Constituency profile: Lib Dems pin hopes on East Dunbartonshire

A Lib Dem activist in Milngavie carries a sign supporting the party's East Dunbartonshire candidate, Jo Swinson. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL
A Lib Dem activist in Milngavie carries a sign supporting the party's East Dunbartonshire candidate, Jo Swinson. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL
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The prosperous commuting towns that make up East Dunbartonshire would not look out of place in the south-east of England. The crowded platform at Bearsden awaiting the 7.59am train to Glasgow Queen Street would feel familiar to passengers used to the Metropolitan line from Moor Park or Croxley.

While the majority of the adult population works in the city, residents here are protective of their municipal independence. The boundaries between the likes of Bishopbriggs and Milngavie and the city limits of Glasgow are subtle but not invisible. Tenements make way for bungalows and bowling greens become tennis clubs.

The Kirkintilloch campaign office of John Nicolson, who is standing for re-election in East Dunbartonshire. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL

The Kirkintilloch campaign office of John Nicolson, who is standing for re-election in East Dunbartonshire. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL

This difference extends to Westminster elections. While Glasgow was solidly Labour before switching to the SNP in 2015, East Dunbartonshire was once the most precious jewel in the Scottish Liberal Democrat crown.

Jo Swinson won the redrawn seat in 2005 and comfortably retained it in 2010. But five years later she was another high-profile victim of the SNP surge.

John Nicolson, a former BBC television journalist, was the victor. He polled 22,093 votes, enough for a majority of 2,167.

Now the battle lines are being redrawn. Nicolson is bidding for re-election and Swinson, a former minister in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, has returned to try and reclaim the seat.

The Lib Dems have made it one of their top two targets north of the border. Activists from across Scotland - one even travelling from as far away as Holland - have arrived to help Swinson’s campaign.

Posters, leaflets and general Lib Dem paraphernalia are not hard to spot in living room windows across places like Milngavie.

Team SNP, however, are keener to talk about the prospect of a Tory challenge in the constituency. Ruth Davidson’s party finished fourth here in 2015 but activists from all sides expect them to do much better this time around.

“Most people following Scottish politics know the Tories have had something of a sugar rush recently,” Nicolson told The Scotsman. “I’ve certainly seen Labour voters in the constituency switching to the Conservatives.

“East Dunbartonshire was once held by the Conservatives. Margaret Thatcher took a keen interest in the seat. The Tories have always thought it should be theres and they are putting up a strong fight here.”

Nicolson does not fear the prospect of a Lib Dem revival. “I think Jo Swinson must be pretty disappointed with how her campaign has gone,” he said. “There’s no sign of a Lib Dem bounce. They do what they always do - which is fight a relentlessly negative campaign.

“What I’m saying to people in East Dunbartonshire is, if you want to stop the Tories, you have to vote SNP. The last thing this constituency needs is another Tory trooping through the lobby to vote for Mrs May. She needs strong opposition.”

But the Liberal Democrat campaign believes the SNP is simply talking up the Tories in the hope of splitting the Unionist vote.

Swinson told The Scotsman the Tories were “not doing a huge amount” in East Dunbartonshire. “They know they can’t win here,” she said. “Tory activists here are piling into East Renfrewshire where they think they have a much better chance of winning.”

Swinson spent her time outside of politics writing a book on gender equality and establishing a consultancy business.

But when the snap election was called, the former MP was quick to confirm her status as a candidate.

“I couldn’t not do it,” she said. “Particularly in the aftermath of Brexit, and having real concerns about the direction of the country, and then Nicola Sturgeon’s comments about indyref2.

“As someone who cares about those issues I had to what I could. And one of things that will help us keep the UK together is to make sure the SNP don’t have the seat of East Dunbartonshire - and that was something I knew I could do something about.”

Nicolson insists the issue of another referendum is not turning voters away from the SNP locally, with minds more focused on Brexit.

“Theresa May insists she will return in two years’ time with a triumphant Brexit,” he said. “I don’t think she will. Having spoken with colleague in Europe, they tell me negotiations have been chaotic and the Conservative team seem ill-prepared.”

EAST DUNBARTONSHIRE CANDIDATES

John Nicolson (SNP)

Jo Swinson (Lib Dem)

Sheila Mechan (Conservative)

Callum McNally (Labour)

2015 RESULT

John Nicolson 22,093

Jo Swinson 19,926

Amanjit Jhund (Lab) 6,754

Andrew Polson (Con) 4,727

Ross Greer (Green) 804

Wilfred Arasaratnam (UKIP) 567