The contest for the Scottish Parliamentary seat of Ayr this May was an interesting one resulting in Tory John Scott retaining the seat against the SNP challenge without the benefit of any help from the crew of the Vital Spark. Labour's Brian McGinley was a credit to his party, but the contest was always going to be between incumbent Tory John Scott and the SNP candidate, a Glasgow City councillor.
Today the town of Ayr is represented by an SNP MP and a Tory MSP but it hasn't always been this way. The Westminster Parliamentary Constituency containing Ayr has undergone boundary changes over the years but was always represented by a Tory MP until the General Election of 1997. The Scottish Parliament seat was held by Labour briefly at the outset of the Scottish Parliament before falling to the Tories and John Scott at a by election in 1999.
Labour may be out of the running to win Ayr at the moment but Labour has a proud history in the historic town. Several Labour candidates for Ayr in the past went on to serve as Labour MPs for other constituencies - Jim Craigen, Alex Eadie and Willie Ross - but none of them ever managed to secure victory in the illusive Ayr seat. However, we did manage to make real inroads into the natural Tory majority. Both the late Willie Ross and the late Charles O'Halloran came close enough to secure recounts.
It was not until the 1987 General Election that Ayr Constituency established itself as Scotland’s most marginal seat. After a hard fought campaign, Labour's Keith Macdonald, who was standing for the third time, came within 182 votes of unseating the Tory Cabinet Minister, George Younger (4th Viscount Younger of Leckie) after a recount. Again in 1992, I came even closer, losing to the late Phil Gallie by only 85 votes after two recounts. Turnout that day was a record high with over 54,000 voting, representing 83% of the electorate (this May's 61% was seen as a good turnout).
During these hard years of failing to win the parliamentary seat, Labour did have some success. Alex Smith won the European seat for the South of Scotland (including Ayr) and based himself in the Labour Offices in Ayr. In local elections control of the council swung back and forth from Tory to Labour, often by the smallest of margins. However, in 1995 Labour swept the boards in the election for the new unitary South Ayrshire Council, winning 21 seats to 4 for the Tories.
When Labour finally won in the Westminster Elections it was overwhelming. Boundary changes taking a small part of the town of Ayr into the neighbouring constituency had left Labour with a notional advantage of around 1500 based on the 1992 result. When the Returning Officer announced the result at the Centrum Ice Rink in Prestwick it was a 'Tory Meltdown'. Sandra Osborne had become the first ever Labour MP, and the first woman MP, for Ayr with a majority of 6,543.
In the first Scottish Parliamentary Election in 1999, Ian Welsh, held on to the seat but with a majority slashed to a mere 25 votes. We lost the Scottish Parliament seat to the Tories one year later when he resigned and caused a by-election. In the by-election Labour slipped back to third place behind both the Tories and the SNP.
The 2001 General Election was in many ways an even better result for Labour than 1997. Labour came back from third place in the by-election to win by over 2,500 with a much lower turnout than 1997. Sandra had been re-elected, Labour had secured a second term and Phil Gallie had suffered his third defeat in a row in Ayr Constituency
The Labour landslide in the council elections of 1995 proved a one off. By 2003 it was back to knife edge results with Labour and the Tories tied at 15 seats each - control staying with Labour on the cut of a pack of cards (Labour cut an eight to the Tories' two). In another bizarre twist, the Labour leader resigned and the Tories seized power before a by election could be held. When it was, an independent won the seat by a single vote! In 2007, under STV, Labour ended up back in opposition to a Tory/ SNP led Council.
The see-saw council changed again in 2012 when Labour ran a very disciplined campaign and won nine seats with nine candidates. They ended up with the same number of seats as the SNP and just one less than the Tories. Labour agreed a partnership arrangement with the Tories with a Labour Provost and Labour Deputy Leader of the Council as well as three of the seven 'cabinet' style posts in the Leadership Panel. After five years in opposition it was time to take whatever steps it could to stand up for local working people to protect jobs and services.
The Scottish Parliament seat has continued to be beyond Labour's reach. Rita Miller, who had been the candidate in the miserable by-election of 2000 (dominated by Brian Souter's disgraceful Keep the Clause), fought an excellent campaign in 2003, but failed to retake the seat by 1800 votes. In 2007, Labour held onto second place but by the ill fated 2011 election Labour trailed in third place where we ended up again in May.
What the ballot box had regularly failed to do (ending that marginal status), was soon to be achieved by the Boundary Commission and its boundary changes for Scottish Westminster seats.
A new enlarged Westminster seat was created - Ayr Carrick & Cumnock - bringing together parts of the old Ayr Constituency and most of the old Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley Constituency. It combined the whole town of Ayr with the South Ayrshire coal mining areas and the rich farmland of Carrick. If Ayr is best known for its links with Burns, Cumnock is where Keir Hardie lived, the founder of the Labour Party. Ayr had become Scotland’s top marginal but Carrick Cumnock and Doon Valley (South Ayrshire as it had been known before that) seemed as solid Labour as you could get. As well as its association with Keir Hardie it had been served well by Miners’ MPs James Brown, Sanny Sloan and Emrys Hughes (married to Keir Hardie’s daughter). Hughes was followed by Jim Sillars who went on to leave the Labour Party to form his own short lived Scottish Labour Party. The seat was won back for Labour by George Foulkes in 1979 who continued as MP until his retiral in 2005 (now Lord Foulkes of Cumnock). Sandra Osborne was chosen as his successor as Labour candidate for the new seat of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. After campaigning in five General Election campaigns in marginal Ayr over the years, 2005 was quite surreal - seeing the Labour votes piling up with no-one else even close. Sandra was elected for the new seat with a majority of almost 10.000!
On May 6 2010 Sandra was re-elected for a fourth term as an MP. The Scottish Labour vote went up and the majority was again 10,000. In Scotland Labour had triumphed and across the UK Labour had a much better result than had seemed possible at one time, depriving the Tories of an overall majority. Nevertheless, we were back in opposition and this time to a Tory/Lib Dem coalition.
The days of seeing the sun rise on Ayr recounts seemed firmly in the past as far as Westminster elections were concerned. Unfortunately all that changed in the aftermath of the Independence Referendum when Ayr suffered the same fate as most other Scottish seats, falling to the SNP tsunami that swept the country in 2015. The seemingly solid Labour heartland of Ayr Carrick and Cumnock now had an SNP MP (the Scottish Parliament seat of Carrick Cumnock and Doon Valley had already gone SNP in 2011).
This year was never going to see Labour have its day in Ayr, but we fought for every Labour vote as we always do. The Labour puffer may be sitting idly on a far off slipway for the moment but it will set sail again, and the Vital Spark of socialism will harbour in Ayr once more.