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National Front

In just a few days time, the people of the European Union will go to the polls to select their new MEPs. Having just returned from a trip to the Irish Republic, it’s very clear that attitudes there are very different from those in Scotland. In Dublin for example, the streetlamps are festooned with posters with pictures of the various candidates and their assorted parties. Come back to Edinburgh and, by contrast, you would hardly think an election was actually taking place.

Euro Election Posters in Dublin

Euro Election Posters in Dublin

Even allowing for the economic turmoil of the past few years, the Irish have embraced the EU in a way which the peoples of Great Britain have not. Nonetheless, there were many posters which appear to be indicating that enough was enough when it came to economic austerity. That appears to be a common enough attitude across many of the member countries. Euroscepticism appears to have been growing, something borne out by the latest YouGov survey.

That survey confirms a trend lately been building up a head of steam for some considerable time. People across the European Union have been becoming increasingly distrustful of the established political parties and individual politicians in particular. It’s perhaps a surprise that the swing away from the establishment – and indeed support for Europe – looks as though it has been even stronger in France than it has been in parts of this country. Support for the National Front there has grown even more strongly than support for UKIP in England.

Swing to Eurosceptics Source: YouGov

Swing to Eurosceptics
Source: YouGov

The poll did not look at Scotland separately. In recent days, the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, has posted that his party will do much better north of the border than anyone had predicted – even taking one of the seats on offer. Few of the pundits agree with him. But there is some concern that the turnout in Scotland may be very low – the focus of so many people and parties is much more on what will happen in September rather than in May.

However what happens in Brussels and Strasbourg is important in determining our future. The evidence from the YouGov survey is that the next European Parliament could well have a very different make up to anything we’ve seen before, with many more politicians being elected from minority parties. However, the analyst to study the results of the survey feel confident that there isn’t a surging tide of nationalism or of anti-EU feeling. Rather, votes for minority parties are being interpreted much more as protests against their politicians at home.

Speaking to people in Dublin, there does appear to be a growing sense of optimism about the future. They can see changes taking place around them – the amount of construction is a good indicator both of economic activity and of confidence. There is no evidence that people there now want to leave the European Union. Few were willing to admit that they would vote for a Eurosceptic party – but several suggested that this year’s result could be closer than anyone would previously have imagined.

Aberdeen Central <em>Picture: Richard Slessor</em>

Aberdeen Central Picture: Richard Slessor

The second in our series on key swing seats for the 5 May election.

Aberdeen Central
Labour’s Lewis Macdonald has represented the centre of Aberdeen since the parliament opened in 1999. However, his majorities have been going down with each election as the SNP has chipped away at the Labour vote.

At the last election, Mr Macdonald only secured the seat with a majority of 382 over the SNP – and, according to one authoritative assessment, this has been eroded even more by boundary changes so that the SNP now actually has a notional majority of 349.

Either way, this is a very tight contest. Mr Macdonald has worked very hard to keep this seat, but in Kevin Stewart he is up against the deputy leader of the city council.

If even a small fraction of the pro-SNP swing detected in national polls is translated through into this constituency, then Mr Stewart will be elected on 5 May.

Also standing: Sheila Thomson (Liberal Democrat), Sandy Wallace (Conservative), Mike Phillips (National Front).

Prediction: SNP gain from Labour.

Argyll and Bute
There is one issue dominating the election in this west coast constituency – school closures.

The council proposed a series of school closures a year ago, which caused a massive backlash. Then the SNP group on the council (after taking advice from Mike Russell, the education secretary) decided to start opposing the cuts.

Mr Russell – whose wife is a teacher in the area – is now the SNP candidate. The issue of school closures – which ones will actually close and who is to blame – is still swirling around Mr Russell and the SNP and has the potential to damage the SNP vote.

However, this seat did elect an SNP MSP in 2007 in the popular Jim Mather, and Mr Russell will be hoping that he can take over where the retiring Mr Mather left off.

He does face a strong challenge, though, from Alison Hay of the Liberal Democrats. Privately, senior Lib Dems have been talking up her chances, but she will have to buck the national trend of anti-Lib Dem voting to take this constituency.

Also standing: Jamie McGrigor (Conservative), Mick Rice (Labour), George White (Liberal), George Doyle (Independent).

Prediction: SNP hold.

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross
The Liberal Democrats have a very good record of getting elected then working an area so well that they guarantee their re-election for many years to come.

That happened here with Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat MSP from 1999 until his decision to retire from politics this year.

Without that personal vote for Mr Stone, the Nationalists believe this seat is vulnerable, and although an assessment of the boundary changes gives Lib Dem Robbie Rowantree a notional majority of 2,500, SNP strategists believe that is vulnerable.

