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26 November 2019

Who’s winning in North East Fife, the most marginal constituency in the UK?

The SNP and Liberal Democrats are throwing everything at the seat with a famous two-vote margin. 

By Ailbhe Rea

When I arrive in the beautiful, remote constituency of North East Fife for tea with the local Liberal Democrat candidate, she is apologetic. “We might have to rush,” Wendy Chamberlain explains, “because CNN is here.” 

And sure enough, when I join her as she knocks doors on the quaint residential streets of St Andrews, we are followed by a TV crew. With a large team of eager canvassers, a 50:50 parliament tote bag swinging over her arm and a big smile on her face, Chamberlain has to walk up the same driveway several times, to help the cameramen get the right shot. “I’m glad I took amateur dramatics as a wee’un,” she murmurs to me. This isn’t the only TV crew to have been here in recent days. 

Later, a vaguely familiar face joins our group, notebook in hand: it’s Hugo Rifkind from the Times, here with a cameraman. “I’m feeling terribly unoriginal,” he jokes as he discovers he is far from the only journalist in this corner of north east Scotland. It’s a terribly mediagenic choice, North East Fife, and not just because of the allure of St Andrews, famed for its golfing, beaches, and the university where Prince William met Kate Middleton. There’s a memorable tagline for this constituency: at the last election, the SNP beat the Liberal Democrats by only two votes, making this the most marginal constituency in the UK.  

The narrative of the two-vote margin is more helpful to some parties here than others, however, and of contested relevance two years on. As I discover over the course of my visit to the constituency, much of the battle for North East Fife is a struggle between the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and, indeed, the Conservatives, over how to frame the contest, and how to relate to that 2017 result. 

Out on the doorsteps with Chamberlain, the tightness of the last result is the first thing she mentions in her quick pitch. “This is the most marginal seat in the UK in terms of Westminster elections,” I watch her say on doorstep after doorstep. “There were just two votes in it last time. We’re pro-UK, pro-EU,” she adds with a warm smile, typically met with an encouraging nod, and then it’s on to the next door. The margin has captured the imagination of voters in the seat and fired up party activists, she explains. “People even talk about the recount on the doorstep,” she laughs. Indeed, there were three memorable recounts to confirm the result in 2017. 

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The Liberal Democrats see North East Fife as a straight contest between themselves and the SNP: two pro-Remain parties in a strongly pro-EU seat (it voted 64 per cent to Remain, higher than the Scottish average). The seat also voted 55 per cent against independence, in line with the Liberal Democrats’ pro-union message, and they are keenly aware that this is a historically Liberal seat: it was former party leader Ming Campbell’s seat from 1987 until 2015, and the historic seat of East Fife was the constituency of the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith, as I am reminded many times that day. “We should be able to win it back. We should never have lost it in the first place,” says one in Chamberlain’s huge team of canvassers. 

And indeed, this is a fight they are throwing everything at. In North East Fife, Liberal Democrats aren’t using the printed sheets and clipboards used by canvassers up and down the country, but instead MiniVAN, the canvassing app used by the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign. If all canvassing is an effort simply to assess where the party’s vote is and where it isn’t, this app allows the Liberal Democrats here to collect data and plan canvassing with maximum efficiency. 

“We have very, very good data,” confides one canvasser in the team, who whispers conspiratorially about the “software given by the Democrats”. (When I later check, it turns out to have been a purchase by the Liberal Democrats, rather than a gift, but only parties aligned with the Democrats’ progressive values are given that right. The Liberal Democrats, I am told, are the only party in the UK eligible to purchase the app.) “Guys, we have just hit 5,000 people!” Chamberlain announces to her team mid-way through the day. She tells me it is more than the local party managed over the whole campaign in 2017. 

Chamberlain is a true MP-in-waiting: a charismatic former police officer, she is friendly, eloquent, and obviously optimistic about the campaign, but skilled at avoiding any predictions. It is her canvassers who chat more freely about how they really see things on the ground. They give a frank analysis of the problem in 2017: “Last time the Tory machine convinced people they could win here.” The Conservative candidate came in around 3,000 votes behind the Liberal Democrats and the SNP last time, with 24 per cent of the vote compared to the 32.9 per cent won by the two front-runners. The canvassers tell me that have spoken to “hundreds who confessed to voting Tory last time instead of Lib Dem,” a trend they are confident they can turn around.  

A committed canvasser in North East Fife.

“If we had the election tomorrow, I am confident we would win by one or two thousand,” confides one of Chamberlain’s canvassers, a deliciously candid verbalisation of what many who are privy to the Liberal Democrats’ data are presumably thinking. 

But despite a promising outlook, no one in Chamberlain’s team is complacent about the fight on their hands. When I say goodbye to them, there are three weeks until polling day. The Liberal Democrats are being squeezed in the polls nationally as the campaign goes on and, the frank canvasser admits, Swinson isn’t going down quite so well as expected. As with any political campaign, it only takes one huge gaffe, one disastrous policy announcement, for it to be game over. “As the Harold Wilson line goes, a week is a long time in politics. And three weeks is a hell of a long time,” one canvasser says with a grin.  

