‘People are hacked off at politics’: SNP and Labour in knife-edge battle across central Scotland

Labour is hoping to regain seats lost to the SNP, with Brexit and migration the main dividing lines

SNP candidate and MP for Livingston Hannah Bardell and Scotland's first minister John Swinney. Photograph: Lesley Martin/PA Wire

Kadir Kavak left Turkey 30 years ago and settled in Scotland. He worked hard and owns two cafes: one in Edinburgh and another, Café 66, in the town of Broxburn in West Lothian, near Edinburgh airport.

“Politicians – they lie,” he says, as customers hurry to escape rain clouds above. “Brexit was all lies.”

Kavak blames Brexit for his difficulty finding staff. It has forced him to rent out his Edinburgh cafe and roll up his sleeves to work himself each day in his Broxburn business. The attention is paying off: its red velvet cake is to die for.

Brexit and migration are dividing lines between the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Labour, which is battling to regain seats lost to the SNP over the last decade. Labour deliberately ignores Brexit and is cautious over migration, while the SNP wants a rollback of Brexit and is alone among the main parties in advocating for more migration to power the economy.


Many battleground seats between Labour and the SNP are in the swathe of territory known as Scotland’s Central Belt, which stretches from Edinburgh in the west to Glasgow in the east.

Cafe owner Kadir Kavak: 'Brexit was all lies.' Photograph: Mark Paul

The belt was for generations a Labour heartland until the SNP became dominant after the 2014 independence referendum. Now Keir Starmer’s party sees a revival in Scotland, where it won just one seat in 2019, as key to a Westminster majority.

Labour is hoping for more than 25 Scottish seats in the UK election on July 4th, including many in the Central Belt. Polls suggest a series of tight races. Broxburn, in the constituency of Livingston, is at the heart of the battle.

The town’s name comes from Scots and Gaelic words for “badger stream”. In the Badgers Brook pub on main street, talk on Friday is not of politics but of football: Scotland plays Germany in the Euros opener that night. The saltire bunting is up along with Scotland’s soon-to-be-dashed hopes.

The main street is dotted with empty shops, although not the Sole Man repair outlet where customers can “put the rhythm back into your shoes”.

A swing back towards Labour is in the air. Around the corner from Sole Man, an elderly local says he will back Labour because the SNP, he argues, is an independence “cult”.

Gregor Poynton and his canvassing team in Livingston. Photograph: Mark Paul

Kavak, too, is angry at the SNP for its focus on “empty nationalism – they play with people’s hearts. What about the NHS? What about the empty shops?”

Yet he also doesn’t want to vote Labour, which he dismisses as “war mongers” over Gaza – Starmer is seen as close to Israel.

A big issue in Broxburn is the closure of the council-owned swimming pool, which shut over funding and is for sale after a fire. Hannah Bardell, defending the Westminster seat from a challenge by Labour’s Gregor Poynton, believes money should have been found to repair it. Labour sources claim it would have cost £600,000 for a new boiler.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar and deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner with local parliamentary candidate Gregor Poynton at Broxburn Family and Community development centre in Livingston at the weekend. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/PA Wire

Bardell and her now-wife, Lucienne Kennedy, got an emergency marriage licence four hours before prime minister Rishi Sunak called the election last month. She says they wanted a quick marriage as “both our mums are frail”. In nine days she organised a wedding and set up her re-election campaign. “Welcome to my honeymoon,” she tells The Irish Times.

Kate Forbes appointed deputy first minister as SNP leader John Swinney appoints Scottish cabinetOpens in new window ]

Bardell is campaigning at Broxburn United football club with Neil Gray, Scotland’s health secretary. They do a kickabout for the cameras. She understands the pull towards Labour – she comes from an “Old Labour” family – and acknowledges a tight race. “I’m never confident, but hopeful.”

“On the doors, people who are SNP are positively SNP. People who are Labour or undecided are equivocating. A lot are hacked off at politics.”

Gray, a former Westminster MP before entering Scotland’s parliament, criticises Labour for following a Tory “austerity agenda”. He says more SNP MPs are needed to “break the consensus”.

SNP secretary for health Neil Gray and SNP candidate Hannah Bardell campaigning at Albyn Park, Broxburn on Friday. Photograph: Alex Todd/Sipa

Later, Labour candidate Poynton, a communications adviser who has worked for companies with links to Barack Obama, knocks on doors on the outskirts of Livingston. As The Irish Times follows him and his canvassing team, it is clear many of the working class residents want the Tories out, but are undecided about Labour.

“On July 5th there’ll either be five more years of the Tories, or we get change with a Labour government. People understand that,” says Poynton, who acknowledges his race is “neck and neck”.

On the other side of the Central Belt on Saturday, in Larkhall, south of Glasgow, Scotland’s deputy first minister Kate Forbes campaigns at a fish warehouse with Ross Clark, the young SNP candidate in Hamilton and Clyde Valley. His Labour opponent is Londoner Imogen Walker, married to Cork-born Starmer adviser Morgan McSweeney. The latest polls put Walker marginally in the lead.

Forbes criticises Labour’s “conspiracy of silence over Brexit” and warns it “takes votes for granted at its peril – the SNP is not taking any votes for granted”.

She singles out Labour’s Angela Rayner – the party’s deputy leader, who is odds-on to be the next UK deputy prime minister – for criticism for following the party line of less migration and no Brexit talk. Rayner, meanwhile, shows up in Broxburn to campaign for Poynton.

Back on Union Street in Larkhall – like Broxburn, an ordinary working class town – people are more interested in the community gala parade that afternoon than the election. Labour and the SNP are focusing on puncturing the apathy to swing the knife-edge battles of the Central Belt.

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