Scottish Labour have Falkirk in their sights at the general election amid the ongoing Michael Matheson case, the pending closure of the nearby Grangemouth oil refinery and division inside the local SNP.

Dame Jackie Baillie, who along with shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray, is one of Labour's two general election campaign co-ordinators north of the border, said the party is looking again at the constituency which the SNP have held since 2015 with large majorities.

She said there is a mood of anger on doorsteps in the town - and indeed across Scotland - over the former health secretary Michael Matheson's iPad bill and over the planned closure of the nearby Grangemouth oil refinery, due to shut by Spring 2025 with the loss of 400 jobs. Mr Matheson is the SNP MSP for Falkirk West.

Dame Jackie, Scottish Labour deputy leader, who is MSP for Dumbarton, said voters are furious with Mr Matheson for not immediately admitting why the bill was so high and then for blaming his children for the high roaming charges incurred while on a family holiday in Morocco.

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Mr Matheson initially insisted the iPad had been used abroad for legitimate parliamentary and constituency work and claimed the bill from the public purse through the Holyrood expenses scheme. However he later explained it had been used by his children while abroad. He paid the money back following a public outcry.

A report by Holyrood authorities found he had broken the code of conduct for MSPs over his handling of the iPad bill, and referred his case to the standards, procedures and public appointments committee to consider sanctions.

"The Michael Matheson issue goes well beyond Falkirk. People feel really let down. It's got cut through. I never imagined people would be talking about an £11,000 iPad bill on the doorstep. It's the cover up they are quite distressed by.

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"There is one group of people, who tend to be quite engaged, who are well aware of what Michael Matheson did and are very angry. There is also a second group where the anger emerges as the conversation develops about the SNP government and they then make the link and they say things like 'don't start me on that Matheson person'.

"We are picking this up from people who have voted SNP. Ordinary working people are telling us 'if I had done what he did, I would have been sacked'. Other people are saying 'it is disgraceful the way he blamed his kids'.

"And then they are making a connection between the NHS litany of failures and him having had responsibility in this area as the former Cabinet Secretary," Dame Jackie told the Herald on Sunday.

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"But there is a particular set of circumstances in Falkirk. It is not just about Michael Matheson but also about Grangemouth."

Dame Jackie said people in the area were angry with both the UK and Scottish governments over the planned closure of the plant - Scotland's only oil refinery.

She added that her own party had a plan to save jobs and skills at Grangemouth by converting it to "a decarbonisation unit" as part of UK Labour policy to have a new publicly owned energy company, GB Energy, which would be headquartered in Scotland.

The Herald: Dame Jackie Baillie campaigning with Michael Shanks ahead of in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election which took place last October.  Photo: Colin Mearns.

"We see an absolute future for the jobs and the skills of the workforce at Grangemouth. We want to engage on this in a way the SNP Government is not doing," she said.

Dame Baillie also pointed to what she believed were wider difficulties for the SNP in the party's Falkirk general election describing the party's candidate Toni Giugliono as a "carpet bagger" who had stood in various areas in a bid to get elected and without success.

Mr Giugliano stood against Ms Baillie in Dumbarton in the 2021 Holyrood election and had previously stood in Edinburgh West in the 2017 general election, also without success.

The Herald: Owners Petroineos announced the closure of Grangemouth oil refinery in NovemberThe Grangemouth oil refinery is due to close by Spring 2025 with the loss of 400 jobs. Photo: PA. 

Mr Matheson along with sitting Falkirk MP John McNally and Linlithgow MP Martyn Day endorsed local councillor Paul Garner to be chosen as the SNP candidate after Mr McNally announced he would be standing down at the general election.

Such issues may have contributed to a low turnout of SNP activists in the local Falkirk general election campaign, Dame Jackie claimed.

"We saw this [activist] problem for the SNP in Rutherglen and Hamilton West. It was a key by election for them and they didn't have local activists to deliver leaflets so paid people on zero hours contracts to deliver their leaflets for them.

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"There is division locally between Michael Matheson and Toni Giugliano. Toni Giugliano stood against me....He came to Dumbarton in typical carpet bagger fashion, lost the seat there and now pops up in Falkirk.

"He is a carpet bagger. He is not local and Michael Matheson and some of the local members were really upset by that. It doesn't make for a good election campaign."

In 2019 the Labour campaign in Falkirk was hit by controversy when the party publicly withdrew its support for its candidate.

Dame Jackie said that as a consequence the Labour vote was "artificially low" winning just 11% of the vote and coming third.

"That mood is changing," she said.

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"If you look at the constituency it is partly an industrial area where there is a core Labour vote and there are also people who are on the commuter belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

"Some of them are people who voted SNP and are now switching."

She said that many of the people who are moving over to back Labour are former Labour voters who switched to the SNP.

"We are picking this up across Scotland," she said.

"We are coming across many people who used to vote Labour and went the SNP, voted for them. I lot of them are back. They are disappointed with the SNP, see an opportunity to get rid of the Tories in the UK Government and put Labour in power.

"Some of those voters are also saying 'we want to vote for you in the Scottish Parliament elections'. They genuinely feel they have been let down by the two governments.

"Both the Tories at UK level and the SNP in Scotland. I am getting that loud on the doorsteps from people who voted SNP and are now incredibly disappointed with them and they are on their way back to Labour. Some have made that journey, more are following."

She described the Labour candidate for Falkirk Euan Stainbank as "very much part of the local community."

She said: "Euan is a bright young man, a local councillor and very much part of the local community. I think he will do very well. We spent a lot of time picking good candidates across the country."

Polls have suggested Labour is gaining ground on the SNP in terms of Westminster voting intentions with the former party on course to win seats from the SNP in the central belt.

Dame Jackie was reluctant to say exactly how many seats her party may win but previous reports suggest 28 Scottish seats have been identified as 'in play' - ones they think they could win.

She said: "Falkirk is a seat we are interested in. At the start of last year, I was looking at five or six target seats. Now I am looking at many many more.

"Polls are showing Labour is doing better and the SNP are doing worse. I am taking nothing for granted, there are a set of circumstances in Falkirk that made this is of interest to us.

"And as with every seat we will be working extremely hard, door knocking, speaking to people. We are ready to go and just need Rishi Sunak to name the day.

"I am not going to be complacent. We will be working hard in every constituency across the country and that includes Falkirk. We are competitive in Falkirk. There are circumstances which we are watching very closely."

She said the mood shift among voters that took place in Rutherglen and Hamilton West is "taking place across Scotland" with people wanting a Labour government focused on growing the economy, tackling the cost of living crisis and tackling problems in the NHS with currently one in six people on waiting lists.

"These are the kinds of issues people are raising on doorsteps and they are not seeing the issues tackled by the Tory Westminster government or the SNP Holyrood government."

SNP MP John McNally said: "In contrast to the Labour Party, who have failed to select a single candidate in a Tory-held seat, the SNP is fighting this election to make Scotland Tory free.

"With both Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak joined at the hip on all major fiscal policies, it's clear that only a strong team of SNP MPs will make Scotland's voice heard at Westminster. 

"At the next election, it is only the SNP who can make Scotland Tory free, stand up for Scotland's values and defend's Scotland's interests at every possible opportunity."