A FORMER Labour heartland due to its industrial past, Midlothian North & Musselburgh has seen a swing to the SNP but will it continue, asks Ian Swanson
MIDLOTHIAN used to be rock solid Labour territory built on the area’s mining communities – but like many other places it deserted the party for the SNP at the last Holyrood election, then followed it up last year by electing a Nationalist to Westminster as well.
The county is divided in two for Holyrood constituency purposes. The northern half, including Dalkeith, Loanhead, Bonnyrigg and Roslin, is linked with Musselburgh to form this seat, while the southern half is combined with a swathe of the Borders.
Colin Beattie, MSP for Midlothian North & Musselburgh since 2011, says he is “cautiously optimistic” about re-election. He adds: “I’m struggling to see the Labour vote out there.”
He says most of the issues people raise when he goes canvassing are not the ones that get all the publicity. “People are interested in very local things affecting their street or local area. The big ones like taxation and fracking are not what is resonating on the doorsteps here. I’m not having to defend SNP policy on tax.”
Lack of infrastructure for new housing developments is a frequent topic of conversation, he says. “People worry about the roads coping and schools and doctor’s surgeries. Infrastructure is something we should all be concerned about.”
He says developers are often required to contribute to the cost of expanding classrooms or surgeries and road alterations.
“But it’s not just about roads and schools and surgeries. There are other things like the sewage system – how much new housebuilding can that cope with? And electricity – you can only add on so many housing estates before you have to have expensive kit to cope with extra demand.
“I don’t think we are at a crisis but we’re heading that way if we don’t sit down and ask how we’re going to deal with this.”
Mr Beattie says his record as MSP includes helping get £10 million seed money for jobs at the Bush, helping companies during the recession to win stays of execution when the HMRC were threatening to foreclose on them, and helping to set up a business incubator in Mayfield to help young people start their own business.
Labour’s Bernard Harkins fought the seat last time – when former MSP Rhona Brankin stood down – and is back again. “We think our vote is holding up and there is a bit of softness in the SNP votes,” he says. “Quite a few people are thinking about how they voted last time and giving us another look.”
He says Labour’s plan to reintroduce a top tax rate of 50p for those on over £150,000 a year to help end austerity is going down well with voters.
“People generally seem prepared to pay a bit more tax when they can see that it is being targeted towards a particular outcome.”
He says the party’s promise of a GP practice appointment within 48 hours is also proving popular. “In Musselburgh, Dalkeith and Bonnyrigg, we have problems with people getting access to GP services,” he says.
Labour has said it would tackle the issue by guaranteeing patients an appointment at their local surgery which they can book online within 48 hours.
Mr Harkins says since the last Holyrood election he has continued to campaign along with other members of the local party on issues like toilet closures, payday loans and the referendum.
He says: “After nine years of the SNP in power it is time for change.”
Tory candidate Jeremy Balfour, an Edinburgh councillor, says he is getting a positive response on the doorstep.
“A surprising number of people say they don’t want the SNP in government and don’t think Labour will stand up to the SNP and want the Conservatives to provide a strong opposition.”
Tax and the Union are two of the hot topics, he says. “People just don’t see why we should pay more tax in Scotland compared with the rest of the UK. There is concern that if we increase taxation it will push people away from coming to Scotland.
“And people who voted No are quite angry we are possibly going to be forced into another referendum in the next five years when it was meant to be a once-in-a-generation event.”
He also cites poor transport links between different towns in the area. “It’s quite difficult to get from Musselburgh to Penicuik or Penicuk to Loanhead – it discourages people from using public transport.”
Liberal Democrat Jacquie Bell, a former East Lothian councillor, says lack of infrastructure for new housing is a key concern, with Sheriffhall roundabout completely clogged up because the roads can’t cope with all the new houses.
“I would want to reform planning law because at the moment everything is geared to the developer. They have the means to run to appeal but there is no third party right of appeal for the objectors.”
She says although the Borders Railway goes through the constituency, some areas are still not well served by public transport. “There’s a lot of new housebuilding in Musselburgh, but at the moment that is the last station on the line from North Berwick into Edinburgh and people are being left at the station because the train is already full. I’m campaigning to get more regular services to Berwick. If we got more services down to Dunbar, that might alleviate some of the pressure.”