Labour and Tories battle for pro-UK vote in ‘No’ heartland

East Ren Conservative candidate Paul Masterton gets a warm greeting from party leader Ruth Davidson on her visit to Giffnock. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL
East Ren Conservative candidate Paul Masterton gets a warm greeting from party leader Ruth Davidson on her visit to Giffnock. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL
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It used to be said you could tell a lot about a constituency by its supermarkets. The more branches of Waitrose, the theory went, the higher the Conservative vote.

By that measure the Tories should be certain of victory in East Renfrewshire come 8 June. When high-end American chain Whole Foods opened its first store in Scotland, it chose Giffnock as the location.

The affluent town on the south-western edge of Greater Glasgow does not lack good schools or thriving independent businesses.

But there’s no such thing as political certainties in what the locals call East Ren. This was once the safest Tory seat in Scotland until Jim Murphy won it for Labour in 1997.

Mr Murphy, a cabinet minister in the Brown administration and a former Scottish Labour leader, enjoyed a high profile and was well thought of locally. Yet even he could not survive the SNP tsunami in 2015 which swept numerous established MPs aside.

Kirsten Oswald claimed this most suburban of seats for the Nationalists with a majority of 3,718. The former head of human resources at South Lanarkshire council is seeking re-election but will face a determined campaign from both Labour and the Tories.

“People are concerned about Brexit and the impact of a government under Theresa May,” she told The Scotsman. “We have a lot of EU nationals living in the constituency and they are worried about the future.”

East Ren delivered a thumping No vote - 63 per cent - in 2014 but Ms Oswald insists the prospect of a second referendum is not turning voters away from the SNP.

The unionist vote in East Ren was split in 2015 - some 19,000 voting for Mr Murphy and 12,000 for the Tories - which helped Ms Oswald to a surprise victory.

And with neither party willing to stand aside to let one take on the SNP, there is a chance the same thing could happen again.

Residents in Giffnock are aware they may need to lend their vote to another party if they are to see their desired result.

Liz, a retired police officer waiting for a bus home after shopping in the town’s main street, admits her political affiliation has “chopped and changed” over the years. She has decided to vote Labour as she “doesn’t agree with a lot of what Mrs May says”.

“I don’t like Jeremy Corbyn,” she said. “But I like Labour at a local level.”

That is music to the ears of the party’s candidate, Blair McDougall. The former head of the Better Together campaign is standing for election for the first time in his home county.

“It’s frustrated me the constituency has been represented over the last couple of years by the SNP as it was one of the strongest No-voting areas in Scotland at the referendum,” he said. “I’m trying to do what I did during the Better Together campaign - which is bring together votes from different parties to win a majority to put the issue of independence to bed.”

Is Mr McDougall not worried that the SNP could win if the Labour and Tory votes cancel each other out?

“Let’s remember the Tories are polling about 20 per cent in East Ren - Labour is starting in second place here,” he said.

“Labour have either won or been narrowly beaten here in the last 20 years. It’s Labour who are best placed to beat the SNP in numbers terms.”

Needless to say, Tory candidate Paul Masterton disagrees. The 31-year-old solicitor joined Ruth Davidson’s party in the wake of the SNP’s landslide victory in 2015 and is standing in his first general election.

“The Conservatives have become the party of opposition to the SNP right across Scotland,” he said. “This is a place we have historically been strong and our results at the local elections show people are coming back to the Conservatives in big numbers.

“People looking for a pro-Union anti-SNP vote should be backing us.”