General Election 2010: 'The News is not prepared to back one party'

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AFTER four long weeks which have sometimes felt more like four years, the election campaign is finally coming to an end.

On Friday, we could have a new government. Or, if the polls are right, we may be entering a whole new period of political wheeling and dealing before we know who forms the administration which will have to tackle the serious issues the nation faces.

Because of the state of the economy, Bank of England governor Mervyn King called it a poisoned chalice. But, of course, all of the main three parties want nothing less than victory tomorrow.

It is traditional on the eve of the ballot for newspapers to join other pundits and have their say on who should win. But, this time around, the Evening News is not prepared to back any one party.

Of course, we urge all readers to go out and cast their votes. Do otherwise and you don't just pass up your long fought for democratic rights, you also give up the privilege to moan about the outcome.

However, we cannot in all conscience say vote Labour, vote Conservative, vote Lib Dem, vote SNP, or back any fringe party.

Five years ago, this newspaper advised readers that Labour was still the best bet for government, but urged against giving Tony Blair another big majority. This time around, Gordon Brown's party still rates highest as the one most likely to protect the weak while letting the strong go about their lives and business.

But Labour itself looks weak at the moment, led by a Prime Minister who, despite a mini revival this week, looks too tired for another four or five years in Downing Street.

Labour could yet limp on in coalition with the Lib Dems, but the most likely outcome remains a Conservative victory, though with a small majority – if any.

The prospect of an old Etonian with no real experience of life outside of politics other than a spell in PR is not appetising. But the relevant memory of David Cameron is not the infamous Bullingdon Club picture, but the one of him beside his boss Norman Lamont as the then-Chancellor made a mess of the nation's finances during Black Wednesday.

And what of the new boy in town, Nick Clegg? He certainly breathed life into the election, but a boyish demeanour and an ability to look straight into a camera lens while answering a question is no reason to back a party which wants an amnesty for illegal immigrants and favours a local income tax which would hurt the middle classes.

Finally, the SNP. Alex Salmond huffed and puffed about the TV debates but he is not truly in this game. The only voters his party will pick up are the fewer than one in four Scots who view independence as more important than defence, the economy and other reserved matters.

So, unlike other newspapers which have urged readers to vote one particular way, the News will instead concentrate on what really matters to us – the nine local contests which will determine who represents the Lothians at Westminster.

Probably the most interesting of these contests concerns who will be the new member for Edinburgh South. Whoever wins this seat, when the parties hold their post-mortems the one certainty will be who lost it – Labour, and Nigel Griffiths in particular.

Mr Griffiths, MP for 23 years, was already sitting on a wafer-thin majority of 405 before he sickened his constituents by having a sex romp in his Westminster office.

With criticism of his expenses too, Griffiths jumped before the electorate could push him. The last-minute scramble for a replacement did Ian Murray no favours and, though the councillor is a smart operator, Labour deserves to lose this seat and will surely do so.

Although Lib Dem Fred Mackintosh is the likely beneficiary, the News favours Conservative Neil Hudson in this race. Mr Hudson, a likeable horse vet and lecturer, has the benefit of being a "real" person rather than a machine politician, and the more of them we send to Westminster the better.

Unlike Griffiths, Gavin Strang leaves Westminster with his head held high, and that could mean a better result in Edinburgh East for Labour.

With no toxic legacy to defend, Sheila Gilmore should be able to hold on to enough of a 6,202 majority to win, especially if George Kerevan of the SNP and Lib Dem Beverley Hope split the "vote for change". In Ms Hope's case at least, the 25-year-old will have future chances.

The News predicts a win for Ms Gilmore but would make one, late shout for Robin Harper. This well-kent face will definitely swell the Green vote from last time's 2,266. He may well overtake the Tories, and wouldn't it be something if Edinburgh sent the first-ever Green MP to Westminster?

Edinburgh North and Leith has been touted as a place where the Lib Dem surge could wipe out a sitting Labour MP, this time Mark Lazarowicz.

