There were less than nine months to go until the general election when I joined a small contingent from the Labour Party going door-knocking on the very edges of Edinburgh South. But, even though local MP Ian Murray won his seat by a mere 316 votes in 2010, Westminster was not the first thing on their mind.
The bulk of the literature handed out to the inhabitants of the ward of Liberton and Gilmerton on 21st August consisted of the Scottish Labour Party’s arguments for voting No in the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. As well as the flyer pictured above, this eight-page leaflet was being dished out:
But despite the focus of the literature, the team were not solely concerned with the independence referendum. In fact, in terms of the conversations with residents – at least, those who answered the door and were willing to talk – the referendum was relegated to second place. First came discussions of local issues and problems (weeds between the paving stones turned out to be the theme of that afternoon). The next topic was the referendum. In third place came the general election. The data gathered get fed back to central Labour computers and are used to refine further campaigns.
The Edinburgh Southern Labour Party is “confident, but not complacent” it will achieve a No vote, according to Stuart Tooley, who works in Ian Murray’s office. Door-knocking sessions have been increased from two per week to four per week, and the Constituency Labour Party was fielding its star players: not only was Ian Murray out, Graham Jones, MP for Hyndburn, in Lancashire, had taken his first holiday of the year to come up for a couple of days and campaign alongside Murray. “It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday,” Jones admits.
The Scottish Labour No Campaign, which is fighting to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom, is separate from Better Together, the non-partisan campaign that works to the same end. It is also, of course, separate from the No campaigns being run by the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
A couple of the team had done odds and ends with Better Together before the Scottish Labour campaign got going. What was it like working alongside activists from parties that are normally opposed to Labour? “You don’t really talk about it,” says Tooley, “though you might have your suspicions. There were problems in some parts of the country with activists from different parties not wanting to co-operate, but generally people have got over it.”
Tooley also points out that activists from different parties have quite similar lifestyles – after all, few ordinary members of the public spend their leisure time knocking on people’s doors and asking about their political opinions. “There are lots of similarities between rank and file activists, even if they disagree on a lot of issues,” he says.
Paul McKay, another one of Murray’s staff who was out door-knocking, had also done a few bits and pieces for Better Together. At the count for the European election, he met – on social terms – Miles Briggs, the Tory candidate who will oppose Murray in Edinburgh South. “It was strange,” he says, with some unease at the memory.
Despite any personal connections with activists from other parties forged while co-operating on campaigns for a No vote in September, the team did not think it very likely this will affect the campaigning they’ll do for the general election. Tooley laughs at the notion they might go soft on each other. Much further to the front of his mind is the effect the referendum might have. “A Yes vote would completely change the situation. It would be unclear what the vote would be about,” he says. “A No vote won’t change the campaign at all.”
Ian Murray himself is less concerned about what effect Scottish independence, which would come into force, depriving him of a job, on 24th March 2016, would have on the campaign he’ll run: “Our general election campaign won’t change if we lose the referendum campaign – in terms of what we’re saying. We’ll still want to kick the Tories out.”
Then he adds, “We won’t be saying, ‘Elect me till March 2016’.”
After an hour and a half of trooping around the former mining communities of Liberton and Gilmerton in intermittent rain, the team call it a day, and head back to Murray’s offices in central Edinburgh. Jones, who, on top of being an MP, is also Opposition Assistant Whip, is off to accompany Murray for a beer, while the others dissipate home.
“He’s my boss and friend,” Murray says about Jones. “But don’t tell him that on either count!”