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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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Nigel Farage. <em>Picture: Euro Realist Newsletter</em>

Nigel Farage. Picture: Euro Realist Newsletter

Suggestions that a little-known Belgian who may or may not run the European Commission was seen running away from the scene of Nigel Farage’s air crash with a rocket launcher were last night being treated as mischief making …

This was another bizarre event in a bizarre election. Mr Farrage was in an aeroplane trailing a banner urging voters to back UKIP when the plane crashed.

Mr Farage walked out of the wreckage, as did the pilot, but he spent the day in hospital with broken ribs and a chipped spine. It was probably a good job because he missed having to explain what had happened to the UKIP vote (for the record 917,000 votes, three per cent of the total, no MPs).

There were also more serious electoral problems at several cities in England: London, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Birmingham with voters turned away unable to vote, others arriving to find there were not enough ballot papers and others spending hours in queues.

The Electoral Commission has launched an investigation and one leading human rights lawyer suggested last night that anybody who was denied the right to vote should be able to claim at least £750 in compensation.

WestminsterIt’s always an odd day, this. There’s a phoney war feel to things – or, rather, it’s like the period of go-slow downtime between Christmas and New Year, when no-one knows quite what to do, and there’s a sense of waiting for the clock to move on and the next instalment of excitement to arrive.

A press-the-pause-button kind of day. Turn on the TV or radio and the main news story, the one that has dominated the airwaves for weeks and will do so again for weeks to come, is being studiously avoided. Don’t mention the election.

Edward Stourton and the Radio 4 World At One team must have offered quiet praise to the heavens when President Umaru Yar’Adua of Nigeria died late yesterday, as it gave them something genuinely solid to chew on in today’s programme. (The more so given that Stourton was born in Nigeria.)

In the less restricted areas of the media – notably the blogosphere – things are carrying on apace, with chatter and speculation and assessment-by-anecdote. Over at politicalbetting.com, for instance, there’s a rolling (and intensely partisan) analysis of voter turnout across the country, the kind of thing that the BBC might just about allow itself to touch upon in the most general terms by saying that turnout has been “brisk”, or “slow”.

The mood seems to be that things are at the brisk end of the scale, at least in certain parts of the country and in certain seats. A politicalbetting.com poster named “houndtang” said: “Just voted in Hampstead and Kilburn, and there was a queue at 10.45. Polling clerk said turnout had been massive.” Similarly “Baskerville” noted that “40% of electorate [in the Wandsworth Common ward of Tooting] have voted already.”

Generally, the hope is that turnout might be markedly up on the 61.3% of 2005, even somewhere up towards 70%. But it’s a topic too geographically and psephologically varied to be subjected to piecemeal analysis.
My contribution to the jigsaw would suggest that things are on the quiet side. When voting soon after midday, the polling station was deserted apart from the two clerks who put down their sandwiches, shoved aside their large bag of boiled sweets, wiped their fingers and did the necessary paperwork. I met no-one in the street heading to or from the polling station, either.

There are some complicated pieces of thinking going on, however. A neighbour – a staunch and vociferous SNP supporter known to fly a saltire in his garden – tells me he is voting Conservative this time. It’s tactical with a double twist. We live in a constituency that is close to being a Labour–Conservative marginal (Labour won it in 2005), and where the SNP candidate is not at the races. My neighbour’s reasoning is that if the Tories form a government at Westminster (a place for which he has little time), they will inflict such inequity and injustice on Scotland that the case for independence will be made and the referendum will, in due course, be won. The intervening period of pestilence is, for him, a necessary evil; hence his decision to vote for Cameron.

Others simply seem uncertain. It was only some time after another neighbour – a mild-mannered, non-fringe-party kind of chap as far as I was aware – asked about the local UKIP candidate that I twigged he was considering voting for him. Nothing wrong with that of course – people can vote for whoever they like – but insofar as I had ever thought previously about my friend’s politics, I had seen him as leaning to one of the more established parties.

Chances are, a great many people are voting in tentative, unexpected and sometimes complicated ways like this – and chances are the overall election result will show signs of it in ways that are very hard to predict.

