On the campaign trail in Edinburgh South, complete with loadhailer and ‘Nigel Griffiths Calling’ cards

At rest: Griffiths takes a break from his hectic roundabout of campaigning to pose for the camera
At rest: Griffiths takes a break from his hectic roundabout of campaigning to pose for the camera

Leaping wildly around campaign aides, maps and piles of “On your side” leaflets in his constituency office in Edinburgh South, construction minister Nigel Griffiths seems like a man possessed. It is a good five minutes before he acknowledges my arrival, and when he does he seems unsure whether

he wants to appear relaxed or militantly busy. The outcome, delivered as a councillor walks in, is an uncomfortable mixture of the two: “Margaret, darling, how are you? We’re ready for print, go go and go!”

Print, on this occasion, turns out to be a single sheet on a photocopier, which adds to the bizarre air surrounding Edinburgh Labour’s field marshal. But he’s right to be frantic: in a traditional Tory seat and with boundary changes that favour the opposition, Griffiths is facing a tough battle for re-election. The underfire minister may be telling constituents to judge Labour on what the party has delivered, but he is clearly worried that the record may not be enough to save his own place in parliament.

Griffiths is, however, sure of his party’s success in delivering construction projects. “Construction is going to win us the election,” he says. “Look at the facts: look at our schools and hospitals, all delivered by the construction industry.” And despite the absence of detailed promises to the industry in Labour’s manifesto, Griffiths insists that this will be recognised by government improving as a client.

“I hope nobody’s made any specific promises to the industry,” he says, mindful of the failure of the quality mark scheme pledged last time and keen that the industry should look at how it has “fared enormously better overall in terms of work” under Labour. “But government as a client has no choice but to improve. If we don’t lead by example, it’s hypocrital to demand the highest standards in the private sector.”

And the industry should believe Griffiths’ commitment: just look at the tongue-lashing he gave Bath and North-East Somerset council over Bath Spa. Authorities that wish to avoid being branded “the most incompetent council in Britain” take note. Although perhaps if Griffiths stopped making unofficial visits to projects, like the one to Bath in February that prompted his outburst, he might find the DTI slightly more supportive of his stance.

Griffiths is also keen to insist that his own commitment to protecting Edinburgh’s greenbelt land does not prevent the delivery of low-cost housing in the region. “Close to 3000 homes have been built on greenfield sites in my time in Edinburgh,” he says. “Of course there’s an issue, but we can achieve a balance.”

Construction is going to win us the election. Look at the facts

Nigel Griffiths

Pleasing all of the people is an impossible task, however, and Griffiths’ fear for his own position is evident when he points out the constituency changes on a map. Since 2001, when Labour had 42.2% of the vote, two solid Conservative areas, South Morningside and Fairmilehead, have been moved in. And it doesn’t help that the Conservative candidate this time round, Gavin Brown, is by Griffiths’ own admission the toughest rival he has faced. “The election will be tighter this time,” Griffiths says. “If Michael Howard’s fortunes were to revive in any way the Tories could win the seat back. Gavin Brown is the most formidable opponent I've ever had.”

Griffiths is interrupted by an elderly constituent, who has come to the office to request a postal voting form. It’s a good PR opportunity: Griffiths chats to the man about local issues before passing him over to his campaign volunteers. But as the bewildered resident is whisked from desk to desk, Griffiths takes time to emphasise that the form is being personally addressed. With a campaign this tight, he is hypersensitive to any possibility of bad publicity, particularly over a contentious issue like postal voting.

Griffiths insists he himself is not out to cast slurs on other parties – “Whatever I’ve been saying, our campaign is all positive. We leave it to the Greens to attack the Liberals, and so on.” However, Griffiths has already told me he is “ruthlessly” attacking Lib Dem candidate Marilyne Maclaren over the fact she doesn’t live in the constituency – a riposte to her suggestion that most people hadn’t met the current MP.

On a tour of the constituency, we put Maclaren’s allegation to the test. As he drives, loudhailer at the ready, Griffiths points out row upon row of houses where he knows the occupants. “In a place like this, once you meet one person you meet so many others,” he says. “Everyone’s connected.” Griffiths has conducted a number of door-to-door visits and gives residents the best possible chance to be available by giving out “Nigel Griffiths Calling” cards beforehand. But has it worked?

