When I arrive in the beautiful, remote constituency of North East Fife for tea with the local Liberal Democrat candidate, she is apologetic. “We might have to rush,” Wendy Chamberlain explains, “because CNN is here.”
And sure enough, when I join her as she knocks doors on the quaint residential streets of St Andrews, we are followed by a TV crew. With a large team of eager canvassers, a 50:50 parliament tote bag swinging over her arm and a big smile on her face, Chamberlain has to walk up the same driveway several times, to help the cameramen get the right shot. “I’m glad I took amateur dramatics as a wee’un,” she murmurs to me. This isn’t the only TV crew to have been here in recent days.
Later, a vaguely familiar face joins our group, notebook in hand: it’s Hugo Rifkind from the Times, here with a cameraman. “I’m feeling terribly unoriginal,” he jokes as he discovers he is far from the only journalist in this corner of north east Scotland. It’s a terribly mediagenic choice, North East Fife, and not just because of the allure of St Andrews, famed for its golfing, beaches, and the university where Prince William met Kate Middleton. There’s a memorable tagline for this constituency: at the last election, the SNP beat the Liberal Democrats by only two votes, making this the most marginal constituency in the UK.
The narrative of the two-vote margin is more helpful to some parties here than others, however, and of contested relevance two years on. As I discover over the course of my visit to the constituency, much of the battle for North East Fife is a struggle between the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and, indeed, the Conservatives, over how to frame the contest, and how to relate to that 2017 result.
Out on the doorsteps with Chamberlain, the tightness of the last result is the first thing she mentions in her quick pitch. “This is the most marginal seat in the UK in terms of Westminster elections,” I watch her say on doorstep after doorstep. “There were just two votes in it last time. We’re pro-UK, pro-EU,” she adds with a warm smile, typically met with an encouraging nod, and then it’s on to the next door. The margin has captured the imagination of voters in the seat and fired up party activists, she explains. “People even talk about the recount on the doorstep,” she laughs. Indeed, there were three memorable recounts to confirm the result in 2017.
The Liberal Democrats see North East Fife as a straight contest between themselves and the SNP: two pro-Remain parties in a strongly pro-EU seat (it voted 64 per cent to Remain, higher than the Scottish average). The seat also voted 55 per cent against independence, in line with the Liberal Democrats’ pro-union message, and they are keenly aware that this is a historically Liberal seat: it was former party leader Ming Campbell’s seat from 1987 until 2015, and the historic seat of East Fife was the constituency of the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith, as I am reminded many times that day. “We should be able to win it back. We should never have lost it in the first place,” says one in Chamberlain’s huge team of canvassers.
And indeed, this is a fight they are throwing everything at. In North East Fife, Liberal Democrats aren’t using the printed sheets and clipboards used by canvassers up and down the country, but instead MiniVAN, the canvassing app used by the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign. If all canvassing is an effort simply to assess where the party’s vote is and where it isn’t, this app allows the Liberal Democrats here to collect data and plan canvassing with maximum efficiency.
“We have very, very good data,” confides one canvasser in the team, who whispers conspiratorially about the “software given by the Democrats”. (When I later check, it turns out to have been a purchase by the Liberal Democrats, rather than a gift, but only parties aligned with the Democrats’ progressive values are given that right. The Liberal Democrats, I am told, are the only party in the UK eligible to purchase the app.) “Guys, we have just hit 5,000 people!” Chamberlain announces to her team mid-way through the day. She tells me it is more than the local party managed over the whole campaign in 2017.
Chamberlain is a true MP-in-waiting: a charismatic former police officer, she is friendly, eloquent, and obviously optimistic about the campaign, but skilled at avoiding any predictions. It is her canvassers who chat more freely about how they really see things on the ground. They give a frank analysis of the problem in 2017: “Last time the Tory machine convinced people they could win here.” The Conservative candidate came in around 3,000 votes behind the Liberal Democrats and the SNP last time, with 24 per cent of the vote compared to the 32.9 per cent won by the two front-runners. The canvassers tell me that have spoken to “hundreds who confessed to voting Tory last time instead of Lib Dem,” a trend they are confident they can turn around.