The SNP candidate is the experienced list MSP Rob Gibson, who is well known in the area.

The Liberal Democrats expect their vote to decline, but are hoping enough of their supporters stay with them to keep the SNP at bay.

Also standing: John MacKay (Labour), Edward Mountain (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP gain from Liberal Democrats.

Edinburgh Central
This appears to be one of the most open constituencies of all in Scotland. All four of the main parties now appear to be within 3,500 votes of each other, so – conceivably – it could go to any of them.

Labour’s Sarah Boyack is the sitting MSP, but she holds a notional majority of just 719 over the SNP.

Nationalists have been suggesting that Ms Boyack knows she is vulnerable: why else, they ask, would she put herself on the regional list as well?

But it appeared to Labour before the campaign started that the Liberal Democrats would be their main rival in Edinburgh Central, and that was why Ms Boyack was worried about her position.

With the Lib Dem vote falling away, Labour managers hope they will attract enough wavering Lib Dems to head off Marco Biagi’s SNP challenge.

Also standing: Iain McGill (Conservative), Alex Cole-Hamilton (Liberal Democrat).

Prediction: Labour hold.

Edinburgh Southern
This should be one of the most comfortable Liberal Democrat seats in the country. Sitting MSP Mike Pringle enjoys a notional majority of nearly 4,000 – but, ever since the campaign started, Labour strategists have been insisting that their canvass returns show a big swing from the Lib Dems to Labour.

Labour leaders believe it will be enough to send Paul Godzik, their candidate, to Holyrood for the first time, while the Lib Dems think that Mr Pringle has a strong enough personal vote to confound the national anti-Lib Dem voting patterns.

Labour will need to start picking up seats from the Lib Dems in Scotland’s urban areas if they are to match the SNP’s success in doing that in rural Scotland. This would be as good a place as any for them to start.

Also standing: Gavin Brown (Conservative), Jim Eadie (SNP).

Prediction: Labour gain from Liberal Democrats.

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<em>Picture: Walter Baxter</em>

Picture: Walter Baxter

As is always the case, this election will be won and lost in just a few key battleground areas. The swing seats hold the key to the final result, and The Caledonian Mercury will be looking at several of them over the next week. Here are the first five –

Almond Valley
Almond Valley is the sort of seat Labour needs to win if it is to regain power at Holyrood. This used to be Livingston, and it was won in 2007 by the SNP’s Angela Constance with a majority of 870.

Boundary changes have made things even tighter since then – and, according to one assessment, this is now the most marginal constituency in the country, with the SNP holding a notional majority of just four votes.

Ms Constance believes the last four years have consolidated her position and that incumbency will give her the edge over Labour stalwart Lawrence Fitzpatrick.

But, having lost some areas that she knew well – such as Broxburn and Uphall – and gained others with a Labour tradition – such as Fauldhouse and Longridge – the result here is anything but clear.

Also standing: Emma Sykes (Liberal Democrat), Andrew Hardie (Conservative), Neil McIvor (National Front).

Prediction: SNP hold.

Edinburgh Eastern
This battle between two political heavyweights encapsulates the fight for the Scottish government. A high-profile Nationalist is up against a less well-known but solid Labour candidate, and what happens in this seat should give a good indication of what is going to happen across Scotland.

The SNP’s Kenny MacAskill won here in 2007, but boundary changes have since given Labour a notional majority of 545. The Labour candidate is the Reverend Ewan Aitken, Church of Scotland minister and former Labour leader on Edinburgh city council.

Mr MacAskill believes his personal vote – built up over the past four years – will see him through, and he is doing all he can to link Mr Aitken with the unpopular trams debacle.

Also standing: Martin Veart (Liberal Democrat), Cameron Buchanan (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP hold.

Glasgow Southside
Somehow, the old name of Glasgow Govan carried more romance and appeal than the renamed constituency. Maybe it was the by-elections of 1973 and 1988 – both won by the SNP – but, whatever it is, this is a much-changed seat.

Boundary changes have stripped it of much of Govan including the shipyards, and have brought in Govanhill, the Gorbals and Toryglen.

But a Tory glen it isn’t. This is a straight fight between the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon (who won Govan by 744 votes in 2007) and Labour’s Stephen Curran, a local councillor.

There have been claims of dirty tricks, with SNP sources muttering about claims that Mr Curran’s people have been telling voters they don’t need to worry about Ms Sturgeon being returned to parliament, because she is standing on the regional list and they can get both Mr Curran and Ms Sturgeon to parliament if they back Mr Curran on the constituency vote.

