North East Fife: Candidates court youth vote in the most evenly divided constituency

For two and a half years, the House of Commons has been a metaphor for political powerlessness. To see what political power looks like in 2019 you had to be on the beach at St Andrews on Friday.
Climate marchers head for the beach in St Andrews. Picture: Lisa FergusonClimate marchers head for the beach in St Andrews. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Climate marchers head for the beach in St Andrews. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

At one in the afternoon, the low winter sun was already throwing a long shadow off the lone piper on West Sands, as around 200 school pupils and university students on climate strike gathered to the sound of Highland Cathedral.

Before this year, the word most readily associated with climate change was “denial”. Now it’s “crisis”. Many of the climate marchers can’t vote, but they’ve still summoned their would-be elected representatives off the campaign trail to speak on their chosen issue.

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In this constituency, any two of those who are old enough could theoretically make the difference. North East Fife is the UK’s most marginal constituency, with the SNP’s Stephen Gethins just a pair of votes ahead of the Liberal Democrats in 2017.

“In our family, we like to say we’re responsible for Stephen Gethins,” jokes Bruce Britton, a 66-year-old retired international development worker who has joined the march. “One daughter had a postal vote, the other one had a proxy vote.”

Following a record-breaking registration drive, it could be a pair of new voters that decide who is returned as MP. University students Lana Owen and Megan Galloway, both 19, split the difference. Strongly pro-EU, they are still likely to vote different ways.

“I’m not convinced Scotland could cope on its own,” Owen says. For Galloway, “the SNP are fighting for Scotland to stay in Europe. We have to go our own way.”

The Lib Dems say their canvassers have already spoken to 7,000 voters in North East Fife – as many as during the 2017 campaign, with more than two weeks to go until polling day. “We’ve blown it out of the water,” says candidate Wendy Chamberlain, a shinty-playing former police officer.

Her mum, who is also on the march, says that Chamberlain’s new boots were an essential early Christmas present after the start of the campaign finished off her last pair.

If the Lib Dems are going to make gains anywhere, it has to be here – but a UK-wide projection from pollsters YouGov, using a model that accurately predicted the 2017 hung parliament, suggests Chamberlain will fall just short.

She insists the survey was good news. Internal party polling had the Lib Dems further behind earlier in the year. She also plays down concerns about the party’s national campaign.

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“There’s no doubt I’ve had some robust conversations on the doorstep about revoke,” Chamberlain admits, and when asked if she supports cancelling Brexit without another public vote, adds that it’s “fraught with difficulties brought about by the first past the post system”. In other words, the Lib Dems aren’t going to win 320 MPs. But, she adds: “Nicola Sturgeon saying the other week that it’s an independence referendum before stopping Brexit, that shows the SNP’s priorities.”

Her biggest battle may be convincing voters that dumping Gethins means getting another pro-EU MP. Chamberlain is clearly annoyed at the volume of SNP literature full of references to the Tories.

Meanwhile, during speeches from candidates on the beach, the loudest cheer is for the one party that’s not here. Gethins’ biggest boost came when the Green Party said it wouldn’t stand in North East Fife, and with many of the students in the crowd likely to be Green supporters looking for someone else to back, he thanks the party for its stand on climate change.

Chamberlain, by contrast, is being done no favours by a Conservative candidate who insists he is “not just a spoiler”. During the march, Tony Miklinski, the deputy Tory group leader on Fife Council, tells me he’s going to “keep it simple” with a message against indyref2 – but more importantly, against further chaos at Westminster. “We’ve got ourselves wound around the axle. It can’t go on.”

In 2017, the Tories were back on 24 per cent, but are putting out leaflets telling voters they can win in North East Fife if they increase their vote by half. If it’s not a wholly serious claim, coming out on to the beach to be booed by teenagers shows Miklinski is taking it seriously.

After the march, I join Gethins for a bowl of soup in the British Golf Museum café. The SNP’s Europe spokesman is widely respected at Westminster for his work in the engine room of cross-party talks to stop a no-deal Brexit. But that isn’t worth many votes in Fife.

Far more important are the relationships Gethins has built locally – for instance, with teachers whose pupils were out on West Sands. Back on the beach, Gethins made a point of congratulating Bell Baxter High in Cupar for reducing waste, including recycling crisp packets.

“It certainly doesn’t get picked up in national polls,” he tells me later. Gethins reckons the incumbency factor is worth two or three per cent on 12 December.

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Chamberlain admits North East Fife is “very lucky” in 
the quality of its MP and MSP – the latter is Willie Rennie, who turns up later to deliver leaflets and have an animal-themed photo taken with his candidate and some ducks – but adds that Gethins “can’t talk about independence here” because the area is strongly pro-UK.

“Of course there’s an incumbency factor to overcome,” she says. “What I’m saying is, give me the chance to show I’m just as effective a local voice.”

Gethins is trading on his experience. If Boris Johnson is returned with a majority, the new parliament will be voting on a Brexit deal the following week.

“People want an MP who they know can hit the 
ground running. It’ll be a matter of hours or days before we start making crucial decisions…”