NOTHING jangles the nerves of a political party strategist like a by-election.
General elections are a breeze – strategists are able to think of the voters as a vast swathe of humanity just waiting to be swayed by the latest carefully crafted message. In contrast, a by-election is up close and personal. A victory has to be assembled one vote at a time, one voter at a time. Party hacks who are comfortable in the cloistered world of Holyrood or Westminster have to deal with real people, who have the annoying habit of being emotional, stubborn, unpredictable and inconveniently human.
Glenrothes, where voters go to the polls on November 6 in a Westminster by-election, is no exception. On Wednesday night in Fife I was delighted to accept an invitation to chair a hustings in the new town's Lomond Centre.. About 100 people turned out to grill the eight by-election candidates on their views and – perhaps more importantly – take a gander at how the hopefuls conducted themselves under pressure.
In a room set aside for the candidates to gather beforehand, the nervousness was palpable. This was the first time some of them had physically met the rivals whose reputations they had been shredding on a daily basis for weeks.
"Does anyone have a pin that we can drop," someone asked when the brittle silence became too much to bear. "No, but I've got a clanger," came a reply. It was plain their real anxiety was over facing the public, not each other.
I'm sure the people of Glenrothes would be well served in the House of Commons by either Labour's Lindsay Roy or the SNP's Peter Grant. Roy, an energetic 59-year-old headteacher, undoubtedly has more charisma, but 48-year-old Grant has a quiet seriousness that reflects well upon him and his party. Grant, however, has a problem that Roy doesn't have to contend with. As the leader of Fife Council, which is run by a Nationalist/Lib Dem coalition, the SNP candidate spent most of Wednesday evening trying to defend the council's record on a range of unpopular budget cuts. In the audience were a number of carers and disabled people protesting about an issue that has come to dominate the campaign – the council's decision to increase charges for home care from 4 a week to 11 an hour.
The home care issue may or may not prove a decisive one in the by-election. What it does, however, is give an insight into the contradictions at the heart of much SNP policy. The problem is simple: in the years of opposition each individual Nationalist policy was created with one aim only, to trump whatever Labour was saying on the same subject. The result is a platform with little ideological, political, economic or philosophical coherence. This makes for good opposition but poor government.
The SNP's attitude to young adults is the obvious example. Earlier this year Bruce Crawford MSP was promoting the Nationalists' eminently sensible policy of lowering the voting age to 16. We had to trust our young people, he said. At the age of 16 they could marry, have children, pay taxes and join the army, so why not vote? On the very same day his colleague Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, argued they couldn't be trusted to buy alcohol from shops until they were 21. Similarly, at the Glenrothes hustings last week, Peter Grant defended his council's policy of increasing home care charges for those families who could afford it, and moments later spoke of the virtues of free school meals for all, even rich kids whose parents could easily pay.
When a party is in power, whether in a local council or a national parliament, anomalies like this make it look foolish. More damagingly, it's difficult for voters to get a handle on what the party actually stands for. The additional problem for the Nationalists is that their default mode is oppositionist. They aren't yet comfortable as the incumbents. And I suspect this will get worse before it gets better.
Meanwhile, in Glenrothes, it's hard to say what will sway voters' minds in the polling booths. It remains to be seen if Alex Salmond will deploy the bravura strategy that had such a devastating effect in Glasgow East where, by pitching the contest as a choice between the SNP Government in Edinburgh and the Labour Government in London, he scored a famous victory.
So who's going to win on November 6? After Glasgow East I hesitate to offer a prediction, but I do offer a straw in the wind. One SNP friend I spoke to last week had also campaigned in Glasgow East and said Glenrothes felt very different. In Glasgow the campaigners could feel the landslide coming – it was there in the voices of traditional Labour supporters who were considering switching their allegiance. In Glenrothes SNP canvassers meet little hesitation or soul-searching when they ask how people intend to vote. "They're either for us or against us," said my friend. This can be read in two ways. Either the Nationalists are struggling to make an impact or, perhaps more likely, the big shift in allegiance has already happened. After all, this is the area of Fife where the Labour MSP was replaced by the SNP's Tricia Marwick in last year's Holyrood election.
And yet… Labour looks considerably less toxic than it did in mid-summer. And in rain-lashed Fife in late October it's hard for the Nats to build the feelgood razzmatazz that is an essential element of their campaign style. Could be interesting.