Election focus: Ochil and South Perthshire

Recent boundary changes have given Ochil and South Perthshire a split personality – and a tough choice between Labour and the SNP in the 2010 general election.

By Alex Stevenson

The Labour-SNP battle north of the border is a fascinating sideshow to the main struggle in the 2010 general election. But it’s an important one: first minister Alex Salmond has set his sights on winning 20 of Scotland’s 59 seats, an ambitious bid to more than treble the current six. If Salmond is to succeed, he must take Ochil and South Perthshire.

Its predecessor constituency, Ochil, was much more straightforwardly Labour seat. Martin O’Neill had held the seat, dominated by its history of paper, whiskey and mining and the working-class heritage that came with it, since 1979. That tradition survived the upheaval which preceded the 2005 poll. Much of rural, agricultural south Perthshire, to the north of Ochil and its surrounding villages, was introduced. This was part of territory which the SNP’s Annabelle Ewing had fought in Perth, in a narrow victory against the Conservatives.

She couldn’t beat Labour’s new candidate Gordon Banks four years later. His majority over Ms Ewing then was just 688, making this the second closest marginal in Scotland, but he’s happy to remind people of the result when I ask him to assess his chances of holding on this time around.

“The way to judge her record and my record is over two general elections,” he says. “2005, when I beat her, and then look at that in relation to 2010. If it was a positive outcome from me, then…” No need to finish that sentence.

Ewing, unsurprisingly, is more dismissive. “Last time round it was a new game in town, new boundaries which people were not totally au fait with,” she says. “I think that could change this time. So for those people not happy with the Labour government, they now have a clear idea of the means by which they can make their views known.”

The SNP offensive is seeking to capitalise on economic woes within the constituency – specifically, why it’s Labour’s fault. In Ochil itself, the Labour council is having to deal with a £9 million black hole in its finances which is leading to cuts. “We will be trying to get to the bottom of what’s been happening,” Ewing pledges, as she voices fears about cuts to local service provision.

“The recession has been very hard for almost everybody,” she says. “People are obvious having to tighten their belts, they’re anxious about the financial situation and they’re worried about keeping their jobs. There’s a great deal of uncertainty and that impacts on their daily life.”

Banks acknowledges there are problems, of course. “We shouldn’t be surprised that people are concerned about these matters,” he says philosophically. “We’ve just come through a recession which has been the most severe for decades. But we’ve done that through a period of investment to protect jobs. The government’s doing everything it can to help people get back into work.”

Just focusing on jobs and recession won’t wash here, though. Ewing acknowledges the diversity of the seat means each village has its own worries. Perthshire is very strong Black Watch territory, meaning extra sensitivity to the way the Labour government has treated the armed forces. Winter fuel payments are a perennial gripe. Pension credits, an issue which Ewing campaigned hard on when she was Ochil’s MP, remain a major concern.

Banks is equally conscious of the new seat’s relative lack of homogeneity. “I am the first Labour MP for south Perthshire part ever,” he admits, before expressing his hope that natural Tory voters in the area think he’s represented them well. “We hope we’ve handled these cases very thoughtfully and very well,” he adds.

Labour’s concern about the Tory vote even extends to activists suggesting the seat could be viewed as a three-way marginal. Banks insists the Conservatives are “strong”, especially in the northern, rural part of the seat where conservatism has a strong history.

“If we are led to believe the Conservatives are doing well in 2010, every expectation that they will poll well in the general election. This is by no means a two-way fight. This is a three-way fight.”

Looking at the statistics, he has a point. In 2005 the Tories took 10,000 votes, coming in third behind the SNP’s 14,000 and Labour’s 14,600. But Ewing is cynical about Banks’ motives in raising this prospect. “For the purposes of this election, the Tories can’t win this seat,” she insists firmly. “Maybe Mr Banks is engaging in wishful thinking. A vote for either of the two other parties is effectively a vote for Gordon Brown. I can understand why Mr Banks would wish for that presentation.”

Inevitably, the relative performance of the Holyrood and Westminster governments is a source of huge friction between the two sides. Banks gives as good as he gets.

“Hopefully constituents will recognise that a party such as the SNP in a Westminster election can promise whatever it wants,” he says. “They will be called to deliver absolutely none of it.” Banks claims the SNP have “failed miserably” by breaking every single one of their major election pledges; Ewing says voters will be impressed by the SNP’s “excellent record”. Constituents will realise they’re voting in a Westminster election, she reckons, even though “when they go out to vote they won’t be carrying section five of the Scotland Act!”

This isn’t just about national politics, though. Both candidates seem to recognise the importance, in a seat with such split views, of developing personal loyalty. It’s why Banks is so keen to publicise his work on winter fuel payments. This winter he finally succeeded in winning a campaign to get new weather stations within the constituency used to assess the temperature. Previously this had been monitored from coastal Edinburgh, when it was often much warmer. “It boils down in some ways to how hard you shout,” he says happily. “I’m just proud of the fact that I’ve been able to deliver a success.”

Ewing makes clear her own commitment to providing a voice for voters in this crucial marginal seat. She says it needs a “strong local champion” who will stand up for their voice – and Scotland’s. But there is a hint of a personal attack here, too. “The vote should always follow the voice,” she warns. “You might wonder sometimes – some MPs either say very little or vote in a different way to what they said.” This is “disingenuous politics”.

Banks isn’t buying it. “I believe I’ve worked Ochil and South Perthshire as a constituency MP very hard and very well,” he says. “I think we’ve built up a relationship with many thousands of people who were not there in 2005.”

The test of that loyalty will come in two months’ time, when the SNP and Labour face one of their toughest fights. Two governments, a plethora of local issues and an increasingly personal fight – this seat has it all.