So I leave the optimism and buzz of the Liberal Democrat machine in St Andrews, and head out to the other settlements in the constituency. Both Chamberlain and her SNP rival, Stephen Gethins, emphasise that although St Andrews University is the biggest employer in North East Fife, the seat is “very diverse”, including small fishing villages along the coast and the former mining town of Leven, suffering from the collapse of that industry and from poor transport links to the rest of Scotland. They both talk about the increase in food bank usage in the constituency, and how the seat’s main industries (the university, hospitality, tourism, food and drink manufacturing) mostly tend to be seasonal, and highly exposed to the impact of Brexit. 

On the main streets in less famous, and less busy, villages and settlements around the constituency, it is hard to find the Liberal Democrats’ confidence echoed by the locals, nor, indeed, much sense of how they intend to vote at all. Wherever I go, the people of the most marginal constituency in the UK overwhelmingly inform me that they are just sick of politics… and sick of media attention.

“I’m honestly not interested in politics, I’m sorry,” says a local butcher in Cupar, a large town near St Andrews. “I’ve already had someone in asking me today…. Some camera crew wanting to speak to me about the election.” 

In a deserted bakery down the road, all of the staff tell me they are utterly sick of politics, except Lisa. “I’m actually swivelling between Lib Dems and Conservative at the moment,” she tells me. “I feel Boris is trying to get an end to this, to Brexit,” she explains, but she is still considering voting Liberal Democrat “because I’ve always done that. I kind of want the SNP out of here.” Her comments about Boris Johnson are a glimpse of the national campaign.

“I had Willie Rennie [the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader] at my door yesterday,” she tells me later. “And we had someone in the cafe yesterday, doing filming.” She and her colleagues laugh and roll their eyes. They take it in good humour, but you can tell they find the intense interest in their voting intentions from blow-ins down from London vaguely absurd. 


Someone else who probably wishes the media would kindly go away is the SNP incumbent for North East Fife himself. Stephen Gethins is keen to remind the steady flow of journalists to the constituency of the error of fighting the last war. “There might have been two votes in it last time round, but there certainly are not two votes in it this time round,” he tells me over tea in his favourite ice cream parlour the following day. (Gethins has a childlike grin, an easy sense of humour and plenty of chat about football and his two kids beyond narrow election talk.) He has noticed a “shift towards the SNP” over the past “couple of years”, he says, as evidenced by an early endorsement of his campaign from a former Liberal Democrat councillor, Frances Melville, who was the first female provost of Fife. 

“You see it reflected in the polls as well, whereby you’re seeing Remainers moving towards the SNP and towards independence as well. And that’s something I’m definitely picking up round here.” 

With my encounter with the Liberal Democrats fresh in my mind, I almost have whiplash from the dissonance between the two wildly different perceptions of the race here. There is no hint of apprehension from Gethins about the Liberal Democrats. Instead, he is quick to mention the Conservatives.  

“Now, the flip side to [that perceived shift towards the SNP] is not to dismiss the threat from the Tories at all. Of course, they’ve got a selling point, which is to leave. I think that would be disastrous and I will argue with them, but I’m not denying that they have a selling point.” 

Again, later, when I ask about the Liberal Democrats, he replies about the threat from the Conservatives. I can’t tell if it’s deliberate or if he has genuinely misheard me. “It would be a mistake not to consider that as a threat. I mean, the Tories have been out in force here. I saw them, there were about a dozen of them campaigning in St Andrews over the weekend. Not only do I see the Tories as a threat politically, I see them as a threat longer-term. The Tories would be unreflective of North East Fife, and I think they would be dangerous and damaging for North East Fife as well.”

Is this Gethins’ gentle bid to boost the Tories and split the pro-union vote here, I wonder? Or is he right: the national swing towards the Conservatives is not to be under-estimated, and the Liberal Democrats are fighting an electoral landscape that has simply moved on? Have I made an error by failing to arrange a third tea with the Conservative candidate, local councillor Tony Miklinski?

The Liberal Democrats are framing this a two-horse race between themselves and him, I tell him. “With the greatest of respect to everybody, anybody who thinks that politics hasn’t changed in the two years since the general election of 2017 is kidding themselves,” he replies. 

“It would be a real shame if Stephen lost there,” MPs from all parties tell me when I tell them I’m visiting North East Fife. “He’s a great guy. A great MP,” I hear from Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats former colleagues of his. Perceived as a constructive, cross-party player, Gethins views his strong Remainer credentials from the last parliament as his biggest selling point. “As someone at the heart of the effort to get No Deal off the table”, a co-signatory of the Benn Act and as the SNP’s Europe spokesperson, he asks his constituents simply to let him “get straight back to work”. 

“These first six weeks will be crucial. You’ve only got six weeks from polling day to the next Brexit deadline. With the greatest of respect to the other candidates, I’m the only candidate who can get straight back to work again.” 

Aware that a candidate only really knows how their own campaign is going, I mention again that the Liberal Democrats seem to be putting up quite a fight, thinking of their data, their huge groups of canvassers, and the fact that Wendy Chamberlain was selected as the candidate here in June 2018, and has been laying the groundwork ever since. 

“Yes, the Lib Dems have been sending out a lot of material by post. The Tories have been putting out material and getting out on the streets. But we get out there and we hand-deliver everything, we chat on the doors more than anybody else. At the last election campaign, we put out a quarter of a million bits of literature by hand. And we chat to thousands of doors. 

“We have more activists than 2017. They’re much more fired up now. I have afternoon sessions and I get 13 or 14 canvassers turning up. Wherever I go, I get big teams out with me. People are fired up.” They certainly are.

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