On a cold mid-February afternoon the Vote Yes sticker in the window is a promising sign as the SNP’s Westminster candidate for Inverness goes door-to-door in Hilton, a council estate in the centre of the vast and mainly rural constituency.
The general election is less than 80 days away, but in this Highland outpost there’s already a buzz and Drew Hendry, the local council leader and SNP parliamentary candidate, has attracted dozens of activists to help him on the doorstep.
Grasping clipboards and “Vote Drew” badges, most of his supporters say it was last September’s independence vote that brought them into grassroots politics. Earlier this month polling from Lord Ashcroft said that the SNP could be about to gain more than 50 seats in Westminster, primarily at the expense of Labour. Here in Inverness though, it suggested that Hendry was set to unseat the incumbent Liberal Democrat MP.
His supporters are all the more excited because the MP in question in this once ultra-safe Lib Dem seat is Danny Alexander, one of the Coalition’s key architects, No 2 at the Treasury under George Osborne and a major player in the Liberal Democrats.
Hendry is the man charged with decapitating the Lib Dem heavyweight, who is known by some locally as the “Ginger Rat” and “a Tory in all but name”. Lord Ashcroft’s poll puts Hendry on 50 per cent of the vote, while his rival lingers on 29 per cent.
“I wasn’t hugely surprised by the poll, because it reflects what we are finding on the doorstep,” said the SNP candidate. “We are not taking things for granted though, as this is a constituency where local issues are vital and you have to earn a win.”
For many, those local issues are low wages, a lack of rural infrastructure and fuel poverty. According to Hendry, on those issues “people haven’t got what they voted for with Danny”. He added: “They certainly never would have expected their MP to prop up a Tory government with totally different priorities and a dogma on austerity that people here don’t accept.”
The SNP can’t rely on Yes voters to turn out at the general election – the Highlands voted narrowly against Scottish independence last year. Hendry has been out with his team on the doorstep every night since the poll. And that’s easier said than done in such a vast constituency, which takes in the city of Inverness, the site of the Culloden battlefield, Loch Ness and vast swathes of the Highlands.
From Westminster, Alexander is quick to point out that he extended a cut-price petrol deal for rural areas and was a major force in raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, something that will have been appreciated in Inverness where 30 per cent of population are reported to live below the poverty line. For his part Hendry brought in the living wage for council employees and introduced regional assembles to give Highland communities a voice.
Across Scotland, the Lib Dems are polling at close to 4 per cent, and according to Donna MacAllister, the political editor for the Inverness Courier, Alexander may no longer be able to rely on the fact that he is “local lad” who “hails from a family of Wick boat builders”.
As Hendry points out, the Tories are an “anathema” to most people in this part of Scotland and the “double whammy” of Mr Alexander backing a Tory government and being so closely aligned with austerity will undoubtedly hurt him at the ballot box, though he has an 8,000 seat majority and Liberal Democrat money and activists will be poured into the area.
A spokesman for Danny Alexander MP said: “The choice is clear in the Highlands. The election is between a Nationalist candidate who wants to use the Highlands as a ‘step on the road’ to independence, or Danny, who for 10 years has delivered for Highlanders.”
Hendry says this “fixation” with independence is just a “tactic” to distract voters. “The only people banging on about last year’s referendum are the Lib Dems,” he said. “We’ve accepted the result of the referendum and moved on. What’s important though is that the promises to the people of Scotland that were made during the campaign are delivered upon.”
However his internal campaign material does call the seat a “step on the road” to independence. And while their candidate is savvy enough to avoid the issue for now, his volunteers, including 50-year-old economic consultant Helen Smith, are still fighting the referendum campaign: “This campaign is about committing to the long haul in the battle for independence.”
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