Ballot Box Battlegrounds will be our trip through the 20 most marginal seats in Scotland, as the 2019 General Election approaches. Check out the GE19 Hub for the latest information!
#12 – Inverclyde (SNP, Majority: 1.0%)
Prepare for a little bit of repetition as we dive into four central belt SNP-Labour marginals, starting with Inverclyde. As you’d expect in this part of the country, this was a Labour area for decades before the SNP swept it in 2015. It also returned the narrowest result either side of the 2014 referendum, with No just 86 votes ahead of Yes. Despite that relative advantage for the SNP, Labour came extremely close to retaking it by 2017.
Although Inverclyde as a whole fits neatly into that general west-central Scotland historic Labour seat demographic, there are areas of affluence in the northwest of Greenock and Gourock, in the southwest around Inverkip and Wemyss Bay, and most prominently in Kilmacolm in the southeast. Kilmacolm is the least deprived part of the entire constituency and makes up most of the Inverclyde East ward you can see is blue on the map. It’s nowhere near enough to tip the seat the Conservative’s way, but it is another helpful reminder that most constituencies are reasonably diverse.
Here’s an odd little fact for you though – in 2003, Inverclyde had a Lib Dem majority council. Obviously, that’s a while ago now and bringing in STV in 2007 finished that chapter off neatly, but it does have me wondering if there’s any kind of memory of that period that could be stirred in the current climate. Not to win the seat, but to show a slightly stronger than average bounce back, perhaps.
Those asides about the two other parties standing here out the way, we’re faced with a constituency that the SNP might be feeling confident about holding given recent polling success, versus a rather battered Labour party. If Labour weren’t in such a bad state now, it’d be easy to envision this shifting into their column, perhaps aided by a tactical Pro-Union message to those voters in Kilmacolm. As it stands, it looks like a lot will have to change in the next three weeks for them to have much hope.
#11 – Glasgow North East (Labour, Majority: 0.8%)
The only one of Glasgow’s seats to flip at the 2017 election, Glasgow North East is only middle of the pack of marginals in our largest city. That it had gone to the SNP in 2015 was one of the biggest surprises in a night full of them, being viewed as Labour’s absolute safest seat in the country. Indeed, as I was stood outside a polling station in East Dunbartonshire earlier that day, activists from the SNP, Greens and Labour all agreed that as bad a night as it was going to be for Labour, poor Anne McLaughlin had once again been selected for a seat she was going to miss out on. She won with a record-breaking swing of 39.3%.
In 2017 based on the SNP leading in every ward in the city just a month beforehand, they might have expected to hold all their seats. However, Labour’s Paul Sweeney managed to eke out a narrow 0.8% lead. In doing so, he made 2017 the first GE of my lifetime not to have a single party make a clean sweep of the city’s Westminster seats.
Given that the SNP also hold the overlapping Provan and Maryhill & Springburn constituencies at Holyrood, that Labour victory may seem even more surprising. Bear in mind however that those were two of the three Glasgow city constituencies which had remained with Labour in 2011, at an election where the other five went to the SNP. Even though the SNP now do well all across Glasgow, Labour do still hold particular strength in some areas.
That’s a very vulnerable margin though, and Labour are still polling extremely poorly in Scotland. They may have clawed back some ground after that historic low in May’s EU elections, but it’ll be an uphill battle to hold the seat on recent trends. As has become my refrain for Scottish Labour, they’ll need to deliver a whopper of a local campaign against that backdrop. If they don’t, then we’re likely back to the Glasgow monotone.
#10 – Motherwell and Wishaw (SNP, Majority: 0.8%)
In some respects, Motherwell and Wishaw is the classic central belt seat. Strongly working-class, voted Yes in 2014, and has since been tightly fought between the SNP and Labour. To this day Motherwell is an icon of the decline of Scotland’s heavy industries during and following the Thatcher era, having been home to the enormous Ravenscraig steelworks.
The wounds of Ravenscraig’s closure are still extremely deeply felt by many locals. Alongside a colleague from Motherwell, I once for work visited a motor factory in Norwich, which proudly displayed pictures both of Thatcher’s visit to their site, and of their motors in Ravenscraig when it was operational. Something of a diplomatic incident then ensued between my colleague, angered by that juxtaposition, and one of our bemused hosts.
All that said, there was a bit of a stir in the 2017 council elections when a Conservative councillor was elected for the ward that covers Ravenscraig – a reminder of the power of the constitutional question. They won’t be winning the seat, but their 2017 voters could prove decisive depending on whether they stick with them or go elsewhere.
So once again, we’re looking at a straight SNP-Labour scrap. That means Labour are going to need to see a recovery in the polls very soon, or buck that poor national trend, in order to take the seat. It’s unlikely the SNP will be entirely relaxed here, but they’re probably breathing a little easier than they would have expected just after 2017.
#9 – Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Labour, Majority: 0.6%)
Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath’s claim to fame is being the seat of former Labour Prime Minister (and before that, Chancellor) Gordon Brown. Although Brown stood down in 2015, the immediate loss of his seat to the SNP surge must have been one of the most severe psychological blows to Scottish Labour in an election full of them.
The SNP’s success here was short lived however, as this was one of the seats that narrowly went Labour’s way in 2017. Now that we’re into the top 10 most marginal seats, I really do mean narrowly – their majority here is just 0.6%. That means that Lesley Laird, who happens to be Scottish Labour’s Deputy Leader, would be severely at risk in any election, never mind one when her party have been doing so poorly.
Narrow as that margin is, this is one of the parts of the country that made sense to see go back to Labour in 2017, even leaving aside the Brown connection. At the council elections the month before, Labour held a commanding lead in Cowdenbeath itself, as well as performing strongly in parts of Kirkcaldy, showing they still very clearly had a base here. The SNP’s support is strongest in the rest of Kirkcaldy and along the Forth Coast, which also happens to be an area of comparative strength for the Conservatives, especially around Dalgety Bay.
You’re possibly getting bored of reading it, and I’m getting bored of saying it, but it remains true that for Labour to hold onto this whilst struggling so much nationally, it’s looking like they’ll need to pull off a phenomenal ground campaign. Awkwardly enough, a strong tactical message to those Conservative voters in the south of the constituency may be a good way to shore up their vote.
Update: The SNP candidate for this seat, Neale Hanvey, has been suspended from the SNP and had all support for his campaign withdrawn by the party. However, as this happened two weeks after close of nominations, it is not possible to remove him from the ballot or replace him with an alternative SNP candidate. That significantly complicates matters now, as whilst many voters will obviously not want to vote for a candidate who no longer has the support of their party (especially as a result of anti-Semitism), many others won’t even be aware of or remember the situation when it comes time to cast their ballot.
It therefore remains (quite grimly) conceivable that Hanvey nonetheless wins the seat as an Independent. And here we have yet another argument for Open List Proportional Representation over First Past the Post.