Canvassing opinion on the street, the results are inconclusive. The first place we stop is Gilmerton Community Centre: no people to talk to here, as Griffiths has forgotten it’s a public holiday. We move on to the high street, and I interrupt passers-by with the question: “Do you know this man?”. The first two have never seen him before, and are similarly unaware of his role as construction minister. However, it turns out they live just outside the boundary.

One place where Griffiths is instantly known, however, is his local cafe. Cafe Artista is found on Marchmont Crescent, just down the road from where Griffiths once shared a flat with Gordon Brown. Owner Bruno Bova does not discuss his politics, but he displays a Griffiths poster in his window and knows what the minister will order before a word is spoken. So how does he rate Griffiths’ chances? “I don’t know, but there are so many clergy in this city Nigel tells me he’ll deliver us the next Pope from Edinburgh.”

If Griffiths and Labour win their battles, there’s still at least one promise you’ll expect to see quietly disappear.

Nigel & Gordon

If and when Gordon Brown replaces Tony Blair as prime minister expect to see Nigel Griffiths promoted.Here’s why:

  • Gordon Brown was best man at Griffiths’ wedding to wife Sally

  • The two men shared an Edinburgh flat in their pre-Westminster days

  • Brown is quoted on Griffiths’ campaign literature, endorsing him as “an outstanding MP and one of our most effective ministers.” Brown adds: “I look forward to working even more closely with Nigel in the future”

  • Brown, not Blair, has written the foreword to Griffiths’ handbook, 300 Gains from our Labour Government, for Labour members.

Election focus group: Week two of the campaign

Georgia Elliott-Smith, director of environmental and sustainable building consultancy Element 4.

How do you think the campaigns are going/or not going?
As expected – every politician seems to be spending more time trashing the other parties than focusing on giving us really good reasons to vote for them. It’s very boring and demoralising.

What are the key issues that have struck you?
I’m sick of hearing the Tories banging on about immigration. Immigration feeds our economy – construction has always relied on foreign labour and would find itself in trouble without it.

Has anything happened to change your mind on which way you’re going to vote?
I’m toying with the idea of voting for the Green Party instead of Labour. I think that Labour will go on to another term as there’s no really effective opposition, so it’s important to vote for the issues that are key to you. I don’t agree with all the Green policies, but I hope it’ll send a signal to government that if they want my vote, they’ve got to get much more serious about the environment.

John Cowell (brother of Simon), managing director of construction consultancy Cowellco

How do you think the campaigns are going/or not going?

What are the key issues that have struck you?
There has been nothing new. The manifestos should have clarified issues but seem to have raised more questions than answers. The terrorist case and MG Rover couldn’t have been worse timed, but have added some realism to the debates.

Has anything happened to change your mind on which way you’re going to vote?
Nothing. I won’t be going to the poll with a glad heart to vote Labour, as I fear that some of the accusations on tax, security and efficiency hit the target. However, I still can’t see either other party doing any better. The bookies appear to agree.

Roger Feast, chairman of construction company McLaren

How do you think the campaigns are going/or not going?
All the campaigns are predictable. The parties are simply putting each other down misconstruing facts and figures. I’m not impressed.

What are the key issues that have struck you?
Nothing. It has all been about sensationalised one-off stories. Politicians should be focusing on taxes, funding and managing services.

Has anything happened to change your mind on which way you’re going to vote?
I’m still voting Conservative. I think Howard will prove to be more interested in the good of the people and will stick to his policies rather than seek popularity like Blair.

David Chisholm, managing director of architect John Thompson and Partners.

How do you think the campaigns are going/or not going?
None of the three main parties seems able to encapsulate and communicate an ethos. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats come closest, but their manifesto, although worthy, is hardly inspiring. The Labour Party manifesto begins with “aspirations”, which are then submerged in a welter of detail.

What are the key issues that have struck you?
I like the emphasis Labour is placing on “multi-generational family life” as the basis for strong, stable communities and their commitment to continuing the Surestart programme. I believe too that, being at the heart of local communities, primary schools play an important role in promoting social interaction between adults and I am pleased to see the commitment to extending their use.

Has anything happened to change your mind on which way you’re going to vote?
I see no reason to send back my Labour Party membership card.