The same possible-UKIP voter also explained the curious total absence of lamp-post placards in these parts. The council banned the parties from adorning its street furniture in this way, because weeks after the last Holyrood election there were still large amounts of election tat to be seen flapping in the breeze.

So a victory for tidiness and a defeat for litter – but it further adds to the weird feeling of these few hours of lull in the political storm. Next to no broadcast-media discussion, no brightly coloured posters on the street-corner, not even any of those endearing/annoying loudspeaker Vote For vans, around here at least. A general election, at some level, ought to be fun, and this one feels like it’s struggling a bit in that regard.

Not for long, though. We’re almost through the lull. Normal service will, on the dot at ten o’clock, be resumed.

David Bushby is the UK Independence Party candidate for Ochil and South Perthshire and has an interest in blue water sailing.

David Bushby's 37ft ketch

David Bushby's 37ft ketch

Does your interest in sailing come from a childhood spent messing around in boats?

Not from childhood, but from the time I was in the army in Singapore. There I started sailing in a GP14 dinghy. I graduated to a Flying Fifteen on Loch Earn, and finally to fitting out my Endurance 37. This was an eight-year exercise outside my back door.

Have you had much formal training, or has it mostly come from friends and crewmates?

I formalised my training with the military sailing schools and the Nautical College in Glasgow. I now have the RYA Ocean Certificate.

Do you own any boats?

An Endurance 37ft  ketch.

How does blue water sailing differ from cruising the Firth of Clyde?

There is more water, in fact a big empty space, no-one to bother you, some whales, dolphins, Portuguese men of war and a few birds (feathered). Mind you, there is nothing wrong with the Clyde, which has some lovely anchorages. However I do prefer the West Coast and Hebrides.

What’s the furthest you’ve sailed in a single journey?

My initial long distance was to Iceland, followed by northern Norway and the Baltic to Russia. After that, I sailed south to Cape Verde Islands across the “pond” to the East Indies and then back from Maine. The longest time at sea has been 19 days.

Do you sail solo or as part of a crew?

I have sailed solo once, but much prefer a crew up to four or five max. Returning from the States there were just my wife and I on board. With the help of wind-steering gear we never held the helm except when harbouring. Great bit of kit!

Are you in any sailing clubs?

Yes. The Clyde Cruising Club and Army Sailing Association.

Do you race, or is it all just non-competitive fun?

I am not a good racer and prefer cruising. No stress!

What’s the most scared you’ve been while afloat?

Honestly, I have never been scared at sea. I have complete confidence in my boat. Early in my training, while returning from the north coast of France, the Contessa 32 repeatedly crashed off waves until I thought this can go on no longer. However it did, and we survived! On our last trip across the Atlantic I did lose one shroud fitting, but the mast did not come down and I was able to fix a temporary repair. Did become severely bruised up the mast, though!

Any encounters with pirates, brigands or such types?

No, thank goodness! Only greedy Frenchmen trying to extract money out of me for anchoring in bays!

Seen any mysterious sights out at sea – strange creatures, weird lights, etc?

It can be quite eerie at night when the winds are up a bit. One can have the impression of sailing through a narrow channel with cliffs on either side. Once we had a surfaced whale within 25 feet of the hull, but it failed to stay for long. On several occasions we were able to say “There she blows”.

Three sea-related books: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne; The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway; The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch. Which is best?

I have not read all these but certainly enjoyed Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The last one I read was Tony Bullimore’s Saved, and that is a great story of fortitude. Bill Tilman’s books are excellent, too.

If you could wake up tomorrow morning on your boat anywhere in the world, where would you most like to be?

There is nowhere better than a lonely anchorage, with hills around, may be some snow on the tops, seagulls watching from rocks and fish to be had from the sea. Tropical islands I have enjoyed, but it is difficult to find anywhere more special than a West Coast anchorage or one on the Norwegian coast. I have still to experience South America!

If elected, is there any nautical-related legislation you would like to see introduced?

Sailing is very much an individual sport and I should hate to see any more legislation that removes freedom. We live in an era of the nanny state that is becoming overt bullying. Freedom is our right and up to now the life of a sailor is self-regulating. We sail knowing that the sea can be both calm and friendly but at times the opposite. It is there to be respected. Safety is important, but not to the point of losing the spirit of adventure. Life is naturally a risk and with it goes achievement.

