Analysis

North East Fife: The battle for Scotland's most marginal constituency

Inside the fight between the Liberal Democrats and the SNP

The next time someone says their vote doesn't matter, tell them about North East Fife. In 2017, the SNP won here by just two votes – an astonishingly miniscule majority. Activists still share stories of last-minute doorstep conversations that could have made all the difference.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat grandee, held this seat for almost three decades, but it fell to the SNP as part of the 2015 Nationalist landslide. The party's Stephen Gethins clung on by the skin of his teeth two years later, and Wendy Chamberlain snatched it back for the Lib Dems in 2019 with a majority of 1,316.

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"We still get people today who say, 'I was the two votes'," Ms Chamberlain, who is running again, told Scotland on Sunday. "It's very powerful, and I suppose looking back to 2019 that was a factor in the result, because we definitely produced a result that went against the tide. I was the only person to defeat a sitting SNP MP in Stephen Gethins, who was well liked and respected in North East Fife, I think it would be fair to say."

Boundary changes across the UK mean this picturesque seat is once again – at least on the basis of the 2019 result – Scotland's most marginal. Had that election been fought using the new electoral map, analysis suggests the SNP would have won North East Fife by just 728 votes. Not quite 2017 standards, but still very, very tight. There is a widespread expectation the Lib Dems will win it next month, however.

Stefan Hoggan-Radu, the SNP candidate, said it is a "two-horse race" and tactical voting plays a "big part", with Labour and Tory supporters throwing their weight behind the Lib Dems.

He said the cost-of-living crisis is a major issue. "People are really hurting up here,” he added. “It's a big part of what we're hearing on the doors. Austerity, Brexit and the cost-of-living crisis are the three big things that we're hearing."

North East Fife is "overall a fairly wealthy constituency", Mr Hoggan-Radu said, but poverty is an underlying issue. "St Andrews, for instance, has a huge poverty issue, especially child poverty, and it's not seen as much because St Andrews is seen as this jewel in the crown, and people don't see the poverty – or don't want to see the poverty,” he said.

"But it's certainly something that's prevalent. And with [the redrawn constituency] taking in, now, the whole of Leven, Windygates and Kennoway, that's obviously even more prevalent. That has been, traditionally, a more deprived area, but also a very much up-and-coming area with the Levenmouth rail link opening. That's going to bring huge investment into the area and hopefully help with that."

Ms Chamberlain, a former police officer, also referenced the cost-of-living crisis, as well as problems relating to farming, tourism and hospitality. Housing is another big challenge, she said, alongside the loss of local services in areas such as Cupar.

She pointed to her record as an MP. Ms Chamberlain’s Carer's Leave Act, which recently came into effect, puts in place a legal entitlement to unpaid leave for carers. Charities say the new law will apply to more than two million workers in England, Wales and Scotland who have unpaid caring responsibilities, and have described it as “a huge step forward”.

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Ms Chamberlain has also driven through changes to standards in Westminster. A recent amendment means MPs arrested for serious sexual or violent offences face being banned from attending Parliament.

She said she was not complacent about her chances. “I'm working hard, and have worked hard throughout,” she said. “Stephen Gethins, who I defeated in 2019, is not the candidate for the SNP this time. He's standing over in Arbroath. I like to think that that says something in terms of what the SNP think their chances are."

Mr Hoggan-Radu stressed he is a local candidate. "I'm from here, I was brought up in Auchtermuchty, I still live here, I went to school here, I work here – this is my home and it always has been,” he said.

He was previously a para-athlete. As a swimmer, he just missed out on the Commonwealth Games in 2014, and then switched to triathlon for two years before retiring in 2016 to pursue politics.

"I was born with my lower right arm missing, and I was bullied quite badly at school, and politics has always been close to my heart because I wanted to try and do something about that, especially around bullying,” he said.

Bill Bowman, the Scottish Conservative candidate, acknowledged the battle will be a "tricky one" for him, but added: "You've got to fight the good fight." The Tory vote collapsed here in 2019, and Mr Bowman referenced the prevalence of tactical voting. The former MSP said devolved issues such as health and education come up frequently on the doors.

Jennifer Gallagher is standing for Labour. While the party is confident of making big gains across Scotland, it secured a tiny 3.7 per cent of the vote in North East Fife at the last election, and it is fair to say there is no hope or expectation it will win this seat.

But Ms Gallagher, a family lawyer who lives in Anstruther, insisted she is no paper candidate. “I think that people are definitely far more receptive to the Labour Party and our message,” she said.

Elsewhere, Morven Overstone-Jones is running for the Scottish Greens, and Andrew Strachan for George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain.

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