Holyrood 2011: personality politics
As you drive through Alyth, it is the yellow flashes that catch your eye – daffodils, primroses and placards. This is John Swinney country. In the small towns between Perth and the Highland Line, his name is emblazoned on yellow SNP placards in windows and gardens and on roadsides.
It wasn’t always like this. Up to 1997, my home constituency was held by the Conservatives. But as the rest of the country was gripped by Blair-mania, up here in Perthshire, the people chose to send John to Westminster. At first, this was partly a tactical ‘boot out the Tories’ vote. But since then, the SNP have won with bigger and bigger margins – holding both Westminster and Holyrood seats for 14 years now.
“Honest John” is now Scotland’s finance minister. From 2000-04, he wasn’t a very successful leader of the SNP – too quiet, too calm, too dull. But as the steady manager steering Scotland over the last four years, he has managed to earn the respect of people across the political divide.
And here in Perthshire, people are proud to say he’s our boy. Everyone knows John, and he always remembers your name. In 1997, he drove the near mile up the bumpy track to our house to ask my parents for their votes, and he has greeted them like friends ever since.
The student union staff at Edinburgh remember him as a lovely young man, always charming, always polite. Whatever people’s politics, they can’t help but like the gentle man who we all know is really running the country while Alex Salmond bounces and bombasts from the front.
This personal popularity has seen John increase his majority in each of the last few elections. Even as the SNP vote dipped in 2003, John’s vote went up by 13%.
His leading opponent, Alyth man Murdo Fraser, is also a big beast in Scottish politics – deputy leader of the Scottish Tories. Top of the Tory list for the region, he is guaranteed to get back in. But he always contests the constituency too. Despite Murdo’s local links and high profile, and despite the decades that the Tories held this seat, John has dug his heals in. Murdo’s chances in the constituency are rapidly disappearing.
In fact, in last year’s Westminster election, John’s party colleague Pete Wishart used the personal popularity of incumbency to buck the national trend. It was mostly a bad year for the SNP and a good year for the Tories. But, in what was meant to be a key marginal, he thumped my old classmate Pete Lyburn by nearly 10%.
Yesterday I was in Portobello. The Edinburgh East constituency it sits in is also a race between two big beasts. One of them, you might well have heard of. As Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill made global headlines when he announced the release of Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi. But round Edinburgh, he may be better known for his rants about trams. The Labour candidate is a man you probably haven’t heard of unless you come from Edinburgh – the former city council leader, Ewan Aitken. But, in Edinburgh East, Ewan is possibly the bigger name. Before his popular stint as city council leader (they lost control on the same day as Labour were booted out of Holyrood, despite little anger at the council themselves) Ewan was a Church of Scotland minister in the constituency. In 2007, his party’s candidate was a former East Lothian councillor rumoured to be corrupt. This time, they have the man who ministered much of the seat, a city council leader who led anti-trident marches through Edinburgh as Tony Blair replaced the missiles, and who amidst the heat 2007 election, slammed his own party leader for proposing ‘instant asbos’: “If they’re introduced, we won’t be implementing them in Edinburgh”. Kenny MacAskill has a wafer thin majority. I would imagine Ewan Aitken has personally served communion to many more people than he needs to swing the vote.
I spent election night 2007 at the count in Perth. As the first results came in, one of the TV pundits announced that the swing to the SNP was small. If this was projected nationally, they told us, Alex Salmond would fail to win the Gordon constituency where he had audaciously decided to run. The weather hardened SNP canvassers laughed “Alex lose a seat in the North East? Never”. And of course they were right. Salmond secured a 19% swing and won the seat.
And of course, any hardened Scottish electioneer will always tell you the same. No seat maps the national swing. Every seat has its own personality, and its own personalities, its own issues and its own electorate. In a country where the biggest two parties both occupy the same lumbering centre ground, it is local factors, local candidates, and local party machines that determine who wins each seat. For all the buster in 2007, if 25 people in Cunninghame North had voted the other way, Jack McConnell would still be First Minister.
So, as Mark Ballard has already pointed out, ignore the media, ignore the polls and ignore the hype. No one has this election wrapped up. For every party, everything is still to play for.