IN THE small garden of his grey pebble-dashed semi, Aberdonian Gordon Kelloh is summing up a familiar list of concerns about the city.
Sure, there are plenty of fat cats here, grown rich on the oil boom, but there are plenty living on the breadline too. And, frankly, he declares, the hard-pressed working people of the north-east are not getting their fair share.
“The bus fares and the taxi fares here are way more – about 30 per cent more – than Glasgow’s,” he tells the Glasgow MP Margaret Curran, who has come to persuade him to vote Labour. He is not convinced of the case for independence, he adds, but for characteristically Aberdonian reasons. “We are still getting an equal share from Westminster. But we’d get a pittance from the Central Belt.”
This Thursday, Kelloh and fellow constituents of Aberdeen Donside, on the north of the city, will have the opportunity to provide the first real electoral test for Scotland’s politicians since last year’s council elections.
This should be safe SNP territory: the late Brian Adam, whose untimely death has prompted the by-election, won with just under 56 per cent of the vote two years ago with nearly two votes to Labour’s one.
But a lot has changed since Adam’s glory night. Then, a popular and charismatic SNP, which had pragmatically negotiated four years of minority rule at Holyrood, was rewarded with an epic victory across Scotland. Now, facing pressure over its preparations for independence, and carrying the burden of a monopoly on power, it is a very different world.
Alex Salmond’s stratospheric popularity ratings of two summers ago have dipped back to earth. Labour is, once again, snapping at the SNP’s heels. Last year’s local elections gave Labour a huge confidence boost. Can it show this week that its revival is being sustained? As Kelloh noted as well, hanging behind those conventional battles is next year’s independence referendum. The runes for that battle will be read here, too.
Adam’s shadow hangs heavy over the seat: a widely-respected local face, there are, says Mark McDonald, the SNP candidate, people all over the constituency who knew him personally as a friend.
“I hope to carry on that legacy,” he says. McDonald is confident; already a list MSP, he resigned from his seat in order to fight the by-election – and will not get back into Holyrood if he loses. But sentiment does not run deep in by-elections. In 2006, Labour lost the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election a month after the equally untimely death of its sitting MP, Rachel Squire.
McDonald’s task is being made tougher by the popular message – being pushed hard by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and exemplified by Kelloh – that Aberdeen is not getting it’s fair share.
Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrat candidate, and a former journalist, notes: “As a young reporter I remember Alex Salmond telling me that Westminster was shortchanging the north-east. Now he is the one shortchanging the north-east.”
Top of the list of gripes is the city’s dreadful transport infrastructure. Glaswegians are now enjoying the open savannahs of the city’s new motorway network. Even Edinburgh can now see its much-maligned tram network beginning to emerge. Yet in Aberdeen, the bypass is still in the courts, and gridlock is a daily occurrence.
“There are oil executives who fly in from the US and then miss their meetings because they’re stuck in traffic,” says Jardine.
It prompted Labour candidate Willie Young last week to use his place on the council to propose fast-tracking development of Aberdeen’s seventh circle of hell – the Haudagain roundabout – even at the expense of evicting residents. The SNP accused Young of “hijacking” proposals for his electoral interests.
Central Belt grievance runs deep. McDonald acknowledges: “The perception has always been there that Aberdeen doesn’t get what it should. That is why we are keen to ensure that people are aware of the £1 billion package which includes the bypass, the four new schools, the new dental school, new health facilities.”
But none of those have yet been built. So a question hanging over the by-election is whether voters will decide this is a chance to give the Edinburgh-based administration a bloody nose. How ironic it would be, note opponents, if the SNP fell victim to a protest vote by people in the north feeling they were not getting a fair share from a powerful government to the south.
And then there is the referendum effect. McDonald believes people are “savvy” enough to recognise the difference between next year’s vote and next week’s by-election for the Scottish Parliament. He is standing first and foremost on the SNP government’s pledge to retain “free” services on tuition, prescription charges, and a freeze on the council tax.
The SNP’s confidence that any anti-independence backlash can be contained is added to by its open contempt for the Labour campaign. Labour sent leaflets to the Adam house, and tried to canvass McDonald’s wife at their home. And with Young having vacillated on his position on tuition fees and the council tax freeze, even Labour figures note privately that the party is struggling to provide an obvious reason for people to vote for it.
Asked what the point is, Young replies: “People know that a vote for us will get us on the path to make sure we hold them to account.
“That should encourage people to get out and vote Labour because we really need that to take on their obsession with independence.”
McDonald responds: “I think the shift in focus from Labour on to independence rather aptly mirrors their shift in 2011. They have quickly realised their core message is not getting across so they have shifted on to the independence issue.”
Yet the pro-UK parties are hoping to capitalise on uncertainty over independence to place questions over the SNP. Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, up for the day on Friday last week, declares: “The impression that I have [of the referendum campaign] is that a series of large questions will come out and then the answer seems fairly flakey from the Yes campaign. What has struck me is that the reality isn’t stacking up. People’s concerns are on the practical realities not on historical shackles.”
Labour and the Lib Dems think people who voted SNP in 2011 now feel “betrayed” – because a referendum-focused government was not what they wanted. Jardine recounts a story of a meeting with one man, an SNP voter two years ago, who this time round swore he would not be doing so again. “He told me ‘Alex Salmond wants to turn the place into Telly Tubby land and he’ll be Tinky Winky’.”
However, it is the SNP’s to lose, and with its reliable election winning machine on site, it can be guaranteed to launch a customarily effective get-out-the-vote operation on polling day.
The SNP hopes to show it still has the Big Mo; Labour needs to demonstrate it is a credible alternative; the Lib Dems optimistically believe they demonstrate that the horror show of 2011 – when they went back to just four MSPs at Holyrood on the back of the coalition deal – has been put to bed. For the Tories and Ukip in this vote, the test is to avoid irrelevance.