Who can go the distance? #GE2015 look-ahead for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East

Written by Scott Campbell.
Published at 00:42 on 18 December 2014.
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Counting for the independence referendum, at Ravenscraig. Picture is courtesy of Bill Henry.
THE UK Parliamentary General Election is now some twenty weeks away; and, with the official campaign for what is being dubbed ‘#GE2015’, in this world of Twitter retweets, Instagram likes and Facebook shares approaching this Friday (19 December) – which is when Electoral Commission regulation kicks in - it’s time to consider the possibilities locally. 

In Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, the battle-lines are being drawn – and the two main contenders have been lined up – but who can go the distance, that’s the question. 

Back in 2010, Labour’s Rosemary McKenna announced her retirement – her announcement was made public on Friday 3 August, 2007, to be specific. Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East Labour Partnership was then left to search for a potential contender; Councillors Danny Carrigan and Bob Chadha announced they would consider going forward for selection. The favourite was on a young contender, called Gregg McClymont.

A former speech writer for former Foreign Secretary Dr John Reid, Gregg was already well-respected within Labour Party ranks. Ironically, when asked about his likelihood to stand, he told the Cumbernauld News, “I am interested but it is too early to say anything significant about this."

After much searching, Glasgow University graduate, and Kildrum lad, Gregg McClymont was selected. His selection was confirmed at a Party meeting in Cumbernauld New Town Hall on Sunday 10 February 2008. The SNP had chosen Julie Hepburn, wife to then Central Scotland SNP MSP, Jamie Hepburn. 

With campaigners sniffing blood, many assumed that the General Election would be called sharpish, as Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister became more unstable, minute by minute, in the eyes of commentators. A snap election was never called – and, what was expected to be a short campaign, became a battle over some two years.

McClymont went with the line ‘A future fair for all’, and sought to assure the constituency’s then 64,037-strong electorate that, “This community has given me so many opportunities - now I want to give something back.” 

Hepburn chose to adopt the national SNP strategy and urged voters to ‘elect a local champion’. She chose to make four main commitments to residents throughout the constituency, promising to: “Listen. Be Accessible. Work for you. Be Honest.”

Battle-lines were drawn on issues such as the future of the town’s HMRC Tax Office site, Post Office closures and pensions. McClymont, though, spoke to local voters – he was the local lad who went on to study at the Universities of Glasgow, Pennsylvania and Oxford – where he undertook a PhD in history, in 1999. He was keen, intelligent – and thanks to the person vote gathered up by McKenna, a shoo-in to hold the constituency. 

Thursday 6 May 2010 was the date of the 2010 election. In Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, 41,150 people cast their ballot - 64.26% of the 64,037-strong electorate – slightly below the 65.1 per cent national turnout. 

The final results were declared at 2:15am on Friday 7 May 2010. Labour held the seat, with an increased majority. McClymont had taken 23,549 votes (57.23%), up 5.4% from the 2005 elections; and, Hepburn won 9,794 votes (23.80%), up 1.6% from the previous election. 

Rod Ackland from the Liberal Democrats won 3,924 votes (9.54%), down 5.3% on the 2005 results; Stephanie Fraser, from the Conservatives earned 3,407 votes (8.28%), up 1.3% from five years beforehand; and, finally, William O’Neill from the Scottish Socialist Party took 476 votes (1.16%) – down 1.8% on the 2005 results. 

McClymont had therefore racked up a 13,755 vote majority – up from the 11,562 majority enjoyed by McKenna in the 2005 General Election. Back then, a fresh faced Jamie Hepburn had stepped into the frame. Standing for the SNP, Jamie Hepburn won 8,689 votes for his party in 2005; his wife, Julie, improved on this in 2010, taking 9,794 votes. The movement wasn’t enough though.

Little seems to have happened since the 2010 election, in terms of local political issues. The future of the HMRC Cumbernauld Tax Office site and the potential for the franchising of Cumbernauld’s main crown post office, in Cumbernauld town centre are still important issues, locally. They are mixed in with other issues, surrounding the redevelopment of the town, and savings in the budget of North Lanarkshire Council, now, as we approach the 2015 General Election. 

The issues may be similar – if not identical to 2010 – but the landscape has changed. The Scottish independence referendum, on 18 September 2014, has changed the political landscape of Scotland; and, despite losing the referendum, the Scottish National Party has grown from strength-to-strength; its political muscle is dangerous to opponents, and as the election nears, the party will undoubtedly flex its muscle and show its strength – ‘Stronger for Scotland’ looks to be the slogan.

