Labour plot General Election 2024 comeback in Lothian East for big-hitter Douglas Alexander

When we meet Douglas Alexander in popular North Berwick cafe Cake, he’s waiting on a bacon roll.

Cue the inevitable jokes about how we better not film him eating it. No politician in an election campaign wants to pull ‘an Ed Miliband’ by repeating that infamous 2015 tussle with a bacon sarnie.

In Alexander, Labour have a candidate in Lothian East with experience and star power - a former New Labour heavyweight who served as a minister under Blair and Brown.

It’s Labour’s top Scottish target: back when it was still called East Lothian, it was the closest they came in 2019 against Nicola Sturgeon’s dominant SNP.

Alexander thinks things are very different now. “What’s very striking is many of the issues here in East Lothian are common to people right across the country.

“A sense of being pretty scunnered with both governments that they’re suffering at the moment, concerns about the cost of living… an almost imprisoning cynicism that says, it’s rubbish, all politicians do is make things worse for you.

“I understand that feeling.” He slams the “cruelty and incompetence” of the Tories while claiming he “can’t think of an area where public life in Scotland has got better” under the SNP.

He added: “We’re going to have to re-win the argument that politics can be a force for good in people’s lives. It actually reminds me of 1997 in that sense.”

Alexander was memorably ousted by the SNP’s Mhairi Black in his old Paisley and Renfrewshire North constituency when Labour was routed in Scotland in 2015.

Since then, he’s had a glitzy post-Westminster career, working as a senior fellow at Harvard University and even becoming an advisor to U2 singer Bono on global poverty.

I put to him that he’s a classic case of a big name being parachuted into a seat with little local connection. But Alexander, who has since moved to the county with his family, insisted: “I was selected by hundreds of local Labour party members [last February] in a pretty hotly contested selection.

“I was delighted to win that selection and since then, I've been out on the doors pretty much every week - and we're out three times a day at the moment.”

If elected, he believes he’ll return to Westminster “a bit older, with a few more grey hairs, but also wiser, and with an impatience and an urgency to make change happen”.

As for the SNP, they haven’t had their troubles to seek here. They won with Kenny MacAskill five years ago - but then, in 2021, he defected to Alex Salmond’s Alba Party, becoming one of its first two MPs.

For months, the Nationalists had their candidate for this general election lined up, local man Iain Whyte.

But at the last minute, he stepped back for health reasons - with the SNP’s leader in East Lothian Council, Lyn Jardine, coming in to replace him.

She’s frank that it’s not what she expected. “I felt like it was something I had to do. I wouldn’t say it was thumbscrews but yeah, there was gentle pressure to do it,” Jardine told us in Haddington. “But I’m totally enjoying the campaign.”

And she vows to be no pushover for Alexander - and points to her own party’s experience with MacAskill as a high-profile candidate who some locals claim was rarely actually around.

Jardine said: “People that voted for Kenny as an SNP MP felt slightly betrayed - and I think the Labour party putting up Douglas risks, for them, him being seen as more of the same.

“Last week it was highlighted that he’s possibly a shoo-in for a ministerial post - well, why would you want somebody who’s going to have their eye on that?

“That’s where I’m absolutely committed to the constituency.”

Jardine is referring to the rumours that Alexander may immediately be lined up for a plum job in a Starmer Cabinet - with the post of Foreign Secretary cropping up in press speculation.

Alexander tries to shoot this down. “Listen, I’m a big fan of the Daily Record, but you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” he said.

“When they even have to put ‘rumours’ in the headline, you know it’s unsourced nonsense.”

Alba’s new candidate here George Kerevan - himself a former SNP MP for East Lothian from 2015 to 2017 - is quick to defend ex-MP MacAskill who is now running in Alloa and Grangemouth instead.

“Kenny said he was only going to serve one term here in East Lothian,” Kerevan said. “He was looking for a quiet retirement but then suddenly he got very animated by the prospect of Grangemouth, [Scotland’s] only oil refinery, being closed down.”

For Kerevan, speaking to us in Tranent, it’s all about independence. “This cost of living crisis is not going away and we need something fundamental to change it,” he said.

Not to be forgotten in Lothian East, however the polls look, are the Tories. In recent elections they’ve turned this seat into a three-way marginal, ending up just 500 votes shy of the SNP in 2017.

That reflects the county’s reputation as a ‘microcosm’ of Scotland at large - with its mix of affluent and less well-off areas, towns and countryside, coastal beauty spots, fishing villages and ex-mining communities.

Tory candidate and Borders councillor Scott Hamilton said: “I think a lot of people are liking a fresh face and a breath of fresh air coming into this campaign.

“We’ve got former MPs running for this seat and I think they want change, and the only way they can get change is voting Conservative.”

But back in North Berwick, after Alexander has devoured his roll and bacon, we join Labour for a door-knocking session where we witness a Tory nightmare unfold in real time

In the first house where anyone’s in, a voter comes out to tell Alexander he’s voted Conservative all his life - but not this time.

For the first time ever, this year Labour has his vote.

The seasoned politician rolls out the old cliche of not taking votes any for granted. Of course not. But he must fancy his chances.

What do locals think?

Joy Barnard, Haddington

“I’m going to vote Labour for the first time in my life. I’ve been an SNP voter for many years. I feel we need change in Westminster and while my heart is still with independence, I think for the time being it should be taking a backseat.”

Frank Neate, Aberlady

“I’ve got a bone to pick with the politicians on all sides about raw sewage being dumped in Aberlady Bay. I’m inclined to go with the Lib Dems because they’ve shown a willingness to talk about this issue.”

Liz Mackay, Tranent

“I don’t know which party I’m going to pick and I’ve always voted Labour. There’s no message that convinces me. I’ve got a child with assisted needs, I need help with that, that’s not coming through. The NHS and care is a big issue here.”

Joe Olynec, Drem

“They’re building all these new houses in East Lothian but very little affordable houses. The infrastructure is not there. All of this is a bit of a worry, actually. I thought I knew who I was going for but now I’ve turned 360 degrees - but I’d rather not say!”

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