IT began with lists. It ended with a once mighty political force listing in electoral waters.
Certainly if your name wasn’t on the list at the door you weren’t getting in to Ingliston’s Highland Hall, now the home of Edinburgh’s election count. Meadowbank, site of many Labour victories in the city is, like the party according to voters, no longer fit for purpose.
This year, 1200 council staff decked out in neon yellow tabards – perhaps there were health and safety fears they might have been mown down by a political juggernaut of one shade or other – had their fingerettes at the ready to make sure ballots were counted as quickly as humanly possible.
While they had actual work to do, for everyone else the only occupation was waiting. For the ballot boxes to arrive, then for results. Plenty of time then for speculation and tension to rise, along with the heat. The rumble of air conditioning was soon competing noisily with the clang of metal trollies as votes were wheeled to the correct tables marked out by large colourful banners declaring the constituency names.
Rumours began to run round the hall. As early as 11.15pm Labour sources said they were “optimistic” about Edinburgh Southern, the last bastion of its Scottish Westminster representation; an hour further on and it was being whispered that Liberal Democrat support was looking good in the postal votes for Edinburgh Western.
Of course no-one believed such fantasies. This was to be the SNP’s night once again – this time turning the city’s electoral map completely yellow by taking the Edinburgh Northern and Leith seat now that the unbeatable Malcolm Chisholm had retired from Holyrood. A clean sweep of constituency seats was predicted.
Which was why it was all about another list. The regional list was where the Labour, Tory, Lib Dem and Green parties were all pinning their hopes. For the first time, this was where the real action was going to be.
Those with roses in their lapels spoke of the change in voter attitudes this election – doors were no longer being slammed in their faces, people were at least willing to listen. Those with blue rosettes on their chests told wondrous tales of no longer being punched in the face or kicked in the shins when they knocked on doors. Again their message was being listened to – their leader, Ruth Davidson, was running the SNP close in Edinburgh Central, they expected their vote to be up but for the list to give them their MSPs.
But as the hours ticked by, there was a shift in the air. A current of wonder. Something amazing might be happening.
By 2.30am Labour was “95 per cent confident” about Southern and there was good news coming in from East Lothian, too, they said, while leader Kezia Dugdale’s challenge in Edinburgh Eastern looked healthy. The Lib Dems were becoming increasingly loud in their confidence at the Western tables.
But the real change in the weather was among the Tories. After decades of electoral winter, spring had arrived for them in the shape of hyacinth-coloured lilac and peach ballot papers. There was a bounce in their step, smiles on their faces.
And when Ruth Davidson arrived at Ingliston at around 3.30am, the cheer which greeted her was rapturous. Could she actually have achieved the impossible and painted a part of Edinburgh blue once more?
As news came in that Willie Rennie had won North East Fife from the SNP, the rumours of an Alex Cole-Hamilton victory in Edinburgh Western seemed far more likely. Kezia Dugdale’s arrival – also greeted with much fanfare – gave Southern Labour types the confidence to claim they had won.
It was Northern & Leith which was the first to be declared. City transport convener Lesley Hinds was hoping to hold the seat for Labour – but it was new kid on the block, the SNP’s Ben Macpherson who triumphed. Rather sweetly, if surprisingly, he heaped praise on Labour’s Malcolm Chisholm for his long service to the constituency, and declared his intention to emulate him.
Eastern came next and Dugdale was runner-up. Second to the SNP’s Ash Denholm whose campaign was riven with internal fallouts, but who had the best podium hair of the evening.
And here came the smiling Tories, disconcerting all around them. Chants of “Ruth” went up as the Central votes were announced. The noise which erupted when they realised she’d won the constituency was bordering on hysteria. “It’s a f***ing disgrace” muttered one SNP member, storming away from the jubilant scenes.
The Pentlands result made the SNP happier before, finally, it was Southern. Could Labour actually win a real seat and not have to rely on the list? The answer was yes. A bittersweet moment, though, as Daniel Johnson’s election ultimately meant – through the intricacies of the voting system – that long-serving Sarah Boyack would not be returned via the list.
And suddenly the list was no longer so important – unless you were a Green. Just before 7am, the final list was revealed: Labour had two MSPs, the Tories three, and the Greens two. Alison Johnstone and Andy Wightman would be joining four other Greens in the parliament. Kezia Dugdale was gracious in defeat, but while her party is holed below the water, listing on its side in the political storm, last night saw Edinburgh become the city which raised the Tories from the depths. No-one had that on their list.