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The battle for Scotland's Remainers

In the UK's closest seat, the SNP and Lib Dems fight over pro-EU votes

Billy Briggs
10 December 2019
St Andrews
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By Peter Gordon, CC BY-SA 2.0

On a bright winter’s day in St Andrews, Miriam Eyre explained why she planned to vote tactically at the general election. A student of English and Spanish at St Andrews University, Eyre hails from York but has registered to vote in the UK’s most marginal seat – North East Fife. “I’ve registered to vote here as it’s more of a marginal seat than York,” Eyre told openDemocracy, explaining that her home constituency is the York Central seat, a Labour stronghold. She adds: “I thought my vote would count for more up here.”

Eyre was among around 200 people who had marched through the Fife coastal town, famed as the home of golf and the place where Prince William met Kate Middleton. Eyre was on a climate change protest, one of more than 100 held across the UK on 29th November 2019, and the noisy march finished at West Sands, a beach immortalised by the Oscar winning film Chariots of Fire.

As Eyre spoke to openDemocracy political parties contesting the North East Fife seat gave speeches on the beach outlining policies to address the climate emergency.

It’s fair to say that Labour has no chance of winning the North East Fife seat and although the Scottish Conservatives claim they have a sniff, the race is between the SNP and the Lib Dems. Just two votes separated the parties at the 2017 general election – the SNP winning after three recounts - and polls are predicting another photo finish for a seat occupied by Sir Menzies Campbell of the Lib Dems for 28 years – and, long ago, Britain’s penultimate Liberal prime minister. The Scottish Conservatives are forecast to finish third with Scottish Labour destined for fourth spot once again. The Scottish Greens ran in 2017 but stood down for this campaign to help the SNP.

A key question in North East Fife, which backed Remain by 64 percent in 2016, is which pro-European party voters will opt for this time. The SNP’s candidate is Stephen Gethins, the SNP Foreign Affairs and Europe spokesperson at Westminster. Two years ago, Gethins won 13,743 votes to pip Elizabeth Riches of the Scottish Lib Dems who polled 13,741. The Lib Dems’ candidate this time round is an ex police officer called Wendy Chamberlain while the Tory is local councillor Tony Miklinski.

The North East Fife constituency is diverse. There are farming communities and fishing towns, and cheek by jowl with rural wealth are astonishingly high pockets of poverty. St Andrews, for example, has the most expensive street in Scotland with the average cost of a home on The Scores costing around £1.9m. In stark contrast, there are hundreds of people on the waiting list for council homes while in some parts of the university town 27 per cent of children are living in poverty, according to the End Child Poverty coalition.

Deprivation is worse elsewhere this seat. Down the coast in Leven, child poverty is around one third, which means political parties are putting out a myriad of messages to capture votes. Online political targeting is a vital part of the SNP’s campaign, said Gethins when openDemocracy interviewed him in Cupar. “Facebook is very important and our reach is good, although you can’t beat chapping doors and speaking to people,” he said. At time of writing, Gethins’ Facebook page had 4708 likes and 5053 followers.

All SNP/Gethins adverts on Facebook are headlined with the words: "Why we're backing Stephen. Stop Brexit, Stop Boris, Vote SNP”. Each advert is bespoke, however, in that they also carry a sub message. A number ads of have personal endorsements from local business people. One quotes an academic endorsing Gethins while another includes a comment from a "prominent Scottish Green Party member” who is quoted as saying: "Stephen is a strong advocate for the environment and for North East Fife."

Recent posts include a comment by Gethins on the day that Boris Johnson visited Fife, 26th November 2019, to unveil the Scottish Tories' manifesto in North Queensferry. The post urged people to register for voting and “see the back of the Tories and this chaotic prime minister”.

A post on 23rd November urged people to look at the website tactical.vote “to stop the Tories", which proposes an SNP vote in North East Fife.

There are fewer political ads on Gethins’ Twitter account which has been mostly tweeting pictures of SNP volunteers canvassing. Gethins said the SNP has around 120 local volunteers on the streets distributing information.

SNP literature put through letterboxes include a leaflet with photos of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove with the headline: “Stop the Tories, Stop Brexit, Vote SNP”. Another leaflet says: “ Stop Boris, Stop Brexit” and in a bid to promote tactical voting, adds: “Lib Dems, Labour and Greens are also voting for Stephen Gethins to stop the Tories and to stop Brexit.” This leaflet includes endorsements from a former Lib Dem Fife Provost and an ex Labour Party councillor.