People feel engaged and enthused by politics in Scotland; and, with some 94,000 members – some 1,300 of them in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth – the SNP look set to become a significant political force in the months ahead, with the army of activists already being rallied and sent round the doors. 

For the army of members amassed for the SNP in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, the campaigning never stopped; and, ever since the referendum, members have been trudging the pavements, knocking on doors and fending off dogs in a concentrated effort to deliver an SNP gain in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, next May. Their campaign was brought back to life in late October 2014 – one month after the referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country – with thousands of doors already leaflets, and hundreds of voters already spoken to. Now, with a candidate in place, the New Year will signal all-out political warfare across the constituency, as SNP activists are buoyed by favourable polls, and an appetite for change. 

36-year-old Stuart McDonald was confirmed as the party’s selection for the candidacy earlier this month. A resident of Milton of Campsie; a solicitor before working at the Scottish Parliament and then as part of the Yes Scotland HQ team, McDonald is the man local Nationalists hope will lead them to victory over Labour’s Gregg McClymont; and, they have reason to be hopeful.

The landscape has changed immensely since the independence referendum. Throughout North Lanarkshire, 115,783 votes were cast for Yes and a total of 110,922 votes were cast for No – meaning North Lanarkshire voted ‘Yes’ to Scotland becoming an independent country. Ballot sampling by the ‘Yes Cumbernauld and Kilsyth’ campaign appeared to show support for independence in the constituency was around the 58 per cent mark, while official results from North Lanarkshire Council show that 51.96% of votes across the wider Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Northern Corridor counting area backed a ‘Yes’ vote on September 18th.

Labour’s Gregg McClymont has dismissed the Yes Cumbernauld and Kilsyth figures, claiming “The Scottish National Party are scrambling now to claim some sort of success for their campaign as they search for direction.” However, the Labour MP was heard saying at the Ravenscraig Regional Sports Centre – where the count was held, for North Lanarkshire, that the results were concerning. 

Since then, McClymont has tried to shift the local political agenda onto the NHS and cost of living; and, in criticising the Yes Cumbernauld vote figures, he said: “Only Labour can beat the Tories and with our commitment to an energy price freeze, saving the NHS, a new £8 an hour minimum wage and getting people back to work are exactly the kind of change we need in Scotland.” However, other issues are stirring up in the background – which mean that the battle for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East is well and truly open. 

Mr McDonald, the SNP’s prospective parliamentary candidate for the area would need a 16.7132% swing to his party to take the constituency from Labour. The national polls – which predict a Labour wipe-out in Scotland – currently suggest there will be around a 19% swing from Labour to the SNP, if a General Election was called tomorrow. Therefore, on raw statistics, it is possible that Labour might lose Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. Figures aren’t all that are necessary to be outlined, though – local issues are important, and it will be the candidate who can deliver for the area that will win. 

Kilsyth and the eastern part of Kirkintilloch, which makes up the remainder of the constituency will have their own issues. However, in Cumbernauld, issues preying on the minds of people in the community include the future of the HMRC Tax Office, the redevelopment of the town, the rebuilds of Cumbernauld Academy and Greenfaulds High School, unconventional gas extraction, the proposed franchising of the town centre Post Office, as well as new stores for the town – such as the soon-to-be Morrisons, an alleged new Aldi store, and controversial plans for a Tesco on Condorrat Main Street. So, who can win of each of them?

The future of the HMRC Tax Office goes to the SNP.

The lease on the building on St Mungo’s Road is expected to be reviewed around 2020, with no express guarantee of what will happen once the lease it up. According to some, Labour have been deafeningly silent on the matter – until the referendum, that is. 

In late August 2014, McClymont appeared for a quick photo-call outside the Tax Office, alongside Scottish Labour’s then deputy leader, Anas Sarwar and former Scottish Secretary, Jim Murphy. Their warning was that the 1,400 jobs at the site would be lost if Scotland voted for independence. 

The Scottish Labour Party shared an image of the trio outside the office, with the caption, “1400 jobs at HMRC in Cumbernauld are dependent on us staying in the UK”, as part of a warning that a ‘Yes’ vote in the independence referendum would have devastated Cumbernauld.

