Candidates take safe route to Cook seat
IN THE land of the roundabout, the man who goes round and round in circles is king. Such a man is Jim Devine, the Labour candidate seeking to fill the small shoes left by a political big man, Robin Cook.
Livingston is infested by roundabouts and talking to Mr Devine, a union official with Unison, is like getting lost in this now not-so-new new town. You go round and round but don't get anywhere. Ask for his views on using the private sector in the health service, something that Tony Blair favours, and Mr Devine is controversially non-committal: "I am just concentrating on the by-election."
His views on the Brown/Blair leadership battle? "I am just concentrating on the by-election."
This is play-it-safe electioneering, straight out of the Labour Party's big book of by-elections.
Mr Devine has not been wrapped in cotton wool by his party. He is free to speak to journalists without a press officer at his shoulder. There is no need. He has the non-committal script off by heart.
On a campaign visit to West Lothian College, the audience, mainly young students just out of school, seemed not to notice, and Mr Devine, a local lad from Blackburn, performed well. He offered his hands to the beauty therapy class for a manicure, laughed off being addressed as Sidney and pretended not to hear a "vote SNP" heckle from some likely lads in the canteen.
Wherever he goes, he says, the reception has been warm.
"Everywhere I go, people talk about Robin and the work he did for them," he says. As the late MP's election agent, he knows the area like the back of his unmanicured hand.
He says the issues are the bread-and-butter ones - health, education, jobs. And, whatever you do, don't mention the war (in Iraq). He did once, and didn't get away with it, provoking nationalist incredulity by saying it wasn't crucial. However, it is not, he maintains, an issue on the doorsteps.
And he is probably right. All the parties in this two-horse race between Labour and the Scottish National Party are keeping it local, even though issues such as health, crime and education are matters for Holyrood, and not Westminster.
The Scottish new towns have, in the past, been fertile grounds for the SNP. Angela Constance, the nationalist candidate, hopes they will be so again. A local lass herself - she also hails from Blackburn - she thinks the tide is turning against Tony Blair.
As polished a candidate as Mr Devine, Ms Constance has the party line off pat, showing that, though it may deny it, the SNP has learned all about being "on message" from New Labour.
Her pitch is simple: Blair lied to the country over Iraq, so how can he be trusted on the domestic agenda which, for her, includes a vociferous campaign on St John's Hospital losing its A&E department.
Careful to pay tribute to Mr Cook, she says the people of Livingston want a "fresh start". Voters want someone who is not a member of the "chattering classes" in Edinburgh, a group she blames for moving hospital services to the capital's new Royal Infirmary.
"People should never underestimate the power of the ballot box. Asking people to vote for the SNP sends a strong message that people are not going to tolerate the removal of services at St John's," she says.
The "save St John's" theme has been taken up by the Tories' Gordon Lyndhurst and Charles Dundas for the Liberal Democrats, but they are mere by- election bystanders.
This is an election that Labour desperately does not want to lose and the SNP, under its new leadership of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, desperately need to win to put them on course to win 20 seats at Holyrood, their 2007 target.
If Labour gets its core vote out in a seat that Mr Cook held with a majority of more than 13,000 at the general election, it will signal that it is the nationalists, not Labour, who are stuck going nowhere on the political roundabout.
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