Election constituency profile: Linlithgow and Falkirk East

It's all to play for in Linlithgow
It's all to play for in Linlithgow
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LABOUR’S Michael Connarty was taken by surprise at the last Prime Minister’s Questions before the election when David Cameron started to pay tribute to him because he was “standing down”.

“I’m not,” Mr Connarty shouted, prompting an ­apology from Mr Cameron and best wishes for his election ­campaign.

But Mr Connarty, an MP for 23 years, says the premature announcement of his retirement has done him no harm back in his Linlithgow and East Falkirk constituency.

“Rumours of my demise were greatly exaggerated,” he laughs. “But it gave me quite a bounce. People were saying, ‘Don’t go’. I should have let him laud me a bit more, then I could have said, ‘Ok, you’ve persuaded me’.”

Mr Connarty is optimistic about his prospects of holding onto the seat despite the polls showing the SNP making gains across the country.

“In terms of firm Labour voters to firm SNP voters, we outnumber them two to one,” he says. “But there are a lot of undecideds and don’t knows.”

The former economics teacher believes the SNP and leader Nicola Sturgeon are “getting away with” too much in the election campaign.

He says: “Full fiscal autonomy would mean £7.6 billion of a deficit every year, so it would be £40bn cuts for Scotland alone when even with the Tories it would £30bn over five years, which is £3bn for Scotland. Suddenly she has rowed back from that and got away with it.

“Nothing sticks because there is a suspension of belief. No-one seems to be looking seriously at the facts. The good thing is, during the referendum we had a similar experience, but in the end people voted against leaving the UK.”

He also claims that the First Minister is exaggerating what the SNP could achieve at Westminster.

“She talks about changing Labour policy by using her MPs at Westminster, but the reality is, if a Labour government puts something forward, the only way the minor parties could change anything Labour was doing would be to go into the lobbies with the Tories, because the votes of Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the Greens and the Lib Dems would not stack up and if the Tories abstained, Labour would win,” he says.

Mr Connarty won almost 50 per cent of the vote in 2010, with the SNP behind on 25 per cent. Nevertheless, he says he has never believed there was any such thing as a safe seat.

“I’m known as a campaigning MP and not someone who does what the whips tell me,” he says. “I do what my constituents tell me and what my conscience tells me.”

He says Labour’s programme offers plenty of radical policies to tackle poverty and inequality, including ending zero-hours contracts, pushing the living wage and the Futures Fund, offering young people financial help even if they are not going to college or university.

“It’s probably the most socialist manifesto I’ve ever stood on,” he says. “If people want change to improve their lives, they’ll pick that.

“If they want to change completely and take big risks, they might vote for the SNP – but we’re not finding that on the ground.”

The SNP’s Martyn Day, a councillor for Linlithgow since 1999, believes he can win the seat despite Mr Connarty’s 12,553 majority.

“If this were a normal election, we would be content with cutting that.”

But he says Linlithgow is ranked as the 12th most winnable seat for the SNP.

Feedback from the campaign is “incredibly positive”, he adds.

“There are streets that are exceptionally good and there are streets that are OK, but the streets that are OK would have been brilliant five years ago. We are riding a wave.

“It looks like we are more than capable of winning, but I’m not complacent. It all comes down to the turnout.”

He says Labour’s vote has “taken a tumble” but has not collapsed completely. “They will probably get more this time than we did last time.”

Mr Day says the SNP’s support is coming from different places. “We have all the folk disappointed with the referendum outcome who are now galvanised behind the SNP.

“But there are also people who have traditionally voted Labour but no longer feel they can support them – and some of them are No voters.”

The SNP has traditionally had a good showing in West Lothian, dating back to the 1962 by-election when Willie Wolfe, a future leader of the party, secured a surprisingly strong second place behind Labour’s victor Tam Dalyell, who later became famous as an opponent of devolution and author of the West Lothian Question. And Linlithgow is where former SNP leader Alex Salmond grew up.

The party has never had an MP covering the area, but the SNP won the Linlithgow seat from Labour at the last Scottish Parliament elections in 2011, having held next-door Livingston – now Almond Valley – since 2007.

The constituency has one of the biggest electorates in Scotland. It stretches from the edge of South Queensferry up to Grangemouth and across to Bathgate and Armadale.

The Liberal Democrats finished third last time, narrowly ahead of the Conservatives.

Lib Dem candidate Emma Farthing-Sykes, who works at Napier University and fought Almond Valley at the last Holyrood elections, claims her party’s vote is holding up well.

She says: “People like the idea of parties being willing to work together and that we have a collaborative approach, as seen in the coalition. And they remember we were in coalition with Labour at the Scottish Parliament before 2007.”

Tory contender Sandy Batho says his canvass returns are “quite encouraging” and forecasts he will improve on the fourth place the Tories had last time. He says he is winning over a lot of former Lib Dem voters, some disillusioned Labour supporters and even some people who previously voted SNP who feel “their party is rather over-reaching itself”.

Mr Batho says: “We have an objective for our vote in every constituency to go up whatever the profile of the seat and where the party was last time – and it seems that is going to happen.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com