Cumbernauld and Kilsyth’s SNP MSP, Jamie Hepburn was scathing of the threat. “Rather than inventing threats, Mr McClymont should be holding the UK Government to account for the real and present threat of job losses which are hanging over the heads of some 43 employees and their families,” Mr Hepburn said, in reacting to Mr McClymont’s remarks.

John Miller, PCS Cumbernauld Revenue and Customs Office Secretary was just as critical. He called the remarks from McClymont “unacceptable”, and in a letter to Cumbernauld Media he said: “The continuation of the UK cuts means that 43 of our members face redundancy and an uncertain future. The planned privatisation of jobs in the Cumbernauld site alongside the 20,000 job cuts budgeted for by HMRC does not envisage a better future for our members or for the public.”

The whole sorry saga came after an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on July 22, 2014, when McClymont secured a debate on the future of HMRC in Scotland. The MP chose to focus on how independence might threaten HMRC sites in Scotland, rather than raise the issue of the future of Cumbernauld Tax Office.

In his opening remarks on the debate, Mr McClymont told the House of Commons: “More than 9,000 of those posts are in Scotland. In percentage terms, 13% of UK HMRC staff are in Scotland, a significantly above-population-share of the total. More than 3,000 more posts are allocated in Scotland than a population share would provide. That is testimony to the excellent job that Scottish HMRC staff in Cumbernauld, in East Kilbride and elsewhere provide. It is hard to argue otherwise than that this indeed is a Scottish HMRC jobs dividend. Leaving the United Kingdom would bring to an end Scotland’s role in HMRC. That is surely uncontroversial—a fact, not an opinion.”

Jamie Hepburn, SNP MSP for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth hit back. He attacked the town’s Labour MP, claiming he let the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition “off the hook” on redundancies at the HMRC site in Cumbernauld, adding: “Having secured a debate on job security at the Tax Office at a time when the Tory cuts are threating 40 local posts I find it remarkable that Mr McClymont chose to focus on anything else in his contribution.”

Combined with numerous failed attendances at the picket line, McClymont has become a much maligned figure within the Tax Office, while Jamie Hepburn (who has attended a number of the picket lines on various strike days) is seen as standing up for the site’s future. The matter wasn’t helped, after Mr McClymont cautiously said, “I don’t rule out coming to the picket line. I look at every issue on the matter, and it would depend on the issue(s) surrounding the strike,” in response to a question at a PCS independence question and answer session, in September 2014. Mr Hepburn, incidentally, said “yes”, outright.

Stuart McDonald – the SNP contender in the 2015 General Election – has made protecting jobs at the site a key pillar of his campaign; and, amid weak support for Labour, its round one to the SNP.

The redevelopment of the town is a middle ground.

Most voters believe that all politicians are the same; and, much of the development that is coming to Cumbernauld being delivered mainly through local community groups and fundraising, the issue over the town’s redevelopment will simply come down to whoever promises the least, but can deliver the most. 

The rebuilds of Cumbernauld Academy and Greenfaulds High School is split; Cumbernauld Academy goes to the SNP, while Greenfaulds goes to Labour.

Cumbernauld Academy came into being in August 2014, when the now demolished Abronhill High School was amalgamated with Cumbernauld High School. The issue was a contentious one – and one that voters in Abronhill look set to remember for years to come. 

The closure of Abronhill High School was announced as a proposed saving back in September 2012 - the community’s children became numbers to the council; and, Cumbernauld’s Labour mob went silent, whilst the consultations got underway. 

The SNP stood with the Save Abronhill High School campaign through thick and thin – and voted against the plans to close the school and merge it with Cumbernauld High School. Abronhill, Kildrum and The Village’s Labour Councillor Stephen Grant, was firmly in the sightlines of many parents and pupils after the whole saga, after he announced to a packed consultation meeting, in early 2013, that he was, to some extent, against the proposals, before uttering in the same sentence that he would follow the party line regardless. 

Campaigners smelt blood after the council voted on February 6, 2013, to ‘rationalise’ the schools; and, after feeling vilified, Labour Councillors Stephanie Muir and Allan Graham approached the Cumbernauld News to explain their rationale for voting in favour of rationalisation. 

To this day, campaigners are still anti-Labour; most of the main campaign group have since joined the SNP; and, with the promised new build of Cumbernauld Academy appearing to some as moving slowly, it seems as if the issue doesn’t play in Labour’s favour. Round three to the SNP.

