As my son Brodie hands me the last soggy knock up list from Bute Drive in North Muirton we knew we had made an extraordinary effort. We had completed two sweeps across the city and everybody we now knocked up had been out to vote.
It was 8.45pm and we were soaked to the skin all over again. A horn peeps and through the gloom I see John Swinney pulling in to finish the last of his list. Further round the corner I see a team down from Dunkeld. Three teams out in one little corner of Perth demonstrated our commitment to get out the vote.
It had been a miserable day. It started raining in Perth at about 10.30am and it rained all day until about 9 o clock in the evening. It had in fact been a miserable 7 weeks and from the minute the election had been called I knew that I was up against it with daily predictions from the press and Conservatives that I was going to lose my seat. Knowing we were in the fight of our lives the local party responded magnificently and there was more canvassing in Perth and North Perthshire than any other constituency in Scotland. We took the threat to holding the seat extremely seriously and organised a campaign barely seen since we first won over 20 years ago. We had just lost control of the council on a massive swing to the Tories and if the swing against John Swinney in last years Scottish elections is repeated my majority has gone. To win we would have to do things differently, call in help and use my incumbency for every vote it was worth.
In the morning I cast my vote around 9am and turnout had been brisk in Craigie Church. P&NP always has a high turnout and today a high turnout would be more important than ever. We calculated that I would need a minimum of 42% of the vote to win calculating the Tories would come in over 40% and the others fighting it out for the remaining 15%. In 2015 I had secured 50% of the vote and a nine and a half thousand majority. There was absolutely no chance that a victory on that scale would be repeated today. Today, I would settle for any sort of victory.
Almost cursing the rain I head to the office for the start of a day of doing nothing other than knocking people up and getting them out. The first thing I notice was just how busy the office is. The local party had responded to the call that the knock up was going to be extremely important and it was organised on an almost military scale. Colleagues were coming in from Dundee and elsewhere and the persistent rain was almost forgotten. In the last week of the campaign I had spent nearly all of my time going from door to door talking to people we had identified as moving away from us trying to persuade them to stick with us one more time. Today it was all about the areas where our vote was traditionally strong and just getting them out.
It has been a tough, miserable campaign fought under the most unfavourable of conditions. If you could pick a date for an election that had found us at our most vulnerable, today would just about be that day.
The Conservative campaign was exclusively about opposing a second independence referendum and it had chimed with the weariness that was abound following two big constitutional choices. Meanwhile our campaign had barely got off the ground and we had failed to shift the campaign on to Westminster issues. Where the rest of the UK was moving away from the Tories because of the shambles of their manifesto and the chaotic way Theresa May was leading the campaign, the election in Scotland (when not about a second referendum) was about the performance of a Scottish Government, unprepared and entering mid term territory.
I call it a day at about 9.30pm and head home in plenty of time for the exit poll due at 10pm. I actually feel quite positive and know that we have fought an incredible campaign and if the national swing against the SNP can be restricted to 8%, I can do it.
The 10pm news begins and I just could not believe what I was hearing.
The SNP was to lose 22 seats, worse than anything predicted and almost certainly meaning that I was out. I was fourth in line to go on a uniform swing to the Tories and there just did not seem any way that I could survive with the size of the Tory wave predicted to engulf us. I even start to pen my concession speech and inevitably start to watch the election coverage. In the studio Perthshire list Tory MSPs Murdo Fraser and Liz Smith are talking about ‘hearing good things from Perth’ and it was a ‘99% certainty’ that the seat would be taken by the Tories.
Having lost 6 Perthshire constituency contests in a row I secretly prayed that Murdo Fraser would be selected for the Tories for this election but was disappointed when they instead selected the cerebral, if slightly odd, Perthshire born MEP, Ian Duncan. The Tories crafted this strange working class man of the people persona around Ian which jarred entirely with how he came across on the doorstep. We duly ignored him denying him any publicity from us. In the end, regardless of the best efforts of the Scottish press to big him up, very few people in P&NP knew who he was. Ian was smart enough to keep Murdo Fraser at a distance presumably observing just how toxic he was to his cause. Throughout the night Murdo is true to form with a series of crass and antagonistic social media contributions.
I was now as ready as I could be to face what seemed like certain defeat. In fact I had always prepared myself for defeat knowing the scale of the task in front of me. With the exit poll I almost feel relief that I will no longer have to constantly work out election scenarios in my head. I decide that I wouldn’t go down to the count until the last possible minute as I couldn’t bear facing joyful Tories enjoying the prospect of winning the seat I had represented for 16 years.
