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by Tom Freeman
08 May 2015
United against Paco - how Ian Murray won Edinburgh South

United against Paco - how Ian Murray won Edinburgh South

Edinburgh South is now Labour’s solitary seat in Scotland, but the fact Ian Murray retained it did not come as a surprise to me.

Murray increased his majority, gaining 39 per cent of the vote with 19,293 votes.

At the last hustings in the constituency I told him I expected him to keep the seat, but the mood in the Labour camp was more nervy than this result warrants.

Murray had held such a slim majority over the Liberal Democrats it had shown up in lists of marginals as the Lib Dem’s sixth target across the UK. But with the Scottish Conservative vote remaining loyal, I originally had wondered whether their candidate, the youthful but experienced Miles Briggs might sneak through the middle of a tight four-way marginal, but in the end the difference here was the SNP candidate.

It was the constituency in which I first became politically aware. The leafy middle class suburbs of Morningside, the Grange and Newington had enjoyed a greater say over its electoral representation than the more depressed areas like Gracemount, and had therefore traditionally been a Conservative seat, held by Michael Ancram since 1979.

But in the late eighties change was in the air. The area’s close relationship with the University of Edinburgh meant radical student activists railing against Thatcher’s move to the right and a liberal academic intelligentsia welcoming the formation of the SDP were the first political voices I became aware of as I approached my teens.

I remember the orange SDP/Liberal alliance posters dominating the streets in my neighbourhood in the 1987 election, so I was surprised when Labour’s Nigel Griffiths was elected with a small majority. However in the local elections to follow the newly-formed Liberal Democrats began to dominate council seats.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, two doors down from where I lived, one member of this Edinburgh South intelligentsia, my neighbour Stephen Maxwell, was forming the ideological nucleus of the modern SNP, from a constituency with no interest in nationalism. His 2012 book Arguments for Independence, published shortly before his premature death, formed the basis of the case laid out in the Scottish Government’s White Paper.

Given the unpredicted surge in SNP support across Scotland after the referendum, it seems strange the Edinburgh South branch did not seek to select a candidate with the same intellectual respect as Maxwell. Neil Hay, who came out of relative obscurity to make his name as an activist in the referendum campaign and a researcher for the local MSP, saw his campaign stutter as it was revealed he had been using a twitter pseudonym Paco McSheepie to ‘troll’ anti-independence campaigners.

“I know of at least four people who will be voting Labour for the first time”

Hay’s depiction of no voters as ‘traitors’ in one tweet would undoubtedly be a turn-off for constituency which had voted no by 65 per cent, and even SNP members I spoke to said they were “disappointed with his conduct”.

Perhaps the most damaging effect of the revelations, from Hay’s point of view, was the way it united his enemies. One Conservative friend of mine said she’d vote Labour for the first time because she “didn’t want to be represented by a cybernat,” while a Liberal Democrat I know told me their party’s candidate was “a no hoper”, and “I know of at least four people who will be voting Labour for the first time.”

Murray had worked hard in the constituency, playing an active role in the setting up of non-profit community grocer Dig in Bruntsfield and in supporting community ownership of Hearts football club as chairman of Foundation of Hearts.

Murray also came out against Trident during the campaign, an action which echoed his predecessor Griffiths, who quit as deputy leader of the Commons over the issue in 2007. CND alive and well in Edinburgh Labour it would seem.

One former Liberal Democrat voter told me: “Murray's pretty engaged. I wrote to him about the Palestine bombing last year and he had a response that was really personal and specific. I don't agree with all of his policy stances but I think there's a lot to be said for him.”

Meanwhile, Hay and his activists were in denial. He told me no one on the doorsteps had mentioned his twitter alter-ego, and his activists snapped he’d “been stitched up by the right-wing press”. In reality, unlike most other SNP candidates in Scotland, his opponents united against him, including Conservative voters.

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