Gethins told openDemocracy the 120 volunteers working on the ground complementing an online campaign with a strategy decided at local level. “You have the air war which is a national campaign. That feeds into things but you've got to think, 'well, sometimes there's no point in just repeating that because local issues matter to people." There's not one local issue that fits all here. Newburgh to St Andrews to Crail, round to Leven and Cupar. It's very diverse, so yes, we target things locally. For example, in Leven, we talk about Levenmouth rail, in St Andrews, investment in the university and research institutions. If you're on farms it’s Brexit and the importance of food and drink industry, same down in Pittenweem. There's something like 100 different communities in North East Fife, ranging in size. We have 27 percent of kids in child poverty in St Andrews and seven food banks in the constituency.”

The Scottish Lib Dems are desperate to take the seat back from the SNP and have been prolific in distributing leaflets. It’s been a fierce fight generally in Scotland between the SNP and the Lib Dems. Last month, Jo Swinson won a court battle against the SNP for a leaflet put out in the East Dunbartonshire seat which accused her of hypocrisy over fracking. Three days later we reported criticism of the Lib Dems after it distributed a fake newspaper in the North East Fife seat, which prompted one voter to accuse the party of trying to fool people.

Wendy Chamberlain is originally from Greenock but has lived in Fife since 2003. She was selected as the Lib Dem’s candidate for the seat in June 2018. As with the SNP’s campaign in North East Fife, online complements boots on the ground. The Wendy Chamberlain for North East Fife Facebook page also contains endorsements from local voters. Official party videos have also been posted including a clip of the party’s Scottish leader, Willie Rennie, endorsing Chamberlain. Another video, an official party broadcast, features Chamberlain with a message that stopping Brexit is a main aim of the Lib Dems. Posts on her page include one urging people to register to vote and there’s a pledge “to campaign for Proportional Representation.” Another post accuses the Tories of lying. It says: “Boris Johnson's Conservative manifesto is built on a lie: that Brexit can be implemented without causing years of chaos and damage to our economy. Liberal Democrats will #StopBrexit and invest the £50bn Remain Bonus in our public services & tackling inequality. #WinningWithWendy #GE19.”

The Lib Dems have distributed thousands of letters and leaflets, more so than any other party at the time of writing. openDemocracy has seen seven different pieces of literature from the Lib-Dems, to date. The main message: “Your vote can stop Brexit and stop independence”.

The party also emphasises the fact it only lost the seat by two votes in 2017. One leaflet appeals to Tory voters to vote tactically, with the message: “Only Lib Dem Wendy Chamberlain can beat the SNP in North East Fife. Your vote is vital. Make it count.” It includes an endorsement from a Tory voter in Collinsburgh who is quoted as saying: “I’m a lifelong Tory supporter but I realise to rid North East Fife of the SNP I must vote for Wendy Chamberlain. I would encourage all other Tory voters to do similar.” Another leaflet focuses on local issues and says that Chamberlain “successfully campaigned to save out-of-hours GP services in St Andrews” and “pressed for the new Madras College to be built and for Fife college courses to return to Cupar.” The Lib Dems did not respond to our requests for interviews.

Tony Miklinski is the Scottish Conservative’s candidate. A former footballer and Royal Navy commando, he fought in the Falkland War and is now a local councillor. His official Facebook page - Cllr Tony Miklinski for North East Fife - has 194 likes and 200 followers. Recent political adverts include the message - "Sturgeon + Corbyn = Two more referendums and Trident gone."

A post on 24th November included a link to the Conservative Manifesto 2019, alongside a picture of a group of workers in hardhats holding a sign which said: "We Love Boris." Another advert that day promoted the Tory policy on pensions and said: “Keeping the Triple Lock, Winter Fuel Payment and the older person's free bus pass."

Mikilinski’s page has several posts attacking SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon. A photo posted on the 24th November portrays the First Minister apparently scowling, with the words: "That face you make… when you can't shred or delete the 63.1 percent of Scots who won't vote SNP."

A comment on 25th November also targeted Sturgeon. It said: "Anyone who hasn't watched Nicola Sturgeon's interview tonight on BBC with Andrew Neil, watch it now. A study in picking apart the SNP's web of half truths, fantasy economics and propaganda. Absolutely brilliant. It should be required viewing for every voter in Scotland."

Another page called Fife Conservatives is also active on Facebook promoting Miklinski. It has several adverts attacking the SNP over the NHS. They include press releases from Fife Conservative and Unionist Association. One proclaimed on 21st November: "Sturgeon and Freeman running out of excuses on hospital deaths scandal" with reference to the death of a three year old boy at the Queen Elizabeth hospital campus in Glasgow. Another on the 22nd November said: "More than a third of mainland health boards are now at the second highest level of escalation, following an SNP announcement this afternoon.