Then I get a phone call from John Swinney who is down at the count. He asks me how I usually do at the Gospel Hall in Letham? I say we usually win there with about 60% of the vote. John says he is seeing ballot box samples which suggests I’ve got that. He then asks how I usually do at Tulloch and again John tells me that I’m roughly in the same terrain as previous elections. John says he is seeing ballot box samples and I am ahead in most of them. Even in the rural areas I’m slightly ahead or just slightly behind.
Could I dare believe? It was like being shredded all over again and I didn’t know if I could go through the torment of thinking I could now win only to be disappointed once more.
Sara, Brodie and I decide it’s a good idea just to get out the house and we drive around Perth before deciding we were hungry stopping off at Tesco for pizzas which we brought back, heated up, but barely touched. John was constantly on the phone with updates and it seemed it was turning away again as ballot boxes form smaller rural communities started to add up. John was actually starting to apologise for getting my hopes up, as if he ever needed to. John Swinney is an electoral force of nature, with incredible instincts, whose advice and friendship helped me endure the last 7 weeks of misery. He was always there for me with advice and encouragement and the way he threw himself into the campaign encouraged everybody else.
At about 1am I get the call that the verification is done and the result wouldn’t be far away. I prepare myself and grab all the things that I thought had been lucky totems. Sara, Brodie and I conclude that it isn’t going to happen but we should be proud that we had run them damn close. I get down to the count and the demeanour of the Tories is something else and gives me some encouragement again. I think it just suddenly dawned on them that they might not actually win this after all. Where we are experts in ballot box sampling the Perthshire Tories are singularly useless and so often never have a clue what’s going on until the votes are stacked up.
Looking at the votes sitting in these perspex boxes you just couldn’t tell who was in the lead. We had decided that if we were beat by anything below 200 votes we would call for a recount.
Then it was time. The returning officer calls candidates and agents down. Sara gives me a big hug and I head down to what now looks like a very imposing table. In a daze, incredibly big numbers are read out, which to me seem to be exactly the same. In my confusion I thought I had lost and started to walk away and it took my election agent, Andrew Parrott, to convince me I had in fact won. 36 votes was what was between us and the Tories and they call for a recount which we couldn’t possibly resist.
I was utterly and totally elated barely able to comprehend that after all I had been through I had won. In the periphery of the evening I was of course aware of results elsewhere and that colleagues and friends such as Angus, Alex and Mike were in trouble. If we had managed to win here it would have been truly extraordinary.
But there was still the matter of the recount. We tried to convince ourselves that recounts very rarely reverse the original result and it should be alright. Then the recount is in and we’re down to 21 votes. 15 votes had been lost and I almost feel sick as the Tories call for another recount. Will this ever end?
The wait for the second recount is therefore a lot more of a tense affair than the first one. After what felt like an eternity the second recount was concluded and it was 21 votes again. It was all over and the Tories conceded. By this point I was something approaching a barely twitching wreck.
I hadn’t prepared any victory speech but I went to the rostrum and just thanked everybody promising to track down the 21 souls that had made the difference. Over the next few days I learned of some extraordinary efforts of people who had voted for me claiming that it was they who had got me over the line. I was happy to accept all such representations.
I had got 42.3% of the vote and secured 21,804 votes making it the biggest SNP vote in any constituency in Scotland. It was also the second biggest vote in numbers and percentage share that I had secured in the 5 elections I had contested. There had been a swing against us but we had restricted it to just over 8%. It was simply an amazing result given what had happened elsewhere.
We eventually get home exhausted but exhilarated still wondering how on earth we had done it. This was my fifth victory and even if it was the narrowest, it was the sweetest. At home we observe the full scale of our losses and were amazed at how accurate the exit poll was. We were the seat that deprived them of their prediction being spot on. We had lost some very talented people and the scale of the Tory swing had even extended to places like Ayr and Stirling. Our failure to get our vote out elsewhere had also meant that Labour had taken 6 seats from us, surprising them as much as us.
Theresa May had been deprived of her majority and her bad judgement of calling this election would now be her total and exclusive responsibility. It had been seven weeks of electoral hell and no-one had won this election. Heading for bed the only thing I was thinking was, thank god, hoping we never have to go through a contest like this, ever again.