In the latest in our series of Scottish election reports from the Kinlochbervie Chronicle, the paper's political correspondent Ecclefechan Mackay (MA) abandons the Labour Party's political cavalcade to join the birchy Tavish Scott on the Liberal Democrat campaign trail. As we have come to expect from Mr Mackay's award-winning* journalistic talents, he has managed to tease out the logic underlying the oftimes faltering-looking Liberal campaign, regrettably missed by the lazy Central-belter hacks primarily responsible for covering this election campaign...
"Lib Dems hope for golden fleece..."Kinlochbervice Chronicle 1st of May
The SNP's Alex Salmond is not often to be spotted palpating a Soay's uterus, while his main opponent, Labour's Iain Gray, has explicitly denied ever wearing a Border cheviot's cervix as a comely if clumsy glove. Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and former Shetland sheep farmer Tavish Scott, by contrast, shows no such reserve. Campaigning in the Borders last week with his embattled Liberal colleague Jammy Pervs, an unphased Scott demonstrated his rural credentials by gamely going elbow-deep into Phylis, a local ewe, personally delivering her black-faced lamb to the horror and fascination of onlooking journalists. Widely interpreted in the Scottish metropolitan press as just another mucus and womb-smeared photo opportunity, emphasising the leader's rugged rural masculinity, mysteriously, sources in the Liberal campaign confirm that this birth was not an isolated incident. In a series of secret trips from Orkney to Arran, Mr Scott has been taking his midwifery talents to barns and fields across the country, personally delivering hundreds of new spring lambs over the last eight weeks of the campaign alone. It is understood that Scott has also been attempting to train up party colleagues to navigate new lambs out of ovine orifices, but without success. We sent our reporter, Ecclefechan Mackay (MA), to investigate this sticky conundrum and the real thinking behind the Liberals' abortive Holyrood campaign...
The central wall in the Liberal Democrat campaign HQ in Edinburgh's Clifton Terrace is dominated by a vast map of Scotland. Key battleground constituencies are picked out in optimistic yellow and incongruously, each is literally covered in clouds of sheep. "They're to remind us how far we've come," an enthusiastic young aide beams proudly, admiring the cluster of white puffs now dominating the Aberdeen Central constituency. "When we started, this map had less than half this number of sheep on it. It's been hard work, but we're confident that it'll pay off for the Liberal Democrats on the 5th of May".
Explaining the thinking behind the Liberals' unusual tactics, one senior party strategist concedes "our early canvassing returns were dire. We've made no bones about that. Tavish realised we had to change direction, and change quickly. It was pure luck that we realised early on in the campaign that there was a substantial correlation between the number of sheep in a community - and the likelihood that that constituency will be represented by a Liberal member of parliament. After that, our strategy became crystal clear. Get up those sheep numbers, hold up our vote. The evidence for this flock-to-flock Liberal ratio really is quite compelling." Tavish remains modest about his role: "Really, we began work five months ago, making sure our ewes were well tupped. Labour and the SNP are wasting their time on leaflets, posters, fliers - advertisements in papers. It's all bunk. We're feeling confident that this strategy will pay off."
While the other main political parties have been bussing activists to key constituencies in the last days of the campaign, the Liberals have been coordinating an ambitious strategy of livestock-transfers, moving hundreds of new sheep to the key battleground seats of Argyll and Bute, Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire and Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale in the hopes of holding on. "At first we were just slyly adding a few extra sheep to local flocks here and there and tucking one or two tups up the closes in Edinburgh Central and in Aberdeen. Now we have to keep track of dozens of new trailers a day", explains the party's visibly exhausted livestock coordinator and Orkney candidate, Liam McArthur.
However, an outbreak of an infectious sheep-melting disease in Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch has seen several flocks destroyed, significantly setting back the local campaign and dispiriting the Liberal Democrat activist base. He told us "I respect Tavish, but this strategy is a black-faced nonsense. There's no way we can get out enough sheep to make enough of a difference here now, I'm afraid. It's too little, too late". Another Highland party worker who did not wish to be named, John Farquhar Munro, 5'7", told the Chronicle, "Tavish's lost it. He's a sheep at the wheel."
Privately, Liberal sources admit they've already given up on winning in Edinburgh North and Leith, their imported livestock either scattering to different constituencies or accidentally drowning in the Firth of Forth. Other senior party figures have also expressed their doubts about their leader's sheepological focus, fearing that it will not resonate with the party's core voters in embattled urban seats. One disgruntled east-coast candidate told the Chronicle: "I've consistently argued that our thinly-stretched Liberal resources could be better deployed by actually speaking to voters, rather than furiously lambing and inseminating sheep. Instead of doorstepping folk in my constituency, I spend my mornings, days and evenings covered in snatch-gunk or wanking rams. To all of this, party HQ has turned a tin ear." Former Liberal MSP, Hugh McDonnell, who is understood to have resigned over the strategy, didn't hesitate to rack Mr Scott's lamb. "I'm astonished Tavish has stuck with this line throughout the campaign. This is just the sort of woolly thinking that got us involved in the coalition in the first place", he said. Independent expert on Scottish elections, Professor Mogg-Tallagher commented, "aren't they just conflating correlation and caution? Christ. Seriously? I'm fooking speechless."
However, the strategy has been well received in some quarters. Independent but absent-minded Galloway-based sheep farmer Ms Bo-Peep endorsed the party yesterday, citing its "sheep-friendly" policies. Campaigning in the Highlands this morning, Charles Kennedy MP noted the significantly increased quantity of sheep spoor and scraps of wool caught on barbed-wire in vital Liberal constituencies, describing these as a "tribute to the party's shear efforts". Thanks to their enhanced flocks, he continued "there’s every indication that in the closing stages of the campaign our traditional vote is shoring up in our favour." Tavish Scott similarly brushed off his colleagues' concerns. "We're the only party running a truly grassroots campaign. Don't believe me? Ask the sheep," he said. The campaign continues.
*Mr Mackay wishes me to make clear that the award in question was the "dog that looks most like its owner" competition. Ecclefechan took the first-place rosette at the Kinlochbervie Show in the mid-1990s .