Analysis: By-election is the last thing the Labour party wants

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LABOUR might have moved quickly to distance itself from Eric Joyce following an alleged late-night altercation in a Commons bar, but of one thing we can be sure: the party will not want the incident to end in his resignation as an MP, leaving it to face an awkward by-election.

Not that defending a seat after an MP has resigned in disgrace is necessarily particularly difficult.

Almost exactly 12 months ago, Labour had to defend Barnsley Central following the conviction of Eric Illsley for offences relating to the MPs’ expenses scandal.

The party still managed to win the seat comfortably, increasing its share of the vote by 13 points, its strongest by-election performance yet in this parliament. Voters evidently did not blame Labour for their former MP’s personal failings.

However, Scotland is not Yorkshire.

South of the Border, Labour is staging some kind of recovery from the debacle of 2010. In Scotland, it is still struggling to compete with a rampant SNP.

True, as the SNP was reminded in last year’s Inverclyde by-election, voters are less inclined to back the Nationalists in a Westminster election than in a Holyrood contest.

Nevertheless, big swings to the SNP are commonplace in Westminster by-elections, even when Labour has been in better fettle than it is at present.

And Mr Joyce’s Falkirk seat is far from being the safest Labour constituency in Scotland.

Indeed, Mr Joyce himself only just managed to fend off an SNP challenge when in 2000 he first fought what had previously been Dennis Canavan’s Falkirk West seat.

Now, all the SNP would need to take the constituency is a 7.7 per cent swing – somewhat less than the 8.9 per cent swing it achieved only last year in Inverclyde.

Suspended he may be, but do not be surprised if Labour whips still show an interest in Mr Joyce’s future.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow.