Winner in 2019: Neale Hanvey (elected as SNP, switched to Alba in 2021)

IT’S fair to say that Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath – which has just had its name reversed to become Cowdenbeath and Kirkcaldy – has been on quite a journey.

As recently as 14 years ago, it was represented by the incumbent UK prime minister Gordon Brown, and yet for the last three years, it has had an MP from one of the smallest and most radical parties in the House of Commons, the pro-independence Alba Party.

Over the course of that journey the constituency has changed hands three times – or five times if instances of a sitting MP switching allegiance are counted.

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Roger Mullin snatched it for the SNP on an astronomical swing of 35% after Brown’s retirement as the local MP in 2015.

But what was more surprising was that Labour narrowly took the seat back under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017.

Because the winning Labour candidate Lesley Laird was appointed Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow Scottish secretary, the seat became one of the SNP’s most important psychological targets for the 2019 election, offering the chance to claim a major scalp.

There are differing interpretations over whether the SNP ended up making that gain. It was Neale Hanvey who defeated Laird in 2019, and on paper at least, he was the SNP’s candidate. That was his status when his nomination was submitted, and the position was frozen after that – he appeared on the ballot paper with the SNP emblem by his name.

However, Alba have argued that Hanvey was elected as an “independent nationalist” without any SNP involvement, because the SNP had suspended him and withdrawn all support.

In terms of practical reality, The truth lies somewhere in between the two concepts. It’s unlikely that an independent candidate would have had enough “baseload support” to be competitive in the seat.

Most of Hanvey’s voters were therefore probably people who wanted to vote for the SNP, and who in the normal way looked for the SNP’s logo on the ballot paper and marked their cross next to it.

But in such a tightly-fought constituency, baseload support isn’t enough in itself, and the get-out-the-vote drive is crucial.

The SNP declined to play any part in that, meaning the efforts of Hanvey’s independent campaign team were almost certainly decisive in swinging the balance away from Labour and in favour of a pro-independence win.

Hanvey was eventually admitted into the SNP parliamentary group. However, his relationship with Nicola Sturgeon’s (above) SNP leadership team hadn’t been repaired, and when the Alba Party was founded in the run-up to the 2021 Holyrood election, he was an enthusiastic early recruit, becoming one of Alba’s two MPs alongside Kenny MacAskill.

Alba can regard themselves as unlucky that their two MPs just happened to represent vulnerable constituencies that even the SNP would have struggled to defend against the Unionist challenge on July 4.

However, Cowdenbeath and Kirkcaldy is the more promising of the two for Alba, because independence support is stronger there and Tory support is weaker.

The task for Hanvey has been to use his advantage as the incumbent local MP to offset the disadvantage of representing a party with modest national support.

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He has spurned few opportunities to build himself up as a prominent local figure, but there isn’t sufficient polling evidence to judge whether his efforts have put him in contention for re-election.

The constituency-level projections from polling companies have not identified much support for him, although those have to be taken with a heavy dose of salt because the methodology used does not lend itself to pinpoint accuracy in atypical local races.

But if Hanvey does fall well short, Cowdenbeath and Kirkcaldy will revert to being an SNP-Labour battleground.

(Image: PA)

Labour have had their own problems, parachuting in the London-based candidate Melanie Ward after their previous candidate was dropped for liking allegedly racist posts directed against Humza Yousaf (above).

That chain of events is unlikely to have impressed local voters, but nevertheless Labour require only a 3% swing from the SNP to take the seat back on the new boundaries. With a danger that the pro-indy vote will be split, it may be difficult for the SNP’s Lesley Backhouse to stop Labour completing their comeback.