Friday, 6 February 2015

UK Election: North Ayrshire & Arran

With just three-months until the UK General Election, poll after poll indicates the SNP is set to make substantial gains.

The Labour Party is predicted to be the big losers, but the Liberal Democrats are also likely to take a hammering.

The most recent opinion poll, carried out last week by Ashcroft Polling, is the most extensive yet done, involving one-to-one interviews with 16,000 Scots across the country.  The main result showed an average 25% swing from Labour to the SNP in seats that were formerly considered to be Labour’s heartlands.

The lowest swing from Labour to SNP in the poll was 21%, which, if translated into votes at the election on May 7th, would see the SNP take 35 of 41 Scottish seats currently held by Labour.  Amongst those who would lose their seats are Douglas Alexander (currently Shadow Foreign Secretary), Margaret Curran (currently Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland) and Anas Sarwar (former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in Scotland).

Further north, Alex Salmond would comfortably win the Gordon constituency, which is presently held by the Lib Dems, while Danny Alexander, current Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, would be trounced by the SNP in the Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey seat.

Such poll findings are, of course, quite remarkable, particularly given that it is only five-months since the SNP’s principle policy of independence was rejected by a 10% majority of Scots.  However, the Independence Referendum has turned-out to be a watershed moment in Scottish politics, and not in the way most would have anticipated.

The ‘losers’, the pro-independence side, has seen substantial increases in party membership: the principle element in the ‘YES’ campaign, the SNP, is now the third-largest political party in the UK, with around 100,000 members.  Meanwhile, the ‘winners’ have seen their fortunes and membership starkly decline.

One reason for Labour’s demise is that the party is now seen to be just another part of the Westminster establishment.  Having fought alongside the Conservative Party to prevent Scotland re-taking the status of a normal independent nation, Labour has since voted with the Tories to impose a further £30bn of austerity cuts on the public, and to spend £100bn on building and maintaining a new generation of nuclear weapons of mass destruction, which, of course, would be based on the Clyde; a move that will continue to prevent exploration of oil reserves located off the Ayrshire coast in waters used by nuclear submarines travelling to and from their base at the Holy Loch.

The anti-independence campaign was heavily funded by London-based Tory supporters, but it was Labour Party activists in Scotland who distributed the leaflets and did the groundwork to retain a system that continues to see Scots governed by and from London.  Even Gordon Brown’s last-ditch promise of ‘home rule’ for Scotland if we rejected independence is now seen to have been nothing more than a lie.  All Brown’s intervention did was to help Westminster and the Tory-led UK Government keep control of Scotland and our resources.

The Labour Party long ago abandoned any pretence of representing the interests of the working class.  Now, it is seen as simply a red-rosette-wearing version of the Tory Party.  Labour has betrayed Scots who voted for it over many generations.  As a consequence, the party and its representatives are no longer trusted.

Locally, the constituency of North Ayrshire & Arran, which has been held by Labour for 28 years, is now appearing on lists of seats that could fall to the SNP in May.

If events since the Independence Referendum and the results of opinion polls are stripped- out, the bare facts relating to North Ayrshire & Arran indicate that incumbent Labour MP Katy Clark should have nothing to worry about.  Indeed, Ms Clark maintains she is confident of retaining the seat, and with a majority of 9,895 from the last UK Election in 2010, her confidence would seem to be well placed.

However, it is not possible to discount the political changes that have overtaken Scotland since last September.  The lowest swing from Labour to SNP in last week’s Ashcroft Poll was 21% - in North Ayrshire & Arran the swing required for an SNP victory is 12%.  Normally, a 12% swing would be a massive result to achieve, but seen against the nationwide surge of support for the SNP, it no longer looks so formidable.

That said, there are other local factors that come into play.  The first is the personal vote built-up by Katy Clark since she became the local area’s MP in 2005. 

In her favour, also, is the tag she has acquired as a Labour rebel.  There is no doubt Katy Clark is firmly on the left of the Labour Party and has regularly broken the party whip when her colleagues were voting with the Conservatives.  However, her brand of old-style Labour values was firmly rejected by party members when she stood late last year for the position of Deputy Leader of Labour in Scotland.  Instead, Labour members, MPs and MSPs backed Kezia Dugdale, a Regional MSP seen to be on the centre-right.

Labour’s rejection of Katy Clark’s deputy leadership bid has led to the SNP arguing that voting for her in North Ayrshire & Arran would not deliver her left-wing policies but, instead, would simply contribute towards the number of MPs secured by the Tory-clone, London-run, Ed Miliband-led Labour Party.

So, with three-months until polling day, the election in North Ayrshire & Arran will see a strong fight between Labour and the SNP.

The Scottish Nationalists last week selected Patricia Gibson as their candidate.  Mrs Gibson is a former teacher and SNP councillor in Glasgow.  She is married to local SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson and the couple live in Kilbirnie.

May’s contest is therefore a re-run of the 2010 election, when Ms Clark and Mrs Gibson also represented their respective parties. 

Patricia Gibson and the SNP took second place in what had ‘traditionally’ been a Labour-Conservative contest.  However, a significant factor contributing to the outcome in North Ayrshire & Arran in 2010 was the expulsion of Tory candidate Philip Lardner during the campaign.  Mr Lardner had made comments relating to homosexuality, which the party found to be unacceptable and meriting expulsion.  Given that the closing date for electoral nominations had passed, this meant the Tories could not replace Philip Lardner as their candidate, although they did not work for his election.

Those circumstances prompted the Patricia Gibson campaign to take the controversial step of writing personally-addressed letters to local members of the Conservative Party, asking them to vote SNP as the Tories had no ‘official’ candidate.  Such courting of Tory votes will be something the Labour campaign this time will no doubt seek to exploit.

Make no mistake, on May 8th North Ayrshire & Arran’s MP will be either Katy Clark or Patricia Gibson: the local constituency will have a Labour or SNP representative at the Westminster Parliament.  No other candidates have any chance of success.

What makes this North Ayrshire & Arran election exciting is that it is the first time in 23 years the seat could change hands.  Whether or not it does, is entirely up to us - every vote will count.

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