Holyrood 2016: Dugdale leads bid to reclaim Edinburgh Eastern

Kezia Dugdale is looking to reclaim Edinburgh Eastern. Picture: John Devlin

Kezia Dugdale is looking to reclaim Edinburgh Eastern. Picture: John Devlin

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IT’S the Capital seat the SNP snatched from Labour four years before the Nationalist landslide and the one which returned the biggest Yes vote in the city in the independence referendum.

What was once Labour’s safest constituency in Edinburgh has arguably become the SNP’s biggest stronghold.

But Kenny MacAskill, who won Edinburgh Eastern back in 2007, has retired from the parliament.

And Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale is her party’s candidate here, making it a high-profile contest.

The new SNP candidate is Ash Denham, former head of campaigns for left-wing think tank Common Weal.

She says she is getting a “very warm reception” from voters. “It’s looking very positive”.

It’s the first time she has stood for election and says Mr MacAskill has left “big shoes to fill”. “I have a big sense of responsibility,” she adds.

Ms Denham was selected from an all-women shortlist. “I think there’s quite an excitement from female voters about being able to vote for a woman this time.”

She says the Edinburgh school closures are high up the agenda for voters. “People are very concerned children were going to schools that might not have been safe. It’s clear the PFI model Labour used for these schools was not a good deal for people. We reassure people that when the SNP got into power it scrapped these deals.”

“People like our baby boxes and our childcare offer – doubling the childcare hours and providing free school meals for the under-fives.

“Fracking comes up, particularly in Portobello. Personally I’m completely against fracking. As an energy-rich nation Scotland doesn’t need to get involved in fracking.”

But she adds: “The governments approach of the moratorium whilst evidence is gathered is the right one.”

Ms Denham, 42, who gave up her Common Weal job to become a full-time candidate, is married with twin sons aged 12 and used to live in the Borders but now lives in the constituency.

Ms Dugdale, who has been a Lothians list MSP for the past five years, says education is a hot topic. There’s the current school closures. “The anger is palpable,” she says. “Parents are furious about the inconvenience.” And there’s the new Portobello High School. “I led the campaign for that in the parliament.” But Ms Dugdale also highlights the wider issue of the gap in attainment between pupils from richer and poorer backgrounds. “Labour’s Fair Start Fund would mean £880,000 for primary schools in Edinburgh Eastern. We would give headteachers £1000 for every pupil who qualifies for free school meals.

“People have told me regardless of party affiliation they are going to vote for me because of my emphasis on education.”

Ms Dugdale lives in the constituency and has campaigned on a series of local issues.

“Cycling infrastructure is really important,” she says. “And there’s a lot to do in supporting small businesses. Portobello is a very vibrant community but there is so much more potential and just a little bit more investment could make a big difference. We should be trying to develop Portobello as a local tourist destination, somewhere people go at weekends.”

Ms Dugdale adds: “People have a huge amount of respect for Kenny MacAskill, as I do. But he has hung up his hat now, so there is a chance for a new face to do the job of representing the communities of Edinburgh Eastern.”

Ms Dugdale organised Labour’s campaign in the constituency at the 2011 Holyrood election when the party got 40 per cent of the vote.

Almost anywhere else in Scotland that would have been enough to win – there were many people in the parliament with a smaller share of the vote than that – but because Tory and Lib Dem support is so low here and the contest is a straight Labour-SNP fight, the bar for victory is higher.

Tory candidate Nick Cook accepts this not the strongest seat in Edinburgh for his party.

But he says: “We’re more active on the ground than at any time since 1997 and also getting the best response for quite a number of years.”

He is councillor for Liberton/Gilmerton, which falls mostly within the constituency.

“People are deeply unhappy with the service they are getting from the council on things like waste collection and the state of the roads,” he says.

“I have been keen to point out that the wrong political choices have been made, such as agreeing in principle to extend the trams which will cost £164 million at the same time as they are cutting local services.”

He added: “Nationally, tax has been the big one – people are not willing to pay more money for a system they get poor value from.”

Liberal Democrat Cospatric D’Inverno says he is fighting a positive campaign and offering a “forward looking voice”.

He is fighting his first election having joined the Lib Dems after the 2010 election.

He says: “There is a terrible venom between Labour and the SNP, a constant blame game, looking to the past and scoring points, and you really feel it in Eastern.

“What we are trying to focus on is moving on from the referendum – we’ve had the debate and said No; we need to focus on the new powers Holyrood is getting, get that in order and get moving,”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com