"The nationalists have placed NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde at stage four escalation following the deaths of two children linked to water contamination."

Miklinski told openDemocracy he rarely uses Twitter and when asked about his online strategy, he said: “I think you overestimate the sophistication of the Conservative machine. I’ve got a website and Facebook page which I contribute to regularly but I wouldn’t say a strategy as much, I just tell people what I’m thinking about and what I’m trying to do.”

Regarding canvassing, Miklinski says that around 20 to 30 Tory supporters are on the streets, adding that 25,000 leaflets were about to be distributed to cover an electorate of 58,000. “We were only 3500 behind at the last election. We reduced the gap by 7000 - to be a three way marginal you have to be less than 10 percent behind in third place and we’re only seven percent so this is not mission impossible, this is doable, especially as Brexit and independence cross cut party loyalties.”

The only Tory leaflet seen by openDemocracy claims that “Only the Scottish Conservatives are strong enough to take on the SNP.” It states that Sturgeon wants to hold another independence referendum next year, adding that Jeremy Corbyn “won’t even stand in the way of one taking place.”

Miklinski’s campaign received a blow this week when a prominent Fife Tory councillor quit the party, Linda Holt, who represents the East Neuk and Landward constituency, resigned and said there was “deep rooted dysfunction” within the Tory Party locally which, she claimed, prevented it from being “proactive in fighting for the interests of ordinary Fifers”. Holt told local paper The Courier she could no longer support Miklinski and would be voting for Wendy Chamberlain on 12 December.

Scottish Labour looks set to be also rans once again. The party came fourth in 2017 when candidate Rosalind Garton received 4026 votes. Wendy Haynes is standing for Labour this time. She’s a health librarian who works for NHS Fife at Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy and has been involved with Labour for more than 30 years. Her campaign manager is Joshua Osborne, a modern history student at St Andrews University in his final year.

Osborne says Labour’s main themes include climate change and tackling child poverty. The one Labour leaflet seen by openDemocracy is headlined: “It’s time for real change in North East Fife” with a focus on the climate crisis, public services and measures to end child poverty including a £10 minimum wage.

Osborne said Haynes has a Facebook page but no Twitter account and the local party has limited resources for this campaign, in comparison to the SNP and the Lib Dems. “We do have a North East Fife Labour Twitter (account). We’re doing as much as we can, but we’re not the largest local Labour party in the world. We don’t have as many door knockers as the other parties do. Getting leaflets out is one of the key things and we’ll also have a freepost going out. Compared to the SNP and Lib Dems we’re not spending as much. We can’t send everyone 12 pieces of literature.”

On Facebook, Haynes’ posts include a link to a news piece on Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to create 10 national parks and plant 10 billion trees. There’s also an official Labour party video entitled: “Nicola Sturgeon’s shameful NHS record” which links to the interview with Andrew Neil. Another post claims Labour will invest £100bn in Scotland while another official Labour party advert is called “For the Many, not the few” and calls for the nationalisation of the UK’s rail industry.

Scottish Labour is not faring well on Facebook though. At time of writing, an analysis of data reveals that Haynes and North East Fife Scottish Labour have not had any interactions whatsoever on Facebook. Neither has Miklinski but both Gethins and Chamberlain have been engaging the public with online messages, Gethins is faring best. The SNP candidate has had 1909 interactions over the last 30 days compared to 272 for Chamberlain and 146 for the North East and Central Fife Liberal Democrats.

How much these messages resonate with voters remains to be seen. On West Sands beach, Miriam Eyre didn’t reveal who she intended to vote for on 12 December but the 22 year old said she is engaged with the political debate. She gets information from friends, the internet and leaflets delivered to her home. “There’s been lots of anti Boris stuff from the SNP, lots of ‘stop Brexit’, ‘stop the Tories’, ‘stop Boris’, which is quite compelling really,” she said. Her friend, Duncan Bowyer, also attends St Andrews University where he studies geochemistry. He’s also been following the election closely and would “normally” vote for Labour. “Mostly, I use Twitter to get links to various articles. For North East Fife, I don’t actually read specific things and rely on stuff that comes through the door - mostly from the Lib-Dems and SNP. The Lib-Dem stuff sticks in my head in terms that their priority is entirely about Brexit, which is interesting because previous elections a lot more of it has been about Scottish independence.”

Three days to go and the polls suggest the UK’s most marginal constituency will go right to the wire again. A poll last week predicted the Lib Dems could snatch the seat back from the SNP but a YouGov survey a few days later said the SNP is set to gain 11 seats. In North East Fife, the outcome is too close to call.

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