This claim has been denied by Labour, but it underlines how tense and how important this seat is.

Ms Sturgeon is under pressure in what has traditionally been a Labour heartland, but she will be hoping that the national swing to the SNP from Labour will be enough to see her returned again.

Also standing: Kenneth Elder (Liberal Democrat), David Meikle (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP hold.

North East Fife
Normally, the notional 4,500 majority which Iain Smith holds in this rural Fife seat would make this an easy hold for the Liberal Democrats – but these are not normal times.

The battering which the Lib Dems have taken in the polls because of their Westminster coalition deal with the Tories – and their subsequent decisions in government – have made this seat vulnerable to both the SNP and the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems are throwing resources at North East Fife in an attempt to head off the opposition attacks, and Mr Smith is finding on the doorstep that he has yet to build up the sort of personal vote that the local Lib Dem MP, Sir Menzies Campbell, has cultivated.

Sir Menzies would have no trouble holding this seat, but Mr Smith is facing a much harder fight. His majority will be cut – there appears to be no doubt about that – but the three-way battle may play into his hands, with neither the SNP (whose candidate is Rod Campbell) nor the Tories (Miles Briggs) likely to garner enough Lib Dem votes on their own to unseat him.

Also standing: Colin Davidson (Labour), Mike Scott-Hayward (UKIP).

Prediction: Lib Dem hold.

Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale
The battle for this big Borders seat is between two of Holyrood’s best-known and longest-serving MSPs: Jeremy Purvis for the Liberal Democrats and Christine Grahame of the SNP.

The two have fought each other so many times before that this has the feel of a personal grudge match about it.

Mr Purvis is the sitting MSP, but boundary changes have given the SNP a notional advantage – and, according to one assessment of local government voting patterns, may now have Ms Grahame in front by 1,200 votes.

Mr Purvis faces the added problem of general disillusionment with the Lib Dem coalition in London, and he has been doing his best to emphasise his work in the constituency and move discussions away from English tuition fees and Nick Clegg.

He faces an uphill battle, though, particularly against someone such as Ms Grahame who is very well known here.

Also standing: Ian Miller (Labour), Peter Duncan (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP gain from Lib Dems.

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Che GuevaraAlas, poor Tommy, I liked him well. Certainly, as a politician. I didn’t know Comrade Sheridan well personally, but I walked down the Royal Mile with him once or twice and admired his common touch with the lieges.

Now it turns out it was common for him to touch the lieges, and he’s soon to be a guest of Her Majesty, a host about whom he never cared much in the first place. Not only that, but his name is now a byword for porkies and a wandering pecker. Oh, how rare it is for power and peccadilloes to remain amicable bedfellows. It always ends in tears. And yet it never ends.

With this case ended, I do not wish to comment further on Tommy’s pecker. It was not the case at issue and, fortunately, was not produced in court. Perjury was the willie waved before the jury, a serious charge hard to take seriously. The idea of a politician telling lies! How absurd.

And the very idea of lies being told in court! Certainly, lawyers never lie, never produce false allegations or insinuations. The way some people speak, you’d think lying was the very basis of our duelling legal system. Absurd!

Of course, Tommy presented his own case, and perhaps was a little biased in his own favour. How I feared for the jury, subjected to a five-hour closing speech, as if they were poor Cubans hectored by Fidel. On this occasion, alas, it was a case of close but no cigar.

Tommy is normally so persuasive too. He was the best orator in the Scottish Parliament, not urbane and statesmanlike as with, say, Michael Russell or Gavin Brown. But no one could get the old corpuscles going like Tommy and, say what you like, he was absolutely passionate about his cause.

So it must have been something to hear him base a passionate defence on wanting to be with his wee girl at Christmas. Why, it even brought a tear to his own eye. What juror could fail to be moved? Well, this lot obviously, and I daresay it’s to their credit.

When I used to report from the courts, I found the experience chastening. Listening to the prosecution, I’d conclude: “Hang the bastard!” And that was just for having no car insurance. Then I’d hear the defence and think: “For God’s sake, let him go!” Indecisive and endlessly gullible, having me on the jury would prolong the agony of a verdict for weeks.

But Tommy’s jury, on which thankfully I was not a member, took just six hours. In the course of the proceedings, I’ve been all over the place just as a gawping spectator, or at least a follower of proceedings in print and online. One minute he seemed bang to rights. The next we were full of doubt. But now the jury has spoken.

