Politicians like to say the only poll that counts is on election day. At Christmas, there’s some competition.
The message to vote tactically doesn’t seem to have reached the North Pole. There’s a Christmas fair in full swing on the high street in Dunblane – part of ultra-marginal SNP-Tory battleground of Stirling – and a festive seven-foot fairy on stilts, festooned with lights and covered in glitter, is weighing her options.
“I definitely don’t want the Tories,” she says, pondering her vote. “Probably Labour?” The Conservative incumbent Stephen Kerr, who beat the SNP by just 148 votes in 2017, will be putting her on the nice list for that.
Last Christmas blares over the sound system, and the queue for the roast hog rolls snakes around the Riverside pub and kitchen. “It’s the last thing on our mind,” a woman pushing a pram says about the election. “Which way is the mulled wine?”
Remarkably, Stirling is only the fifth most marginal seat in Scotland, but the fact that it voted by 67 per cent to stay in the EU makes it the most likely to flip from the Tories to the SNP on Thursday. Confirmation of its status as a top target came when MEP Alyn Smith was chosen as the nationalists’ high-profile candidate. It also made sure Brexit would be the top issue: Smith went viral earlier this year for asking EU member states to “leave a light on” for Scotland to return.
Away from the Christmas market, Kerr is busy targeting more engaged voters. Hopping in and out of his constituency worker’s two-door car, affectionately dubbed “the Shoe”, the pair make their way round a residential neighbourhood of modest detached homes. It’s prime Tory territory, and Kerr has just found his first voter of the election.
Postal votes have begun landing on doormats today, and Graham Ainsworth, 75, returned his the same morning. The retiree extends a hand to shake with Kerr when asked which way he’s voting. It’s with some reservation: “I voted to stay in the UK and the EU,” Ainsworth says. “I don’t see much difference between Scotland breaking away from the UK and Brexit.” And he isn’t much of a fan of Boris Johnson, either: “What on earth is he going to do next?”
But, he adds, turning to Nicola Sturgeon: “I really don’t want that silly woman causing more splits.” At another door, Heather McFarlane says of a second Scottish independence referendum: “I really don’t want to go there.”
At several addresses, Kerr is praised as a hardworking local MP. Professional photographer Sean Kerr – no relation – remembers getting a letter of congratulation for an award. “The amount of stuff he’s done in the community, it’s night and day,” the 54 year-old says about the candidate on his doorstep. As for Brexit: “It just should have been done by now… I voted Remain, but I respect the result.”
But the door knock also reveals the problem faced by Kerr and the Tories, not just in Stirling but across Remain-voting Scotland.
They’re only stopping at addresses where postal ballots have been delivered, and where previous canvas data suggests there’s a good chance of Tory votes. Kerr is sent to a house that’s down as “strong unionist”. But he is definitely on their naughty list.
“I am not voting for you, I would never vote for you,” Elizabeth Smeaton tells him. “I would rather be dead in a ditch.”
Some canvassers would mark the household down as a firm “no” and retreat. Kerr stands his ground for the best part of ten minutes.
“Do you know what my son does whenever he gets a letter from you?” Dr Smeaton continues. “He rips it up into little pieces. It’s a great stress reliever.”
As her husband Alan lobs questions from the stair – “Why are we better together in the UK but not in the EU?… We were promised we’d be out by 31 October. Why hasn’t [Johnson] resigned? It’s a matter of honour. He should have gone.” I squeeze in a few questions of my own and establish that Elizabeth works for an academic publisher based in Stuttgart. Brexit is personal.
“I could lose my job,” she says. “I could lose my pension.” Kerr insists she won’t, and urges her, optimistically, to read the 26-page Brexit political declaration. “I’m a moderate, One Nation Conservative,” he tells her.
Matters are not helped when the letter-ripping son arrives home. “Could you please stop writing to me? I actually like poor people. Have you heard of Margaret Thatcher?”
“You weren’t even born when Thatcher was prime minister,” Kerr replies.
“I’m no pushover,” he tells me as we walk up the next drive. “I like to give as good as I get.”
That evening, all the candidates gather in a University of Stirling lecture theatre for a hustings event hosted by the student politics society. Smith has just arrived from Strasbourg, hoarse from debate in the European Parliament, and draws on that experience at every opportunity, mentioning the EU referendum of 2016 far more than a 2020 referendum on Scottish independence.
“There is no good Brexit for Scotland,” Smith says in his opening remarks. “I bring a European-style politics that’s about concentrating on where we agree, and trying to find solutions – because we need to stop Brexit.”
Despite the narrow margins in Stirling the Green Party is standing a candidate, and Smith also focuses on environmental arguments, highlighting the university’s role in developing technology for the Green economy. His Green rival, Bryan Quinn, is taking no prisoners, calling Smith an “expert in fake news” over an SNP leaflet that says he is vice-president of the European Greens. “It’s like Nick Clegg claiming to be the deputy leader of the Conservatives when they were in coalition. It’s not the same thing,” Quinn says, sitting next to Smith on stage.
Rather than hit back, the SNP candidate delivers a stark message in his closing remarks. “You can all work out the arithmetic,” he tells the Stirling students. “First past the post is the enemy here, not any of the other parties represented.
“But you know the arithmetic says at the end of the day, there is going to be one person representing you… every party is entitled to stand and you should all vote with your heart, but you should also be aware of the consequences: it’ll either be Mr Kerr in Mr Johnson’s government, or it’ll be me.
“I can’t out-Green the Greens, but I can win. I can’t out-Liberal the Liberals, but I can win. I wouldn’t want to out-Labour Labour, but I can win.”
Both candidates will hope the tactical voting message cuts through the Christmas cheer. Back at the market in Dunblane, as the fairy strides off, she echoes Smith, asking her helper – closer to ground level in a Santa outfit – “Are all my lights on?”