Ian Swanson: Candidates to slug it out for safe city seat

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THE starting gun has been fired in a race which virtually guarantees the winner a seat in the House of Commons.

John Barrett took everyone by surprise when he announced last month that he will stand down as Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West at the next General Election.

Now the party has begun the process of choosing a new candidate for what is the second safest Lib Dem seat in the UK after that of former leader Charles Kennedy in Ross, Skye and Inverness West.

Aspiring politicians from far and wide are expected to put their names forward – but the chances are activists will opt for a candidate with local connections.

Would-be candidates have until 28 August to apply, but several have already indicated they plan to throw their hats in the ring.

Senior councillors Robert Aldridge and Paul Edie were both on the shortlist when Mr Barrett was first selected in 2001 and they will be leading contenders again.

Cllr Aldridge, who was the runner-up last time, has been a councillor for 25 years, led the Lib Dem group at the City Chambers for two years until 1999 and is now the city's environment leader. He has also been a candidate in the last three European Parliament elections, but has not previously stood for Westminster or Holyrood.

Cllr Edie, a councillor for 15 years, has been convener of the health and social care committee since the Lib Dems took control of the city in coalition with the SNP at the 2007 council elections. He stood for Westminster in 2001 in the Ochil and South Perthshire constituency and was also on the Central Scotland top-up list for the Scottish Parliament.

Other senior Lib Dem city councillors, including council leader Jenny Dawe, transport convener Gordon Mackenzie and education convener Marilyne MacLaren have all made clear they will not be bidding for the nomination.

But there is nothing to say the candidate has to be a councillor – and several other figures active in the party in Edinburgh have already indicated they will be putting their names forward.

Mike Crockart, a former policeman who now works in financial services, came a surprisingly strong second when he stood in Labour-held Edinburgh North and Leith at the last General Election in 2005. He stood in the same constituency at the 2007 Holyrood elections and has also fought two council by-elections, improving the party's showing each time. He now lives near Ratho, inside the Edinburgh West constituency, and became local party convener at the start of the year.

Kevin Lang, who worked as Mr Barrett's assistant for several years, would have been a strong contender to take over from his old boss. But Mr Lang is now well-established as the Lib Dem candidate in Edinburgh North & Leith, which will be one of the party's top targets at the General Election, and he has made clear he has no intention of switching.

Mr Barrett's MSP colleague, Margaret Smith, has also ruled out any idea of moving from Holyrood to Westminster.

Siobhan Mathers, who came second to Labour's Sarah Boyack in Edinburgh Central at the last Holyrood election, is expected to enter the race. Married to Lib Dem councillor Charles Dundas and with a two-year-old son, she has a background in public relations and is the party's policy convener.

Another likely contender is former Lib Dem MSP Euan Robson, who lost his Roxburgh & Berwickshire seat to the Tories in 2007. He was a Deputy Minister in the Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood, first for Parliamentary Business and then Education and Young People.

Former Sciennes councillor Moyra Forrest is putting her name forward.

And 26-year-old Beverley Hope, Mr Barrett's constituency assistant since January last year, is also throwing her hat in the ring, believing her first-hand experience of an MP's work puts her in a strong position.

A Lib Dem insider in the constituency predicts at least 30 applications, including many from well beyond Edinburgh.

"Edinburgh West has a history of picking local candidates – the previous MP Donald Gorrie, the MSP Margaret Smith and John Barrett were all local councillors before being selected for parliament – but that doesn't mean that's the way it's going to happen this time."

The insider says the selection of Cllr Aldridge or Cllr Edie would be a loss to the council.

"Paul in particular has done a good job at health and community care. But if you have good quality candidates, you have to take them from somewhere. They're not just going to be sitting waiting for the call – they will be out there making their mark."

Another Lib Dem source argues there is no clear favourite. "When Donald Gorrie stepped down, John was a fairly obvious successor, but it's much less clear this time.

A committee from the local party has already been appointed to draw up a shortlist of would-be candidates, a hustings is being organised for 16 October and the choice will be made by a one-member-one-vote ballot of Lib Dem members in the constituency later that month.

Edinburgh West has not always been a Lib Dem stronghold. The party won it at the 1997 General Election when Donald Gorrie defeated Tory Lord James Douglas-Hamilton. Mr Barrett took over the seat in 2001 and increased his majority to 13,600 in 2005.

The Tories hope his decision to stand down gives them the opportunity to win back some support.

But with such a comfortable majority, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that whoever Lib Dem activists choose in October will become the next MP for Edinburgh West at the election, expected next spring.