LABOUR stands its “best chance for generations” of electoral success in the Borders at the Holyrood polls, according to its prospective candidate, writes Andrew Keddie.
Former senior union official Rab Stewart was confirmed this week as the party’s prospective candidate for the redrawn Scottish Parliamentary seat of Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire on May 5.
Mr Stewart, 59, who has lived in Selkirk for nearly 40 years, won grass roots support at a hustings meeting before Christmas in the Salmon Inn, Galashiels.
While he says he will not run a negative campaign, the he admitted this week that his decision to stand was influenced by the formation of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition at Westminster and its programme of public spending cuts.
“I have been encouraged to put my hat in the ring not only by Labour activists, but also by Lib Dems and even Tories who feel they and their principles have been betrayed by an alliance hell-bent on cutting the deficit, regardless of the huge and divisive costs to society,” said Mr Stewart.
“But above all, I fear for the impact on the Borders where the economy is weak. The proposition that the private sector will step into the breach and re-employ the legions of public service workers who will lose their jobs is, frankly, ridiculous.
“Like many people, I was prepared to give the coalition the benefit of the doubt and I accepted that Labour, although not, in my view, responsible for the deficit, had lost its way towards the end of its administration.
“But what has happened since has appalled me and I simply cannot stand by and watch without trying to do something to protect jobs in the Borders and give the lie to the myth that this is all Labour’s fault.”
Penicuik-born Mr Stewart joined the Labour party in 1979: the same year that he began work as an industrial officer with the former Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) in Galashiels. In 1992 he moved to the union’s Edinburgh office, serving as regional organiser for south-east Scotland and sitting on the Agricultural Wages Board.
During his career, he represented workers in the private and public sectors, negotiating on a national level in textiles.
He was the election agent for the late Neil Glen who stood for Labour in Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale in the 1987 General Election.
Mr Stewart, who is married with four children, took early retirement in March 2010, from Unite, the union formed on the amalgamation of the TGWU and Amicus.
He admits he faces an uphill task, given Labour’s showing in Roxburgh and Berwickshire in 2007 when Mary Lockhart polled only 8.2 per cent of the vote, trailing in fourth behind Tory John Lamont, the Lib Dem Euan Robson and the SNP’s Aileen Orr.
Mr Lamont and Mr Robson will do battle again in the new constituency, which includes the Scottish Borders Council ward of Selkirkshire, while Paul Wheelhouse will go for the SNP.
Labour fared better in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk at the 2010 general election, with Ian Miller grabbing a 10.2 per cent vote share and coming third behind Michael Moore and Mr Lamont, with Mr Wheelhouse in fourth place. Mr Miller will fight the new Holyrood seat of Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale in May.
But Mr Stewart believes the political landscape has changed beyond recognition and that traditional supporters of the Lib Dems, along with many Conservatives, are “thoroughly disillusioned”.
“I spoke to Ian Miller before deciding to stand and he was very supportive,” said Mr Stewart. “He believes we can build on the good work he and his team did in the Borders last year.
“There is a real sense of betrayal among many voters who feel they were conned into thinking they were embracing values that have now been thrown on a bonfire by politicians. These disaffected voters are looking for a party they can trust.
“We are still a rich country and should be using our wealth not to cut jobs and destroy our ability to compete, but to create opportunities for our youth.
“When we were in our worst ever crisis after the war, Labour introduced the National Health Service and the Welfare State.
“At that time we had been forced into debt by fighting fascism; today our hand has been forced by the way banks conducted their business based on greed. It was nothing to do with the policies of the Labour government.
“I’m certain Labour has its best chance for generations to give the Borders a true voice, so often muffled in the past by tactical voting.”