of the man who is now the Labour candidate to succeed Cook as MP for Livingston. The cameras caught a man, shocked and desperately saddened by the untimely death of a friend. In 22 years of political campaigning, Devine and Cook had forged a personal as well as a political bond. But that physical gesture of support for Gaynor came not just from friendship and sympathy, it was also the instinct of a professional nurse.

Long before Jim Devine was an election agent or trade-union official, the two roles he has combined successfully for half his 52 years, he was a psychiatric nurse. It is a job which requires care for fellow human beings but also demands considerable personal resources of patience and tact and is, according to some of those who have known him longest, the real source of his undoubted people skills.

It is also the source of his tenacious championing of the health service. He moved from nursing to full-time trade-union official in the old Confederation of Health Service Employees and is now Scottish organiser for health workers in Unison, the amalgamated public-service union.

One long-standing colleague describes him as "an old-fashioned, hands-on trade unionist". That makes him sound as if he's a leftover from the age of union barons invited to beer and sandwiches at Number 10 with Harold Wilson. In fact, he's of the succeeding generation, who cut their campaigning teeth during the Thatcher years. In Devine's case, it was the healthservice strikes of the early 1980s that brought him into the public eye in Scotland.

He was quick to grasp what made a good story and thereafter applied himself assiduously to getting publicity for his cause. At a time when health workers were scattered across several different unions, a rival union organiser recalled: "Jim would always be teeming with good ideas for publicity stunts, and you would usually find him at the centre of any stunt."

That combination of enthusiasm, energy, an instinctive understanding of how quickly issues change in the public eye and how to get publicity also make him a huge asset to any election campaign.

One criticism levelled at him is that he is far more suited to intensive, high-pressure excitement than the humdrum, sometimes bureaucratic work of the details of trade-union organisation and representation.

"He's very mercurial and given to sudden enthusiasms, which make him frustrating to work with, " according to a friend, who also acknowledges his strengths.

He has always had political ambitions and as well as becoming chairman of the Labour Party in Scotland, has had two previous attempts at selection. A variety of people who have worked with him say he will make an excellent backbench MP. "He certainly won't be whatever the male equivalent of a Blair babe is, " says one friend.

He had been touted as the most likely candidate from shortly after Cook's death but one close observer says he was "grilled" by the selection committee. That was inevitable, given his Old Labour track record: against the Iraq war, a champion of public services and against the private finance initiative. Robin Cook's increased majority at this year's general election was seen as an endorsement of his opposition to the war in Iraq by his Livingston constituents, so that is unlikely to have been too negative.

Devine's outlook is, of course, Brownite rather than Blairite and the chancellor is known to support him. The commitment to principle of this miner's son from Blackburn is not dissimilar to that of the minister's son from Kirkcaldy.

Nevertheless, his selection was swiftly followed by a public confession of the skeletons in his cupboard: a number of affairs, following the break-up of his marriage, and a drunk-driving conviction five years ago.

He says he deeply regrets the conviction and has never since got behind the wheel of a car having had so much a single glass of wine.

As for his private life, he says:

"I am happily separated and have moved on."

Suggestions he is a serial womaniser are laughed off by candid friends, in put-downs such as: "He's 52 and he likes a pint of Guinness."

They say the truth is the simple one of working very closely with women in very intense situations leading to a sexual relationship.

Some see the instant confession, through the medium of a tabloid newspaper, as soon as he was selected as the working of the New Labour machine but there is no doubt Devine would have recognised the advantage of owning up as opposed to being exposed.

He does, after all, have considerable strengths. Apart from being Cook's long-standing aide-de-camp and having Brown's endorsement, he also has Gaynor's seal of approval. Despite living in the pleasantly rural town of Alva in the Ochil constituency, he has deep West Lothian roots. He was born and brought up in Blackburn and worked at Bangour Hospital. His father came from Blackburn and his mother from Fauldhouse. His great-grandfather was the first police sergeant in Blackburn in the 1870s.

THE LAST COULD YET BE THE unlikely trump card in what will be a hard-fought battle between Labour and SNP in the familyorientated new town. With the by-election on September 29, the campaign will be a muted affair in the aftermath of the numbing double blow of the sudden death of a highly-regarded MP so swiftly followed by the murder of 11-year-old Rory Blackhall.

Criminal justice will be at the front of people's minds, despite being a matter for Holyrood rather than Westminster; and health, Devine's specialist area, is a hot local issue.

The crucial question to a candidate whose expertise is in health is: "Why go to Westminster as a Scottish MP when health policies that will affect your constituents will be made in the Scottish Parliament?"

There is a particular piquancy in Devine becoming MP for Livingston. As such, he would be the embodiment of the still-unresolved conundrum of the West Lothian question posed by Tam Dalyell in 1977: why should Scots MPs legislate on matters pertaining solely to England?

One supporter suggests: "What happens in the health service in England usually happens in Scotland eventually and Jim will see himself acting as a lighthouse to provide an early warning."

Another envisages him as a welcome addition to the back benches as an articulate representative of his constituents among too many undistinguished "lobby fodder" Scots.

Robin Cook mapped out his own back-bench career path in his victory speech on election night in May. In the aftermath of boundary changes, he paid a moving tribute to the independent spirit of Tam Dalyell, who had just retired as MP for Linlithgow, and pledged to honour it.

Devine knows he is not in the same league as those luminaries. "I will never, ever, be Robin Cook but, if I am elected, people can at least say that I laced his boots, " he said on being selected.

That suggests a mature selfassessment but, over a quarter of a century of relentless public campaigning, he has already demonstrated a similar tenacity.