Andrew Whitaker: Almond Valley a key indicator for Scottish Labour

Angela Constance MSP for Almond Valley . Picture: TSPL
Angela Constance MSP for Almond Valley . Picture: TSPL
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It’s been said time after time that Labour will not just lose to the SNP, it will be hammered and that there’s a serious chance the party could lose all its constituency seats to the Nationalists.

Whenever a party wins big like the SNP did at the 2011 election and at last year’s general election, as with Labour’s UK landslide in 1997 and the decisive Tory wins in the 1980s, there are always those elected on the party’s coattails who, to put it diplomatically, are not necessarily the most gifted of politicians.

The vanquished party also almost inevitably sees some of its better candidates defeated.

So it would come as no surprise to anyone after 5 May, were there to be more SNP MSPs taking their seats at Holyrood who owe their position almost entirely to their party’s dominance.

But there’s also an intriguing contest in what would be, under different circumstances, a real bellwether marginal constituency seat that could make clear just how deeply Scottish Labour is stuck in the doldrums and how dominant the SNP will remain in the years to come.

The SNP-held seat of Almond Valley, represented by education secretary Angela Constance, is clearly a constituency the Nats would expect to hold, after keeping the seat with a 5,542 majority in 2011, the year of Alex Salmond’s landslide re-election as First Minister.

But prior to that the constituency, which was previously known as Livingston, was at times a classic electoral bellwether with Constance taking the seat from Labour with an 870 majority over the defeated Bristow Muldoon at the 2007 election.

The constituency, which contains a number of former coal-mining areas in West Lothian, is a copybook example of Scottish Labour’s electoral tale of woe in the past decade, in terms of how the party has lost the support of masses of left-leaning, working-class voters to the SNP.

Despite what looks like another comfortable win for the SNP in a constituency that most people would say is unlikely to be one of the main stories on election night, the outcome in Almond Valley could pinpoint whether Labour will have any chance of a comeback in the years ahead.

Labour’s candidate in Almond Valley is Neil Findlay, a politician who is thought to be Jeremy Corbyn’s closest ally in Scotland, having run the successful leadership campaign for the Labour leader north of the Border last summer.

By any measure, Findlay has had a good parliament and he’s been one of the few Labour politicians who successfully managed to fight back against the SNP and to land damaging punches on it.

After unexpectedly securing election as a Lothian list MSP in 2011, the former bricklayer and teacher was undoubtedly one of Labour’s few bright spots in the last parliament, (the others being Kezia Dugdale, having being elected leader after just over four years as an MSP, and Jenny Marra, a highly effective Labour frontbencher and North East list MSP in the last parliament).

But Findlay arguably stands out more as he exposed the SNP, much to the visible annoyance of Nationalist politicians, over areas such as employment rights and social justice.

Despite the self-styled social democracy of the SNP, Findlay fought the party bare-knuckled for using its overall Holyrood majority to prevent the extension of the living wage to all those employed by government contractors.

The same went for the SNP government’s refusal to hold a Hillsborough-style inquiry as demanded by Findlay into the controversial policing of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, despite the fact that all of this happened well before devolution and the SNP’s ascent to power.

Findlay is likely to be returned to Holyrood as a Labour list MSP for the Lothians, due to his second placed ranking on the party slate, but how he fares in Almond Valley will speak volumes as to his party’s future prospects of a revival.

If ever there were to be any constituencies where there was to be a chance of Labour bucking the trend, Almond Valley has some of the ingredients… at least on paper.

There’s also an argument to be made that education secretary Constance has not really had a great second-half in the last parliament.

Despite performing relatively well with a strong vote in the SNP’s deputy leadership election, when she won the support of more than a fifth of the membership, it has been claimed Constance has struggled in the education brief.

She has faced claims that the further education sector has been starved of cash and accusations that the SNP views colleges as “holding pens” for working-class youths.

There’s also been criticism over funding for teacher numbers.

Constance, a former social worker and coal miner’s daughter, like many on the SNP benches at Holyrood has also faced criticism from politicians like Findlay for a “slavish” loyalty to her party and has been accused of failing to do enough to speak up for
children’s services at St John’s Hospital, Livingston, which are presently under review.

What’s also noticeable about the battle between Constance and Findlay in Almond Valley is that the rough equivalent of the constituency at Westminster, Livingston, was represented by the late Robin Cook from 1983 through to the former Labour foreign secretary’s death in 2005.

Cook, respected most notably over his resignation from Tony Blair’s Cabinet over the Iraq war in 2003, had some similarities to another former maverick MP for a nearby area, Tam Dalyell, who represented the Linlithgow and West Lothian seats.

However, whether the memories of the times when such Labour figures represented the area will help Findlay in his battle with Constance remains to be seen.