HEALTH Secretary Jeane Freeman is backing a long-serving MSP in a local selection battle as two challengers appeal to members to pick them to run in 2021.

Kenneth Gibson has represented the Ayrshire constituency of Cunninghame North since 2007 but now faces a challenge from a former MP and a former SNP staffer as he seeks re-election for next year’s Scottish Parliament elections.

They are Corri Wilson, who represented Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock at Westminster from 2015-17, and Osama Saeed Bhutta, a former researcher for Alex Salmond.

All have urged local party members to choose them to fight to retain the seat for the SNP in the spring.

The move comes after office-bearers from the party’s Cunninghame North Constituency Association issued a statement urging contests in every part of the country, regardless of whether or not an SNP incumbent is seeking re-selection.

Dr Malcolm Kerr, organiser of the constituency association, said: “With Scotland on the cusp of independence, we should be thinking long and hard about who we send to Holyrood as our MSPs.”

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Now Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has revealed her backing for Gibson, who serves on two Holyrood committees. She said: “Having worked with Kenneth in the Scottish Parliament, I have absolutely no hesitation in urging SNP members to support him as the best person to represent the people and communities of Cunninghame North.”

The comment comes as Freeman prepares to depart her Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley seat, which intersects with the Westminster constituency once held by Wilson.

Allan Dorans MP, who currently holds that post for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, has also thrown his support behind Gibson, saying: “Kenneth is well known throughout the SNP, having actively campaigned for independence for over 40 years. I am delighted to support both his re-selection and re-election next May.”

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Bhutta, who ran for Westminster in 2010, worked for Qatari media giant Al Jazeera before latterly serving as global communications director for human rights charity Amnesty.

He’s been backed by former North Ayrshire councillor Grace McLean and Helen Stewart, formerly political education officer at Cumbrae SNP and one of those to call for other hopefuls to step forward.

Meanwhile, Wilson has been backed by Gary O’Rourke, a prominent activist in 2014.

Cunninghame North covers coastal towns and inland communities from Ardrossan and Largs to the Garnock Valley.

It also covers the island of Arran.

The constituency is part of the West of Scotland region and has only ever been represented by one other person – Allan Wilson of Labour, who was pushed into second place in 2007.