Counting Costs

I am political. I always have been. But in the recent election campaign I was moved enough to get out and campaign, taking election day off work to campaign on doorsteps and attend the count, for Labour in Edinburgh Eastern. Our candidate was Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour Leader and my friend from University.

Lothian’s count took pace in the cavernous main hall of the Highland Show complex at Ingliston. The night’s first task was sampling ballot boxes to build a picture and prediction. This involves watching the ballot boxes come in from behind a barrier, and watching the counters sort out ballots, noting when possible where the cross lies. There are obviously tight rules about how close you can be as a party rep, and also strict rules about phones, and cameras. So no pictures of ballots.

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When sampling was concluded, time for conjecture and theorising to start. It was clear going in that it would be a difficult evening for us as a party and directly, and personally for some brilliant, dedicated public servants and their staff. I care about the cause. And I wanted to be there, to demonstrate my commitment as a relatively new member and activist to taking forward the ideals for which some of the people losing their seats or jobs had fought.

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Murmurs begin…we know that winning in our seat is nigh on impossible, given the size of the SNP majority In other areas we are less sure. We feel that there is a hope in Edinburgh Southern, where Daniel Johnson, a young local businessman has fought a really decent campaign. His team look pensive, and excited.

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It’s an interesting count to be at. Two party leaders, Kez, and the Conservative Ruth Davidson are directly involved so there is a lot of media presence. Ruth Davidson is standing in Central Edinburgh, and the murmurs are telling us that it’s very close between the SNP, The Conservatives, the Green Alison Johnstone and our own Sarah Boyack. Sarah is a natural, a minister in the first devolved Scottish Cabinet and MSP since 1999, she knows Edinburgh like nobody else, is pragmatic, and has big plans for the environment and land reform. But if Daniel Johnson wins his seat, the list system may mean that Sarah doesn’t get elected from the list if she doesn’t win Central.

Another murmur is that another close university friend, Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton is doing very well in Edinburgh Western. He had fought several brave campaigns throughout the coalition years without compromising his beliefs. He also gets mental health and young people’s mental health. The campaign there has been bruising and everyone has a hope that he will do well. I meet his wife…who is cautiously optimistic.

As midnight passes, results begin to arrive, and as expected, it’s not good for us. But. It looks like it isn’t going to be the SNP clean sweep of constituencies people predicted. The Liberal Democrats hold Orkney…word is their leader Willie Rennie is leading in North East Fife. Equally, the Conservative vote looks much stronger in several places, and they begin to do well in the South of Scotland, before taking a seat in the North East. The conservative surge becomes part of the story, and Ruth Davidson arrives at the count in a blaze of flashlights.

We are now getting fairly confident that Daniel has managed to take Edinburgh Southern from the SNP’s Jim Eadie. We Hear the Kez is on her way, and as local party members we feel very loyal, especially when there are so many personal attacks on her, and attacks on the party from within before votes are in.

Everyone wants to speak to Kez on her way in at 3am.

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The first declaration of the evening is imminent. It’s Western. And it appears that Alex may have edged it.

He hasn’t. He’s won by 3,000 votes. Testament to local work on the ground. After a lot of awful news, it’s personally quite a moving moment.

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We hear that Iain Gray, former Labour Leader and MSP for East Lothian, next door, has won in Haddington. A huge boost for everyone in the room.

It’s becoming clearer that Daniel Johnson has done very well, and the Southern declaration is due soon.

But before that Central. We are pretty sure the game is up for Sarah, but we also know the Greens and the Conservatives have done well. The declaration comes and Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader takes the seat with just over 10,000 votes in a five way split vote. This is a huge kick. Don’t get me wrong she had a brilliant campaign and she won but it’s proof to many that the years of Tory jokes are over…and in fact the years of Labour jokes might be ahead. It visibly rocks many of our activists who have been involved since the Thatcher years, and through devolution and the New labour years with the Tories in exile. There are dignified tears. I don’t photograph the grief. We are distracted by two young SNP activists wailing at the injustice.

Meantime, Ruth heads to the TV interview stations. It’s interrupted by the celebrations of the SNP Edinburgh Pentlands activists, cheering their victor.

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Edinburgh North and Leith declares. Having been held since 1999 by Labour veteran Malcolm Chisholm, personally able to stem the SNP tide till now, it falls to a new, idealistic SNP candidate who gives the most magnanimous and inclusive SNP victory speech of the evening.

And so to Southern. The hopes of all the remaining Labour activists in the room are with Daniel. Old men, young student volunteers, MSPs, now former MSPs, councillors and party staff…

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Daniel is welcomed to the stage…

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And he’s done it.

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The release of tension and investment in hope is clear. This is what winning looks like, and we need to bottle it…

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Every camera in Britain is on Daniel as he makes his acceptance speech. A new MSP, unseating an SNP incumbent, possibly a glimmer of hope for the type of talent and approach Scottish Labour will need for the future.Jim Eadie, the beaten SNP incumbent gives an emotional speech, reflecting on his highlights…especially on equal marriage. Mr. Eadie chaired the Cross Party Group on Health Inequalities and when I dealt with him personally I found him helpful and interested.

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But the night…well morning belongs to Daniel. In the crowd, and there is a crowd, we are all cheering, listening and thinking. From the top down.

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A victory on a night of challenge. I leave Daniel to enjoy with his team and head home as the sun rises. Very different to the feelings I had at the same time on the morning of the 2nd May 1997, the last time I was involved to this degree…

It’s a long road back. No map. Nothing out or in. Equally nothing happened that I hadn’t half expected, at least for us. Bruising. But I am staying, and I back Kez’s leadership 100%

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