It concluded that the People’s Thomas did tell an SSP executive committee meeting that he’d visited Cupid’s in Manchester in 1996 and 2002 with a journalist, Ms Anvar Khan. The 14 jurors found he’d visited said libidinous club with two other fellows who were not his wife, plus the aforementioned Ms Khan and a common or garden Dane called Ms Trolle, with whom he ‘d also engaged in extra-parliamentary activism between 1 January and 31 December 2005.

The somewhat mundane sexuality of it all was encapsulated when Ms Trolle defined the decor at Cupid’s as “minging”. That everyday sordidness deepened when Ms Khan said: “We went into his bedroom, there was a large picture of Che Guevara above the bed, and we had a shag.” How disappointing that there was no accompanying music by Phil Collins.

Tommy’s former comrades in the Scottish Socialist (Non-Sexual) Party said the verdict would now define him, omitting to add as what, probably because the “c” word is politically incorrect.

They said: “By his actions over six years, Tommy Sheridan has disgraced himself and negated his political contribution to the socialist cause over 25 years.”

Harsh judgment.

I always liked Tommy, but that was mainly from the vantage point of the press gallery. And part of that like was I thought he was a regular guy. Alas, he turns out to have been a regular knob-juggler. Nice work, if you can get it, but most of us can’t, or turn it down if we’re thirled to a quine that we don’t want to hurt.

Funnily enough, or otherwise, I recall thinking it odd (and indeed commenting thus in print) that, when he was joined by five elected colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, Tommy sat separately from the rest of them. There seemed little love from the start.

I first encountered him some time in the early to mid 90s, during a protest against the National Front, who were trying to recruit at a Hearts v Rangers game (whatever could they have been thinking of?).

Clad in a leather bomber jacket, he was leading the protesters and, when I interviewed him, he fixed my eye. I’m afraid that’s something I’ve never liked. I don’t mind being looked in the eye, but not excessively. Politicians and salesmen tend to fix your eye. It means they’re lying to you. Still, I liked him. Truth is, I still want to like him, still cling to that myth of the ordinary, five-a-sides guy speaking fron the heart. But, after this, he hasn’t half made it difficult.

Politically, I think he’s a gem. Personally, well, it doesn’t look too good. Add to that the fact that he is going bald, and the poor man’s world seems to be falling apart.

If I might load up some double-entendres here, the bottom line is that Tommy has cocked up big-style. He decided to brass it out, hoping that antipathy to the evil News of the World would see him through, as it did last time. Dangerous strategy. As one of his own sympathisers said, he should just have come clean (Jeezo, don’t even go there with the double-entendres).

But, with soap-boxes piled to the ceiling, Tommy ululated: ” I have fought the power of News International all my political life and I make no apologies for taking on the might of Rupert Murdoch.”

But it wasn’t about politics. It was about sex. The trouble with the News of the Screws is precisely that, if you forget the celebrity pap, it’s actually a good paper in its own way. It carries out more investigations than any other paper and puts loads of seriously bad guys away, Tommy not included (and that was never its intention).

Besides, what do you say now when asked: who’s the most sleazy, Tommy or the News of the Screws? Consider that one Tony Cumberbirch (real name), a convicted burglar and career employee at Cupid’s, recognised Tommy from top current affairs documentary series, Celebrity Big Brother. Consider also that, in the normal course of events, this story involved the editor of the Scottish News of the World stripping down to his underpants to view a video of Tommy swearing liberally and apparently admitting his guilt.

Consider lastly: why does socialism, probably the most well-meaning of ideologies, throw up such rancour, not to mention splits so ludicrous that even Monty Python couldn’t do them justice?

I rest my case. But I doubt if we’ve heard the last of Tommy. No doubt, he’s already drawing up plans to return as the Red Avenger, wreaking havoc among his enemies and other fellow socialists.

Let’s remember some of his good points. He fought the poll tax heroically. As an MSP, he took half his salary, giving the other half to “ordinary, working class people”, most of whom were too dim to appreciate the gesture.

And appreciate this: politics is littered with liars and shaggers. The difference with Tommy is he never lied about politics. He only lied about shagging. It’s tempting to say: who gives a flying one? But law, for all its faults, underpins our society, and politicians telling porkies about their peckers ultimately must quail before its majesty and might. Either that or just say friggin’ sorry, for God’s sake.

<em>Picture: Wilson Dias/Abr</em>

Picture: Wilson Dias/Abr

The French electorate may have delivered a sharp rebuke to President Nicolas Sarkozy in Sunday’s second round of regional elections, but it is still too early to say whether the country is prepared to ditch the government’s reforms and swing Left.

