Euan McColm: The battles before Holyrood election

Holyrood's proportional voting system and Scotland's political upheaval have complicated the selection process for the elections. Picture: Jayne Wright
Holyrood's proportional voting system and Scotland's political upheaval have complicated the selection process for the elections. Picture: Jayne Wright
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Unnatural selection or survival of the fittest? Holyrood veterans and new faces for all three main parties are engaged in a bruising battle to be picked for May’s talent contest, writes Euan McColm

‘It’s brutal,” said one long-serving pro-independence activist, “but not exactly surprising. Standing as an SNP candidate pretty much guarantees you a job.”

Just a few years ago, the SNP leadership had to strong-arm loyal foot-soldiers into standing in unwinnable seats across the country. Makeweights would go through the motions in such seats as Eastwood and Edinburgh Pentlands, certain of defeat, hoping that their loyalty might be recognised and they’d be selected, next time, for one of a very limited number of seats where nationalist success was a possibility.

But, right now, nobody would write off the SNP’s chances of taking all 73 Scottish parliamentary constituencies in next May’s Holyrood election. And alongside a landslide in the constituencies, the SNP will take a number of the 56 regional list seats elected through a proportional representation system.

And that means that there’s a clamour to win one of the limited number of candidacies.

Already, sitting MSP Nigel Don has been deselected by his local party in Angus North and Mearns, in favour of Brechin councillor Mairi Evans, while the member for Edinburgh Western, Colin Keir, will not be standing as an SNP candidate next year after his former aide, Toni Giugliano, challenged him and won.

And sitting regional list MSP Chic Brodie failed to win selection in the Ayr constituency, losing out to Glasgow councillor Jennifer Dunn.

But these upsets are nothing compared with two major battles to come. As minister for public health, Maureen Watt is a key member of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s ministerial team. But her career will be brought to a premature end if her parliamentary colleague, Christian Allard, has his way.

Allard, currently a list MSP for North East Scotland, had planned to stand in the Aberdeenshire East seat, which will be vacated by Alex Salmond next year, but after the SNP ruled that there should be an all-women shortlist to choose the former first minister’s successor at Holyrood, he changed his plans.

Now, Allard is trying to lever Watt out as candidate for Aberdeen South and North Kincardine.

An SNP source said: “This is really unseemly. It’s unheard of for a minister to be challenged in this way. Maureen is a decent woman and a decent MSP so Christian is already making enemies.

“If he fails to get the nomination then he’ll be badly wounded by the whole thing. I can’t see him winning many new friends. For his sake, he has to do Maureen in and build his own wee empire in the area.”

And if the fight over the Aberdeen South nomination is going to get brutal, so too is the battle to win the nomination for the nationalists’ safest seat in Edinburgh. Former cabinet secretary for justice, Kenny MacAskill, is to stand down next year and, in the contest to replace him as SNP candidate, he’s already thrown his support behind Anum Qaisar, a 22-year-old former Labour activist who switched to the Yes campaign in the run-up to last year’s referendum.

Qaisar, who has also been endorsed by the three SNP councillors in the constituency, was widely seen as the favourite for the nomination and, if elected, she would become Holyrood’s first female Asian-Scots parliamentarian and Scotland’s youngest ever MSP.

But the high-level support for Qaisar would appear to have caused considerable resentment locally, with some members suggesting that she was being “imposed” on them.

A constituency insider claimed that some local members are threatening to leave the party should Qaisar become the candidate.

In his endorsement of Qaisar, MacAskill described her as “one of the brightest talents” of the new generation which had emerged during the referendum.

He added: “She’s hugely talented and highly personable. Anum would be an outstanding candidate and representative for Edinburgh Eastern.”

But a critic of the candidacy said: “People are genuinely surprised why the MSP and the three councillors would endorse someone who does not have the experience or knowledge when there are a number of other candidates who obviously do. People are mystified as to why this is happening.”

Qaisar said: “My team and I are running a positive and inclusive selection campaign for Edinburgh Eastern. I am working hard all across the constituency to win the support of members, and I’m delighted with the support I have received thus far.”

Voting by party members in the selection contest ends tomorrow. The fallout may last some time.

