The Battle for North East Fife

On the 5th of May, the SNP recorded a stunning success in the Scottish elections, becoming the first party to obtain a simple parliamentary majority at Holyrood. On a night of many highlights for the Nationalists, among the less-known ones was their capture of the North East Fife constituency, a fairly safe Liberal Democrat seat since the inception of the Scottish Parliament. During the campaign, I interviewed  the local candidates with fellow members of the Domestic Politics Society and had this article published in The Saint on polling day. My tentative prediction however was not to prove correct…

The Scottish elections may be upon us, but for the past weeks of campaigning it has felt anything but in St Andrews. Barring a few high-profile appearances such as those of First Minister Alex Salmond and Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore, alongside a hustings for the constituency candidates in Lower Parliament Hall, the impression is that of an election campaign more concentrated on other areas of the constituency such as Tayport and East Neuk. Nonetheless, the election for North East Fife, a Liberal Democrat safe seat ever since devolution in 1999, may prove to be the most exciting yet. A potential collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote has given hope to the Conservatives, and particularly the SNP, of a large swing. The Domestic Politics Society, on behalf of the The Saint, was able to exclusively interview all five constituency candidates and gauge their mood ahead of today’s elections.

The incumbent, Iain Smith, has represented his home constituency ever since the inception of the Scottish Parliament and held a number of positions, most recently as the Convener of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee. Standing for the Conservatives, Miles Briggs is a political adviser and also contested the seat in last year’s general election. Rod Campbell, from the SNP, is a solicitor and has fought this constituency in both Westminster and Holyrood elections since 2005. A graduate of this university, Labour’s Colin Davidson is a teacher and an active member of Scotland’s largest teaching union. Lastly, Mike Scott-Hayward of UKIP, serves on the Fife Council and has previously fought this seat in general elections as a Conservative candidate.

When initially asked of their expectations for the campaign, the leading candidates provided a variety of answers. Iain Smith admitted these were difficult times for the Liberal Democrats because of their role in the coalition, but was confident of a good result given the party’s “proven track record” in North East Fife. Rod Campbell claimed this was the “most open election in North East Fife in some considerable time” having met “hundreds of disenchanted Liberal Democrats” on the doorstep, while Miles Briggs said an increase in the Conservative constituency vote last May is a favourable indicator for this year’s election.

In discussions of the the key issues for this constituency, the fate of RAF Leuchars featured prominently. Colin Davidson believes a decision on it “has already been made” and criticised Smith for making the issue a key feature of his campaign when his party is responsible for the cuts that threaten the airbase’s future. Briggs said that if elected he would try to meet the Prime Minister as soon as “humanly possible” to press for its survival. Mike Scott-Hayward raised concerns about Fife’s coastguard services, also threatened by austerity measures in Westminster, and Davidson said there was anger at cuts in public services, particularly over the privatisation of retirement homes and reductions in police numbers, which he largely blamed the SNP government for. Smith stated that jobs were his foremost priority and wished to exploit Fife’s offshore renewable potential.

The future of Higher Education in Scotland is at a crossroads, with a funding shortfall estimated to be anywhere between £93 and £200 million. Few of the party’s manifestos provide fully comprehensive propositions for making up for this deficit, nor do they exactly state their stances on tuition fees for all students, so these interviews were an opportunity to learn a little more about the course of action the potential next government could take. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, SNP and UKIP have all promised not to introduce tuition fees for Scottish students, their plans for funding varying slightly. Campbell said the funding shortfall would be in part met by introducing fees at a maximum rate of £6000 for students from the rest of the United Kingdom and a possible “maintenance charge” for EU students. As a means of making key efficiencies, Smith hoped for the adoption of flexible entry points in degrees and shortening the length of certain courses. Scott-Hayward suggested scrapping student loans in favour of grants which would be available to “all British students” and introducing fees for EU students, insisting that there must be “no open-door free education for all of Europe.” The Conservatives are calling for a “graduate contribution” from both English and Scottish students, capped at £4000 per year of study and payable upon the completion of a degree and once the graduate is earning over a certain threshold. Davidson also encouraged opening further opportunities for school pupils from the local area to attend universities such as St Andrews, saying it was “wrong” that only 27 people from Fife schools came to the university last year. All candidates agreed on a review of Fife Council’s plans for HMOs, stressing the need for a solution satisfactory to all residing parties in St Andrews.

In all likelihood, the Liberal Democrats will probably hold on to North East Fife but with a much reduced vote. The SNP and the Conservatives would on the night require large and unpredictable swings, and are especially disadvantaged given the Liberal Democrats’ long history in the area at Westminster and Holyrood level. But nothing can be taken for granted, particularly in a context of widespread discontent with the coalition government in Scotland, and at long last we can anticipate an election in our constituency with some modicum of uncertainty and excitement.

The author wishes to thank Elliot Reid, Hassan Ali Ahmed and Bjaerni Henderson for their help with the interviews. A version of this article was published at http://www.thesaint-online.com/2011/05/elections-2011-who-will-you-vote-for/

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