By John Knox

<em>Picture: Helico</em>

Picture: Helico

The party manifestos are more than just a list of policies, they try to outline a general philosophy.

Thus Labour’s 75 page manifesto is called A Future, Fair for All and it emphasises what the government can do to get the economy going again and sustain public services.

The Conservative manifesto, on the other hand, places the emphasis on what citizens can do for themselves. It’s a 130-page Invitation to Join the Government of Britain.

The Liberal Democrats take up Labour’s theme of “fairness” and, in 108 pages, spell out what it means for individuals as taxpayers and consumers.

The SNP manifesto argues the case for Scottish independence in the long run but, in this election, it wants as many “Scottish champions” elected as possible to protect public services in Scotland from what they say are £30b worth of cuts coming from the other parties over the next five years.


The Conservatives say they will reverse Labour’s planned 1p rise in National Insurance contributions. That will cost £6b, which they say would be paid for by efficiency savings. They also want to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m and to give married couples a £150 a year tax break.

Labour have already introduced a higher 50 per cent tax rate on earnings of over £150,000 a year. The party says it won’t extend VAT to food or children’s clothes or books or newspapers but, like the other parties, it has not ruled out a general increase in VAT.

The Liberal Democrats say they would raise the threshold for income tax to £10,000 a year, lifting 3.5 million out of income tax altogether and making most earners £700 a year better off. It would cost £17b a year, to be paid for by a mansion tax, a 1 per cent levy on houses worth over £2m, closing tax loop holes for the rich and taxes on fuel and air passengers.

The SNP want control over taxation to be given to the Scottish Parliament. North Sea oil revenues, they say, should be put into a special Scottish Oil Fund for future investment in public services and infrastructure.

The deficit

Labour have promised to halve the £167b budget deficit over four years, starting next year, once the economic recovery is under way.

The Conservatives want to start reducing it immediately, saying an urgent plan to cut the deficit is the way to restore confidence in the economy. They say this can be done by using half of the £12b efficiency savings they expect to make by re-negotiating public contracts and a pay freeze in the public sector next year for everyone earning more than £18,000.

The SNP say public spending should be maintained next year to help Scotland climb out of recession. They say if the government is looking for efficiency savings, they should start by scrapping Trident and ID cards.

Labour also want to limit public sector pay rises to 1 per cent or below.

The Liberal Democrats want a cap of £400 on any pay rises for public sector workers. They say £15b worth of savings will have to be made if the government is going to get to grips with the deficit.


Labour say they will maintain spending on the NHS, schools and the police in England but will have to look for cuts in other services. They have however outlined a new National Care Service for England which will provide free personal care for the elderly. They are consulting on how it should be paid for but have ruled out an earlier idea of a “death tax.”

The Conservatives have promised to protect the NHS from cuts but elsewhere there will have to be savings, notably a complete review of incapacity benefits.

The Liberal Democrats say the Child Trust Fund will have to be scrapped and tax credits will have to be targeted on the very poor.

On schools, south of the Border, all parties want better individual support for struggling pupils. Labour want failing schools to be taken over by their more successful neighbours and the Conservatives want parents to be given more encouragement to run their own independent schools.

In Scotland, none of these reforms to the public services apply. The SNP say they will try their best to protect public services from cuts but they warn that the Scottish budget will probably be cut by £500m a year, whoever wins the election – unless there is a strong contingent, of 20 or so SNP MPs at Westminster and a finely balanced parliament. They have pledged to keep free personal care and the guarantee of a maximum waiting time for NHS treatment of 18 weeks.


Labour say maintaining public spending is the best to save jobs and create new ones. It wants to expand the youth training schemes and to guarantee that anyone coming off welfare benefits and into work will definitely be better off.

The Conservatives say reversing the planned increase in National Insurance contributions is the best way to save jobs. They want the government to do less and free the private sector to create new jobs.

The Liberal Democrats argue that thousands of jobs could be created in the renewable energy industry. For example, they would establish a £400m fund to help shipyards diversify into building off-shore wind turbines.

