On the front line in Ayrshire and Glasgow with party activists

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by a Newsnet Scotland reporter

As Nelson Mandela observed “In the fight for Independence the foot soldiers are the Generals” and during an election campaign, the real mood of how the parties are faring is often gauged not by opinion polls or debates but by spending time with the party activists who are working day in and out on the campaign. 

Newsnet Scotland sought the views of SNP and Labour activists in two areas – Ayrshire and Glasgow.  A fiercer battleground for Scottish politics would be hard to find than the West of Scotland and with the contrast between Glasgow as a city and Ayrshire with its combination of large and small towns and a large rural community, these areas reflect many of the communities of Scotland.

Ayrshire has a long tradition of support for the SNP.  In East Ayrshire the party runs the council.  The constituency MSP in the area during the last parliament was the SNP’s Willie Coffey who turned the seat from a marginal SNP/Labour seat to a solid majority for the SNP.  Ayrshire was also represented in the last parliament by two of the SNP’s heavy hitters, Adam Ingram who served as the Minister for Children and Early Years for the last 4 years and Kenneth Gibson who famously put the BBC’s Andrew Neil and his London based guests straight over tuition fees on the Daily Politics show.

The defining issue in Ayrshire over the last couple of years has been Johnnie Walker’s decision to pull out of Kilmarnock and neighbouring Hurlford.  Both SNP and Labour activists agree the issue is still live.  There was widespread support from all areas of the community for the campaign to keep the plant open and Alex Salmond’s SNP Government voiced high profile backing.

When we put it to the Labour activists that there was a somewhat lacklustre response from their own leadership they do not particularly disagree.  They say they were in a difficult position as Diageo’s CEO Paul Walsh worked closely with Gordon Brown and of course many of the lost jobs went to Brown’s Fife backyard.

The issue is still on the lips of those in Ayrshire, and there has been dismay that Matt McLaughlin, the Labour candidate for Kilmarnock and the Irvine Valley, has not been more prominent in his support of the issue.

One Labour activist spoke of the “Cumnock Mafia” who control much of Labour in Ayrshire and who seem happy with Iain Gray’s ‘partiality’ for the East Coast.  Another Labour activist talked about how there were so many arguments at her local branch meetings that she turned up at one with a large paper bag and when the shouting kicked off, she put the paper bag over her head.  After 5 minutes when no one had said anything, she took it off and left.

The impression one is left with is of good, honest decent people disillusioned with the leadership and fed up with infighting.

The SNP camp in Ayrshire seems a much more organised group.  Run by an experienced team they seem in good spirits.  On the whole, SNP activists appeared positive and upbeat.  There is an excited tension in the air and they clearly relish talking with the public and getting feedback.  However there is also a genuine anger at the way the local Labour party have behaved – they have opposed anything the SNP put forward at local level in much the same way as the Holyrood group have.

As one SNP activist commented: “They even opposed the £1 million that the council found in this year’s budget for a Business Enterprise Fund, an investment in the future.  What magic fairy does Labour think will come along and replace the jobs lost at Walkers?”

Glasgow’s support for Labour in the past is well documented.  However when Nicola Sturgeon broke the stranglehold Labour had on the city with her win in 2007 this was a talking point for both sets of activists.

The work rate of the SNP activists here is phenomenal and although Sturgeon has proven to be a popular and hardworking MSP, the electorate are not being taken for granted.  As one SNP activist put it: “You should never take the electorate for granted.  They deserve to be treated with respect.”

Elsewhere in the city, the SNP are working hard and have adopted the same energetic approach as their colleagues in Ayrshire, sending a positive message and receiving a good response on the doorstep.  Experienced politicians such as John Mason and Sandra White will be looking to win and the activists know that votes need to be earned.

Labour activists show a confidence verging on complacency about their chances in the rest of the Glasgow area.  They did concede that Nicola Sturgeon was likely to win in Glasgow Southside but said they were sure they would hold on elsewhere.

Interestingly when it was put to them that a (notional) 2% swing in Glasgow Kelvin would mean a win for the SNP’s Sandra White, they refused to talk about Pauline McNeill.  Further investigation found that there seemed to have been little political activity from Labour in the constituency and local hustings, where McNeill might have been expected, Johann Lamont and Frank McAveety had appeared instead.

If the activists are indeed generals then it looks like the SNP have a good army of volunteers organised and eager to get their message across and with a clear vision for the future.

Labour’s activists appear slightly disillusioned with the leadership and are displaying the same mixed messages to the electorate, appearing devoid of vision and hope.