by RAY FLEMING
COLUMNISTS and leader writers should by now have learnt to be cautious about drawing huge conclusions from Liberal Democrat successes at by-elections in Britain. The result on Thursday at Dunfermline and West Fife was certainly remarkable but it would be wrong to conclude, as one distinguished columnist said yesterday, that it was “the death rattle of Labour”. The turn-out at Dunfermline was less than 50 per cent and there were sufficient local factors, such as the recent closure of a Lexmark factory and a rise in Forth Bridge tolls, to encourage a protest vote against the government in distant Westminster. “All politics are local” said Lyndon Johnson once, and to that unchallengeable wisdom can be added the thought that by-elections in Britain are more local than most, especially when the Liberal Democrats are in with a chance. Whatever their failings on the national scene, they are masters at using local issues to illustrate the deficiencies of the government of the day and to underline the need to elect an MP whose commitment to those local matters will not disappear when he or she gets to London. None of this, however, alters the fact that Labour took a very hard knock in Scotland on Thursday and that the government will be very grateful for the “half-term” recess which begins next Thursday and lasts until the end of the month. This break will give it a chance to regroup, possibly even with some new faces, before tackling an extremely difficult legislative programme. The question of Mr Blair's retirement date has now become acute and even he must see that he is not helping his party by staying on. He should say when he is going so that the party can organise itself to fight the issues with a revived Conservative party for three or four years before an election. Meanwhile, there will be more by-elections at which the Liberal Democrats will do amazing things without, however, affecting the big issue of Labour v Conservatives.