An SNP source said: “I remember when we had to persuade presentable people to become candidates on the understanding that they didn’t have a hope in hell of winning.

“Being a candidate was a thankless task. You’d have to take weeks off work, knowing that you were going to lose. It was an expensive business for a lot of people.”

The SNP’s predicted success in Scotland’s constituencies next year means fewer of those standing on the regional lists are likely to win seats.

A party insider said: “It’s no surprise that list members have started fighting to get themselves constituencies. If they can’t do that, then a lot of them will be out on their arses after the election.”

But it is not just the SNP that is making changes among the candidates who’ll stand next year. Both the Conservatives and Labour are doing it too, though for different reasons.

While the SNP’s astonishing success in recent years accounts for the scrabble to win nominations, for the Tories and Labour it is concern over the quality of current candidates that’s driving change.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, elected to Holyrood in 2011 on the Glasgow regional list, recently announced that she would be fighting the 2016 Holyrood election as a candidate on the Lothians list.

Davidson will also stand in the Edinburgh Central constituency. The Tory leader, who now lives in the city with her partner, said that by standing in the capital, she believed she could increase the number of Conservatives elected in the Lothians, where there are currently two MSPs representing the party.

There is speculation that Davidson also wanted to free up the Glasgow list for a new candidate, who might strengthen her Holyrood team.

A Tory insider said: “Ruth hasn’t made much of a secret of the fact that she thinks the Conservative group at Holyrood needs refreshed. There are too many Tory MSPs who’ve been there since 1999 without ever making much noise.

“When Ruth was elected, her story was that under her 
the party had changed. The problem with that was that, sure, Ruth was a different kind of Tory, but the team behind her was just the same old ­faces.

“She has always said that she wants to attract new talent to the party and I wouldn’t be surprised to see quite a few new faces at Holyrood next year. Being top of the Tory list in any of the country’s regions is, essentially, a guarantee of election, so if she can find the right people she can make herself a decent team.

“The SNP might have the numbers, but apart from Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney and one or two others, they don’t have that much talent. The Tories can be a strong opposition with well chosen people up against a lot of mediocre ministers.”

There is speculation in Tory circles that Davidson would like to see Professor Adam Tomkins, currently an adviser to Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell, make the transition from the back room to the front-line. Sources close to the leader this week professed ignorance of such a plan. The speculation, however, continues.

Newly elected Labour leader Kezia Dugdale this week called on people to join her party in order to “stand for us” in next year’s Holyrood election. She said that Labour had some “excellent” MSPs but the party’s fortunes would only be turned around if new faces could be found.

Interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland, Dugdale said she did not underestimate the size of the challenge facing her and admitted it would be “an incredible task to renew the Scottish Labour Party, to put it back on the front foot”.

She said: “It is not about age, it is about outlook – so yes, I want to bring new people into the Labour Party.

“I am asking people who share our values to come and shape our future, to join our party and think about standing next year.

“It is a recognition that we have to renew our party; we have to make sure that it meets the hopes and aspirations the people of Scotland have for us.

“We have disappointed them in the past, many of them are angry with us – I get that, and I want to turn it around, and that involves some new faces.”

Dugdale said candidate selection would be a democratic process and she would trust the membership to make the right decisions.

Party sources say Dugdale is already trying to reorganise the party’s regional lists and persuade stand-out candidates to move to areas which guarantee them election next year.

It is understood that the party’s candidate for Edinburgh Western, Orkney-born lawyer Catriona Headley, has been asked to give up her candidacy in the capital and stand at the top of the Highlands and Islands regional list.

A Scottish Labour source said: “Kez has limited talent at her disposal and she’s going to do the best she can with what she’s got.”

Since its creation in 1999, the Scottish Parliament has faced criticism that it’s a place for second-raters, that real political talent ends up in Westminster.

But, perhaps, that criticism is going to lose its power next year. Survival-of-the-fittest battles for selection in the SNP and a focus on finding the best possible candidates by both the Tories and Labour may well produce a better crop of representatives than have previously found their way to Holyrood.

If that happens, however, a lot of blood will have been spilled on a lot of carpets in the process.