Holyrood 2016: Iain Gray determined to hold onto East Lothian

Iain Gray in action during FMQs. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Iain Gray in action during FMQs. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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With the outcome hard to predict in East Lothian, Ian Swanson finds Labour’s Iain Gray determined to hold on to his seat after narrowly beating SNP in 2011

IAIN Gray was Labour leader at the time of the last Holyrood election in 2011, but came close to losing his own East Lothian seat to the SNP.

He held it by just 151 votes – which turned out to be quite a good result compared with the long list of Labour defeats that night.

Last year, Labour did lose the East Lothian seat to the Nationalists at the Westminster general election.

And Mr Gray expects it to be another close finish on May 5. But he is determined to fight a strong campaign.

He says: “My argument is that the SNP at Holyrood have not been good for East Lothian.

“It was they who wanted to build a big energy park at Cockenzie that no-one wanted, they shut our court, took away the traffic wardens, delayed the local hospital at Haddington and have not invested in our railways – there are no local services to Dunbar and there’s overcrowding on the North Berwick line.

“A month ago, Derek Mackay the transport minister announced 20,000 additional seats on rail services – but not one was for East Lothian.

“And when it came to the additional funding for closing the attainment gap in schools, not one school in East Lothian had a penny of it.

“We’ve had 10,000 houses imposed on the county and local planning decisions routinely overturned. Every community has houses being built in places the council rejected but ministers have allowed.”

Mr Gray said he had campaigned on many of these issues and was highlighting them during the election.

“I’m fighting a very local campaign and making clear I will always put East Lothian first.”

He expects the result to be close, but hopes to win back Labour supporters who voted SNP in last year’s general election. “We find people all the time who voted SNP last year who are thinking twice about it now.”

The SNP’s candidate is DJ Johnston-Smith, former landlord of the Sheep Heid Inn at Duddingston.

He chaired the Yes campaign in East Lothian during the referendum, then served as agent for George Kerevan when he won East Lothian for the SNP at last year’s general election.

Mr Johnston-Smith said: “I’ve been working across the county for the last four years – first in the referendum, then in George’s campaign and now my own.

“As a former publican, I love talking to folk and spending time hearing what people want from their politics and their politicians.”

He wants to persuade people it’s time for a change for East Lothian. “It has had 50 years as a Labour seat until George won it last year, apart from six months in 1974 when it was Tory.

“And it has been 17 years a Labour seat at Holyrood. People are telling me they are perhaps ready for a change of direction. There are streets where before people were proudly proclaiming they were Labour and are now telling me they are undecided.”

He says if elected he would want to focus on tackling deprivation in parts of Prestonpans, Tranent and Port Seton.

And he named renewable energy as an issue he would want to promote.

The Conservative candidate is Rachael Hamilton, a farmer’s daughter from Herefordshire who came to Scotland to work as an agronomist and now runs a 19-bedroom hotel, bistro and bar at St Boswells in the Borders with her husband.

She says: “Iain Gray has a good personal following but Labour have had nine years in opposition and not laid a glove on the SNP.

“I’m getting a great reception on the doorstep, our voters are 100 per cent behind us and feel ready for a change of opposition in parliament. I believe there are voters moving over to the Conservatives for the first time ever.”

Ms Hamilton played a key role in the Borders in the last two Westminster election campaigns, the last Holyrood campaign and the referendum.

She says her priorities include standing up against “state snooping”; helping vulnerable children through a new Crisis Family fund to replace the Named Persons law; and reversing college cuts.

She accused the SNP of a “centralisation agenda” through closing sheriff courts and merging the police force .

And she said the SNP had failed to address the need for improved transport infrastructure in East Lothian. “The Scottish Conservatives have been specifically campaigning to upgrade the A1 between Innerwick and Dunbar and to restore East Linton Station. “

Liberal Democrat Ettie Spencer does not pretend she expects to win. “I see my role as raising issues,” she says.

“One of these is the centralising policies of the SNP. As a Liberal Democrat I believe in localism and local participation in government and increasingly people are being cut out of decision making.”

She also wants a “more ambitious and imaginative” approach on the environment, saying moves to cut emissions are not going fast enough.

And on the plans for lots more houses in the county, she says: “The worry is they will just be slapped up at the cheapest rate wherever they can. It’s a missed opportunity – we could be building nil-carbon homes, properly insulated to tackle fuel poverty.”