As signs of the changing times go, it’s a close-run thing in Alloa between the local MP’s street stall sharing pavement space with a Syrian minimart and that MP being a Tory.
Luke Graham is the first Conservative to win Ochil and South Perthshire or its predecessor seats since James Wellwood Johnston, who wasn’t even a Conservative but a Unionist and held the area for a single term in the 1930s.
The 34-year-old is hoping Ochil will break the habit of generations and keep him in a job after December 12. Graham’s case for re-election hinges on three claims: the Tories will get Brexit done, they won’t allow Nicola Sturgeon another referendum, and Graham has brought UK Government investment to the constituency.
Arriving at Alloa railway station recently, Graham’s chances of holding onto his 3,000-vote majority appeared mixed to me. Almost every lamppost, railing, sign and statue was plastered in pro-independence stickers, only they read ‘Annibyniaeth i Gymru’ — independence for Wales. Perhaps Graham’s calls for the Nationalists to stop banging on about Scottish independence could have been more precisely-worded.
The candidate and a gaggle of volunteers left their comrades on the high street stall and headed off to canvass Alloa Park, a new-ish estate that Graham lost in 2017. ‘I want to take you somewhere where opinion is mixed,’ he says, and the early responses confirm. After a run of pro-SNP, pro-Labour and anti-Tory households, he turns and smiles: ‘You’re a jinx.’
While stuffing a leaflet through a letterbox, Graham almost falls victim to that perennial peril of the election campaigner — an angry dog. Luckily, he yanks his hand back out just in time. He is joined by Alexander Stewart, MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and one of those happy warriors for whom the Tories are always on the up. If a Rottweiler tried to maul him on the doorstep, he’d put it down as a ‘maybe’.
Graham’s temperament is largely unsuited to combative politics and yet all the more appealing for it. ‘The chances of me voting for a Tory are very, very slim,’ one householder admits, explaining that he knows the Labour candidate.
‘Oh Lorna?’ Graham replies. ‘Lorna’s great.’
His main rival in this contest is Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-independence candidate John Nicolson. In 2015, Nicolson sought SNP selection for North Ayrshire and Arran, Midlothian, Linlithgow and East Falkirk, and West Dunbartonshire. He was finally successful in East Dunbartonshire and took the seat from Jo Swinson in the General Election, only for her to take it back in 2017.
After his electoral tour of all the other shires, is it time for Ochil and South Perthshire to take one for the team?
Graham, who lives in the constituency, says: ‘I don’t want to talk about my opponents. I’d rather talk about what we’re trying to do to be positive for Ochil and South Perthshire. It will be for John Nicolson to explain to our constituency why we’re good enough now as his sixth choice for a parliamentary seat.’
Nicolson has since compounded his problem by referring to the constituency as ‘East Dunbartonshire’ in a hustings.
Graham’s decision to take the high road may be politically naive but it is admirable given the personal attacks he has come in for lately. During the selection process, a local SNP councillor pledged to ‘send him homeward’. Graham lives in Auchterarder but his mother is English. In March, unknown individuals turned up at his constituency office and barracked one of his aides while she worked late, shouting that ‘in an independent Scotland all of you will be hanging’ and ‘I can’t wait to come and drag you from this office and get you to the noose’.
Graham’s measured style of politics may serve him well in this contest, since his constituents seem far from enamoured by hot-headedness. One voter who works for a firm that trades on the Continent laments the ongoing uncertainty: ‘We need to get Brexit done so people like me know where we stand.’ He is firmly against the idea of a second referendum on Scexit.
Steven Kidd, whom we catch heading out for some Saturday morning exercise, says: ‘It doesn’t come down to the candidate for me, it’s the bigger picture. I want to hear more of their policies.’
Mr Kidd, who voted No in 2014 and Remain in 2016, says he’s ‘now more towards independence than I was then because I’m not convinced leaving the EU is a good thing’. He wants the government to ‘do something to clear up the uncertainty because we need clarity’ over Brexit. Still he’s sceptical of the argument about ‘getting Brexit done’ — ‘’if you don’t think something is a good idea, why would you want to get it over and done with?’
‘There’s only really two options here. It will come down to a last-minute decision on which one I prefer. The SNP wants one thing, at the end of the day, and I don’t want that. But the Tories want one thing too — Brexit — and I don’t want that either. Where do you go?’
It is up to Graham and his volunteers to convince voters like Mr Kidd if they don’t want the seat to fall back into the SNP’s hands. Graham has double the numer of activists out for him than last time. His every waking second is coordinated by campaign manager Moira Benny, and she would schedule a few somnambulant leaflet drops if she could. Every campaign needs a Moira, a phone-juggling, door-knocking, clipboard-waving dervish of organisation.
The political journey that led her to working for a Tory MP is… unconventional. The daughter of a miner, she has previously been both homeless and dependent on benefits, the latter of which she praises as ‘a hand-up, not a hand-out’ and credits with getting her back on her feet. The safety net allowed her to secure a series of jobs that culminated in signing onto Graham’s campaign in 2017, the same year she joined the Conservative Party. She had previously been a Green.
Benny is the life force of Graham’s campaign and if energy was all that counted, her candidate would be returned in a landslide. Teddy Taylor used to call them ‘the folk who don’t live in big hooses’ and his spiritual successor, here at Graham’s side today but bound to find herself in Holyrood one day, is determined her party doesn’t forget the folk in the wee hooses.
Richard Fells’ house is neither big nor wee but, despite voting Remain in 2016, he will be casting his ballot for the Tories.
‘I have always voted Conservative,’ he explains. ‘I was in business and the Conservatives are the party of business.’
Has Brexit not shaken his confidence?
‘I was for Remain but I am also a democrat and the people voted,’ he tells me, shaking his head, ‘so we have to leave;,
What about the prospect of a second referendum on indep—
‘I was born British,’ comes the response. ‘I am a Unionist and I will go on being a Unionist until my dying day. I have my doubts about Boris, bless him, but we need him to get a majority and get on with Brexit.’
Words like these are exactly what Graham, who campaigned for Remain, wants to hear. His pitch, like that of other Scottish Tory candidates, is to get off the constitutional roundabout and back to local services and investment.
He says: ‘The main message for me, nationally, is sort Brexit. There is a deal on the table with the EU, so I want to get that through and move forward. I don’t want another independence referendum. Those are the two big national messages.
‘Locally, it’s continuing with local action. I’ve held over 300 surgeries since I was elected, helped over 8,000 constituents and got £8million for Clackmannanshire from the UK Government. I’m pushing for geothermal energy to be used from the old mines. In south Perthshire, we’ve got a world-leading cycling facility being built and got money for Crieff so we can start regeneration that too. We’ve got parking getting sorted in Auchterarder.
‘There are a lot of projects and investments and schemes that we’re getting going across the constituency and that’s what I want to be doing — something positive.’
With two weeks to go, Graham will have to weather a lot more negativity to be in with a chance of bringing positive politics back to the Commons.