Friday, 16 April 2010

On the stump: Patron saint meets national champ

This should be unpromising territory for Labour, but at either end of the long country road that separates the villages of Greenloaning from Braco, the party’s Gordon Banks keeps bumping into supporters.

This is not one of his party’s urban strongholds, like Kirkcaldy or Coatbridge, but rural Ochil & Perthshire South, Scotland’s weirdest constituency, where nothing is as it seems. Take the case of Steve Forsyth from Braco, a 55-year-old, self-made businessmen, a proud ex-Marine and, surely, a natural Tory.

“Make no mistake,” he says apologetically. “I can’t stand the Prime Minister. But it worries me that Gordon Banks might not get elected just because people want a change. He has really stepped up to the plate for this community.”

The incongruity emerges again a few hours later when Annabelle Ewing, the SNP candidate is out on the stump. Confronted by Hugh McAllister, a former mining deputy, who lives on a housing scheme in Menstrie, you might expect to find a solid Labour man. Not at all. “I’ve voted SNP for years,” he announces, shaking Ms Ewing warmly by the hand.

This is probably what happens when you create the 59th Scottish seat from the bits that are left over after the other boundaries have been drawn. Ochil & Perthshire South is a great blob, bang in the middle of the country and none of it makes sense.

For decades Conservatism seeped like rainwater into the bedrock. In former constituencies to the north and west, Tory grandees Alec Douglas Home and Nicky Fairbairn had safe seats. But in the 1990s the Tory party lost out to the Nationalists; these days no fewer than three SNP MSPs are elected to Holyrood from within this same territory.

Yet in the 2005 general election, Labour held off Ms Ewing’s challenge with a majority of 688, making this the second most marginal seat in Scotland. Much of his vote dwells in the thin band of industrial towns around Alloa, but “nowhere is no go” to Mr Banks, even Braco and Greenloaning. “Obviously some places are harder to deliver, but there are Labour voters where you least expect them,” he says.

The clash between Mr Banks and Ms Ewing will define how both parties perform across Scotland. If the SNP fail to achieve a swing of 0.7 per cent Alex Salmond’s vision of 20 Westminster seats will be seen as just so much hot air. And should either party weaken, the Conservatives are clinging to the hope that Gerald Michaluk, a millionaire businessman, can speed his Maserati through to claim the prize.

The Labour-SNP clash comes with a scent of animosity, which hangs in the air around the candidates. Mr Banks’ view of Ms Ewing roughly equates to: she’s all mouth and no action’. Ms Ewing’s assessment of Mr Banks is the same ... but different: he’s no mouth and no action. Should either win, the other will offer congratulations through gritted teeth.

The SNP candidate could hardly be better known — the daughter of Winnie Ewing, the party’s grande dame, and sister of Fergus Ewing, a minister in Alex Salmond’s government. Ms Ewing held the old Perth & Kinross seat in Westminster until she lost out to the Boundary Commissioners, making her mark in Parliament for her voluble campaign to retain Scottish regiments. In the process she called Geoff Hoon, then Defence Secretary, “a back-stabbing coward” and was ejected from the Commons.

For Ms Ewing the incident is a battle honour. Scotland needs “national champions” she says: “I pursued the regiments relentlessly, that is the job of a constituency MP.”

Mr Banks is more low-key, a founding director of a builder’s merchants business who only joined the Labour Party in 1996. Little known outside constituency or party circles he dumbfounded even his allies when he won in 2005, then, as now, campaigning on local issues. Labour installed him as manager of their Glenrothes by-election team. When Lindsay Roy won well in a tightly-focussed campaign, Mr Banks was anointed his party’s patron saint of lost causes.

Conservatives hope the Labour vote stays at home, and think the SNP is not hitting the heights of the Scottish election. Liz Smith, a local MSP, insisted the Conservatives could make up the 4,000 votes they need to spring a surprise.

“There is a sense the Nationalists are not firing on all cylinders,” she said. “If they have lost their punch, there is no reason at all why we cannot come through.” And while Mr Banks plays the local card Ms Smith, believes the wider picture counts. “Even in 2005, not enough of the public saw us as the next government — this time they do and it will make a difference on the ground.”

Stranger things have happened in Ochil & South Perthshire, the constituency which even voters can’t comprehend. “I stay up in Comrie,” Ms Ewing tells a man out with his kids in Menstrie. “The wee village in Fife?” he asks, thinking, that’s handy, just a few miles away. “No, no the one up in Perthshire, the place that’s actually in the constituency.” It will only make sense on May 6.

Read more in the Times of London: here. Photos by James Glossop.

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