The rebuild of Greenfaulds High School, on the other hand, plays into Labour’s ballpark. Ever since I packed my bags for the last time at primary school, and started marching through the halls of Greenfaulds – in 2005 – the promise of a new build been swirling around. The dream now looks set to become a reality – as funding through the Scottish Futures Trust was secured by North Lanarkshire Council, while a planning application is now processing through the council system. Round four therefore goes to Labour. 

Unconventional gas extraction goes to the SNP.

At the very outset of welcoming his selection, Scottish Nationalist, Stuart McDonald announced he was and is against the process of unconventional gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking’. To date, the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialists have had the strongest policy, nationally – fracking shouldn’t go ahead. The SNP’s policy has been less strong, nationally.

For instance, at the party’s Annual Autumn Conference, in Perth, on 14 November, the party passed a resolution that called for "caution in considering any proposals for farming shale gas by fracking in Scotland so that Scotland remains a country which is internationally renowned for clean, environmentally friendly energy generation.”

In Cumbernauld, however, the SNP has been a lot more vocal. Cumbernauld South SNP Councillor, Paddy Hogg seems to be leading the charge; and, actively seeking for North Lanarkshire Council to adopt of policy of calling for a moratorium on fracking, Cllr Hogg is engaged in trying to change council policy, alongside other elected members too, of course. Labour, meanwhile, appear to be silent, in the eyes of many. 

The first comment released by incumbent MP, Gregg McClymont came earlier this week, when he hit out at the SNP Scottish Government, and claimed that, “the SNP voted against a shale gas moratorium in Holyrood earlier this year,” claiming that the SNP is “maintaining the false pretence” that they are powerless to stop fracking in Scotland. Local voters and campaigners, though, see it as a cop-out, particularly after the MP failed to vote on a second reading of the controversial Infrastructure Bill, currently going through the UK Parliament. On unconventional gas extraction, therefore, it’s game-set-and-match to the SNP.

The proposed franchising of the town centre Post Office goes to Labour.

On the future of the Post Office, nobody can fault local MP, Gregg McClymont, for his persistence on the issue. Cumbernauld and Kilsyth SNP MSP, Jamie Hepburn has been active on the matter, but by organising a number of public meetings on the issue, in addition to writing out mass letters to constituents on the plans to change Post Office services in Cumbernauld, McClymont – and Labour – has won this round.

For instance, Mr McClymont managed to organise a public meeting on the matter. Held on May 10 2013, the meeting was the public’s opportunity to ask questions of Post Office Ltd’s representatives and the company’s proposals to franchise the town’s crown Post Office, in Cumbernauld town centre. 

Following the meeting, Gregg McClymont told Cumbernauld Media: "The strong feeling of the meeting was that Cumbernauld's Crown Post Office must be protected… I will continue to press Government and Post Office to secure the future of our Crown Post Office."

Plans have since been launched for public consultation – plans that would see Cumbernauld crown Post Office moved from its Clyde Walk home to a vacant unit in Cumbernauld Shopping Centre. The move would see Cumbernauld Post Office undergo significant refurbishment; offer the same wide range of products and services; and be available longer – from 8:30am to 6pm, Monday to Saturday.

McClymont remains sceptical, however – and has taken up the issue as a campaign. Round six therefore goes to Labour.

New stores for the town – such as the soon-to-be Morrisons, an alleged new Aldi store, and controversial plans for a Tesco on Condorrat Main Street are a middle ground.

Construction works on a new Morrisons, adjacent to St Maurice’s High School is set to start next year, while Aldi are looking to set up shop somewhere in Cumbernauld, with Westway Retail Park understood to be a potential location. Additionally, Tesco Stores has confirmed that they intend to go forward with a planning application for a new store in Condorrat Main Street, after Social Club members backed proposals to sell off part of the Club to the supermarket chain - 137 votes to 34. The issue, however, is controversial, with protests held against the proposals, in April. Although public opinion is for the Morrisons and for an Aldi at Westway, opinion appears to be against a Tesco in Condorrat. This issue will therefore prove fertile political ground in the months ahead. 

So, what’s the verdict? People like short, one sentence conclusions to big discussions such as this; and, although it’s not easy to condense what has been raised in this article to one sentence, our verdict is that the SNP can win, but any success will take perseverance – on both sides; firstly, perseverance from Labour activists to hold back against a Nationalist surge, and secondly, perseverance on the part of SNP activists to battle on, if they want to see ‘SNP Gain’ against ‘Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East’, next May. Let the battle begin.
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