On the face of it, the polls point to Kevin Lang achieving the 2.5 per cent swing he needs, but there is a feeling that Nick Clegg's party peaked locally in 2005. Council and Holyrood elections since then point to Labour regaining the initiative and the continuation of Leith's history of being represented by Labour since 1945.

The News would be comfortable with that outcome. Mr Lazarowicz is no New Labour flannel merchant. Instead, he's a good, solid constituency MP who was one of the first to grasp and respond to public disquiet at the expenses scandal.

David Hamilton will surely hold Midlothian for Labour as well. His track record on local issues, while offering the odd rebellion against his party leadership, suggests that would be no bad thing for the constituency.

It is harder to get enthusiastic about another time-served Labour MP with a comfortable majority. Linlithgow and East Falkirk's Michael Connarty hasn't always endeared himself to this newspaper nor to local voters, least of all over his expenses claims. However, with the best will in the world, it is hard to see the SNP's Tam Smith dislodging him.

The same would be true in Livingston were it not for the fact that its Labour MP has been forced to stand down. Jim Devine has yet to have his day in court over his expenses claims, but it seems inarguable that history will judge him a poor successor to the lost and lamented Robin Cook.

The stink over the affair might well be enough to help the SNP achieve the 15 per cent swing they would need to take the West Lothian seat and, in candidate Lis Bardell, the Nationalists have cannily chosen a local woman with a track record of community work.

The News holds no truck with the SNP's ambition to destroy the union, but believes this is another seat that Labour probably deserves to lose – however, it won't. Graeme Morrice seems certain to join the conveyor belt of Labour councillors to Westminster.

One of the more interesting contests on the night will play out in leafy Haddington. There, Anne Moffat's de-selection threatened to tear apart the East Lothian Labour Party.

Her colourful time in office, and especially the payout she will get for retiring through ill-health in the last days of the parliament, did little to endear her to local voters. But the News would argue that, in this case, it would be unfair if her party paid the price too.

In Fiona O'Donnell, Labour has come up with a decent, well-organised candidate who promises to be a hard-working MP, if elected. Her hopes are helped by local disquiet at the SNP/Lib Dem East Lothian Council.

With the Lib Dems in disarray – the party is on its third candidate – the Nationalists should run Ms O'Donnell closest. But her background of a life outside of politics makes her the best bet.

On the same theme, John Barrett's would-be successor as Lib Dem MP, Mike Crockart, spent eight years as a local policemen and 11 more working for Standard Life.

Despite optimistic noises from Tory rival Stewart Geddes, Mr Crockart is odds-on to hold Edinburgh West for Mr Clegg's party, and if he turns out to be as good an MP as Mr Barrett was, that will be fine with the News.

Which brings us to a final – and possibly the key – local seat. One of the undeclared aims of the Tory campaign across Britain has been to have the party's own "Were You Still Up for Portillo?" moment. Many Labour ministers are on their target list, but none is more senior than Alistair Darling.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has represented Edinburgh South West since 1987 and holds a 7,242 majority, but the Tories have piled in resources to back councillor Jason Rust. The other candidates are making up the numbers.

The News would regard it as a serious loss if Mr Darling were to be evicted from Westminster. The rise through the ministerial ranks of this quiet man of politics was the epitome of substance over style.

Once he got to 11 Downing Street, he defied the cynics who said he would be Gordon Brown's poodle. Indeed, he saw before most how bad the recession would be and played a key role in propping up the banks, and with them the British economy.

If Mr Darling is now to take on the role of senior backbencher then we can look forward to even more involvement locally from a man who, for example, gave high-profile backing to our campaign to win a posthumous bravery medal for fallen firefighter Ewan Williamson.

And then there is the very real possibility of Mr Darling continuing to play a bigger national role, possibly even as a unifying new leader of the Labour Party, either in opposition or in government in coalition with the Lib Dems.

The election campaign is almost over, but this political drama has a few acts still to go. Tomorrow it is up to you to decide who the players will be – and who gets hooked off the stage.