The SNP agree that “green jobs” should be a priority, saying 25,000 jobs could be created in off shore wind, wave and tidal power. They are committed to creating 50,000 apprencticeships and to keeping free university and college education.


Labour say they have saved the banks from collapse and taught the bankers a lesson with a levy on bonuses. The SNP say the Royal Bank and the Bank of Scotland should be returned to independent Scottish ownership as soon as possible.The Conservatives would impose a “Robin Hood tax” on bank profits and would also try to sell off government shares in the banks as soon as possible to ordinary savers. The Liberal Democrats want to break up the banks, dividing them into retail High Street banks and riskier investment banks.


Labour have created a £2b green investment fund to encourage firms in the renewables industry. Like the Conservatives they want to see a new generation of nuclear power stations. The Liberal Democrats are against new nuclear and say the money should be spent on renewable energy and energy conservation instead.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have plans for a new high speed rail link – to replace air travel – between London and the North of England but disagree on the route.

The SNP say they have passed the most progressive climate change legislation in the world. They oppose new nuclear power stations, saying Scotland should put its money into becoming the “renewables powerhouse” of Europe.

The Green Party says none of this will achieve Britain’s agreed target of cutting carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

Defence and foreign policy

Both Labour and the Conservatives want British troops to stay in Afghanistan until the Afghan army is able to take over responsibility for security. The Liberal Democrats say we should start talking to moderate Taliban leaders now. The SNP want a review of our role and strategy in Afghanistan, including the option of early withdrawal.

The Conservatives want a complete defence review but they have promised to renew Trident. Labour also want to renew Trident and build two new aircraft carriers. The Liberal Democrats say renewing Trident is a waste of £100b and they say Britain should be cutting its number of nuclear warheads.

The SNP want to get rid of Trident altogether.

None of the parties are placing much emphasis on the European Union. The Liberal Democrats are the most positive towards it, even wanting a referendum to decide, once and for all, whether Britain should play its full part in Europe or not. Labour did not think the recent streamlining of the EU was fundamental enough to hold a referendum. The Conservatives remain sceptical, promising a referendum on any future reforms. The SNP say Scotland should be an independent member of the EU and thus better able to defend its special interests in energy, farming and fishing.

On overseas aid, Labour say they have doubled Britain’s aid budget to 0.5 per cent of GDP. That’s well short of the 0.7 per cent target agreed, internationally, 40 years ago. All parties are still committed to that target. The Conservatives say they will protect overseas aid from the cuts but they will carry out a review of how the £9b budget is spent.

Constitutional reform

All parties have promised to clean up parliament after the expenses scandal. The Conservatives say they will give local voters the right to sack their MP mid-term if he or she misbehaves. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats both say they want to reduce the number of MPs from the present 650. Labour have promised to introduce fixed terms of parliament.

Labour have also suggested a referendum on a proportional voting system, the single transferable vote. Here they will have the Liberal Democrats’ support.

Labour have promised to introduce the Calman reforms to devolution, including more tax powers for the Scottish Parliament. The Conservatives say they will come up with their own devolution proposals.

The SNP welcome more powers for the Scottish Parliament but are planning a referendum on outright independence.

Other parties

The Greens: They want a big switch from economic growth towards a “sustainable” economy: more energy conservation, investment in renewables, local food production, better railways, no more road building. They oppose the public sector cuts, saying taxes should go up instead. They also want a basic “citizens income” for everyone to try to close the gap between rich and poor. They have about 300 candidates standing across the UK, 20 in Scotland, where there is a separate Scottish party.

UK Independence Party: also fielding around 300 candidates, 20 in Scotland. The party wants Britain to withdraw from the EU.

Scottish Socialist Party: wants Scotland to become an independent Socialist republic. 10 candidates standing.

Trade Union and Socialist Coalition: led by Bob Crow of the RMT. It wants no cuts and no privatisation. About 40 candidates are standing across the UK, including Tommy Sheridan in Glasgow.

British National Party: wants a stricter limit on immigration and wants “British jobs for British workers.” Running 300 candidates UK wide, 14 of them in Scotland.

Alliance for Democracy: an alliance of the Christian Party, the Jury Team and English Democrats. Contesting 360 seats across the UK, one in Scotland, in the Western Isles.