Labour Minister Xavier Darcos was the first head to roll in the wake of the centre-right government’s disastrous performance, which saw Sarkozy’s UMP bloc winning 36 per cent of the vote, compared with the Socialists’ 54 per cent. It was the worst electoral performance by a centre-right party in over 50 years.

Darcos, whose position became untenable after he was defeated by a Socialist opponent in the ballot, was to have headed difficult negotiations with trade unions on reforming France’s costly pension system. With the next presidential election due in 2012 and his approval rating at an all-time low, Sarkozy was preparing to make further changes to his cabinet, though Prime Minister François Fillon – whom opinion polls suggest is more popular than Sarkozy – was expected to keep his post.

The Socialists have been cautious not to crow victory too loudly, however, bearing in mind that they won regional elections in 2004, only to lose the presidential election in 2007 after internal squabbling saw a lead by Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal’s in opinion polls wiped out in the dying weeks of the campaign. This time party leaders seemed content to describe the result as a vote of no confidence in Sarkozy.

They will also have noted a surge of support for Jean Marie-Le Pen’s National Front, which performed poorly in 2007 but is seen to have recovered ground partly because of Sarkozy’s policy of bringing leftists into his government. The National Front won 9 per cent of the vote, and Sarkozy will be disappointed that his hardline measures on immigration and other issues did not go far enough to lure the far right into the moderate fold. His other cabinet changes may now reflect his awareness of that message from right-wing voters, though it is likely to further polarise the country.

Sarkozy’s flamboyant style of government has grated on many French as they saw unemployment rise to three million and the budget deficit soar. Though he insists he will not abandon his policies, with an eye on the 2012 election he may now put a brake on his reforms, which include raising the retirement age from 60, cutting taxes and slashing the public sector, including the much cherished national health system.

<em>Picture: Wilson Dias/Abr</em>

Nicolas Sarkozy. Picture: Wilson Dias/Abr

A Socialist victory in the first round of France’s regional polls yesterday has dealt a serious blow to President Nicolas Sarkozy, damaging his chances of re-election in the 2012 presidential election.

The result was a personal triumph for Socialist leader Martine Aubry, the daughter of former European Commission President Jacques Delors, who until recently was considered too staid a figure to pose any serious challenge to the dynamic and flamboyant Sarkozy.

Aubry, the mayor of Lille, was minister of social affairs under former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and is best known for introducing the 35-hour work week, which became known as the “Loi Aubry”.

Exit polls had the opposition Socialists ahead with around 30 per cent of the vote, with Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party on 27 per cent.

Ségolène Royal, the former Socialist presidential candidate who lost to Sarkozy in the 2007 election and leadership of the Socialist Party to Aubry in 2008, said the result was a vote of no confidence in Sarkozy’s government.

Sarkozy aides pointed to the record abstention rate of 52 per cent as a sign that the Socialist victory was not all that it seemed. Sarkozy had played down the regional poll, saying it was about local issues, but speculation has mounted that he may now be forced to reshuffle his cabinet, with Economy Minister Christine Lagarde and Prime Minister François Fillon reportedly in his sights.

The Socialists already control 20 of France’s 26 regions. A second round will be held on March 21, when the Socialists will be able to count on the support of the Greens, who were projected to win 13 per cent, and several smaller left-wing parties. Jean Marie Le Pen’s right-wing National Front also did surprisingly well, winning 11 per cent of the vote.

While British tabloids have been revelling in an apparently bogus tale of infidelity concerning Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni,
the president has had far more serious matters on his mind.

Sarkozy, though playing down the regional poll, had hoped that the French electorate would not turn it into a vote of no confidence, but, with unemployment running at 10 per cent, the fiscal deficit spiralling out of control and his approval already at an all time low, the French Left was beginning to crow victory even before the vote.

“Rarely has a regional election been so national,” the left-wing daily Libération said in an editorial. “The last vote before the presidential election in 2012. It can change the political landscape.”

France’s neighbours were watching carefully for any slowdown in French reforms, including a major overhaul of the pension system, which Sarkozy has pledged to pursue. Germany’s Der Spiegel said: “Companies are closing, farmers are reporting diminishing incomes and in the coming year up to 1 million French people who are currently drawing unemployment benefits threaten to fall into poverty as they are transferred over to the country’s welfare rolls.

“The administration is predicting growth of 1.4 percent in gross domestic product, but France’s central bank has downgraded its growth prediction to a mere 0.4 percent for the first quarter. Additionally, there is dissatisfaction among teachers, child care professionals and parents about Sarkozy’s job cuts in education.” Judge and lawyers were also demonstrating against reforms in the justice system, Der Spiegel added.