Ballot Box Battlegrounds was not only our trip through the 20 most marginal seats in Scotland. With just one week left until polling day, it’s also returning for one more bonus round of 4 seats to watch, one currently held by each Westminster party. Check out the GE19 Hub for the latest information!
#25 – East Lothian (Labour, Majority: 5.5%)
Labour may have the safest seat in Scotland at the moment, but their second safest is very shoogly indeed. Not only were they just 5.5% ahead of the SNP in East Lothian last time, the Conservatives were only another 1% behind them, making this another one of those pesky three way marginals Scotland has so many of.
Although the SNP would be the obvious main challengers here, it’s worth noting that despite coming second in terms of votes here a few weeks before in the council elections, they came third in terms of seats. That makes East Lothian the only mainland council where the SNP is not the largest or second largest party on the council. Bearing in mind as well that former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray turned a narrow 151 vote majority in 2011 into over 1,000 in 2016 in the overlapping Holyrood seat, it’s clear East Lothian is quite a tough nut for the SNP to crack.
Before the SNP surge in 2015, it was typically the Conservatives in second here – bar 2005 when the Lib Dems very narrowly squeaked in front. They were never particularly close to taking the seat in that era though, as it was pretty safely Labour. They have recently been doing well in East Lothian however, so this election could be their lucky day.
I really do think this could go to any of the three parties. Labour have been suffering in the polls, but the margin here is wide enough that a good local campaign that prevents most of the leakage could see them hold on. The SNP are slightly up which means if Labour can’t stem the leakage, they are well placed to tip it. Finally, the Conservatives have been stabilising nationally whilst also pushing hard on their usual pro-Union stance, which against that backdrop of poor Labour polling could work to pick up enough tactical votes to swing it.
#41 – Moray (Conservative, Majority: 8.7%)
Just two years after the SNP had inflicted a string of dramatic upsets on the Labour party, including the defeat of their Scottish leader Jim Murphy, the Conservatives inflicted a similar upset on the SNP in Moray. One of the SNP’s longest held seats, held consistently since 1987 and before that (on different boundaries) having been won in both 1974 elections, they would have been justified in thinking this was safe. Unfortunately for their Depute and Westminster group leader Angus Robertson, it wasn’t.
The Moray constituency is coterminous with the council of the same name, which itself is a merger of most of the historic Moray area with the western portion of historic Banffshire. Even by the standards of an island country this is an area defined by its connection to the sea, home to a major chunk of Scotland’s fishing fleet. It also takes in big swathes of rural, agricultural Scotland and further inland, in the former Banffshire spike, a number of renowned whisky distilleries. As distant as it may seem to folk so focussed on Central Belt politics, Moray is therefore one of Scotland’s most globally connected areas.
That fishing connection in particular goes some way to explaining why Moray was the closest run council in the 2016 EU Referendum, Remain coming just 122 votes ahead of Leave. However, this probably isn’t the most Leave constituency in Scotland, as it’s estimated that neighbouring Banff and Buchan in Aberdeenshire actually had a small majority in favour of Leave. In any case, strong support locally for Brexit probably helped push the seat in the Conservative’s favour.
Although this project has consistently reminded us people often vote in different ways at different levels, the fact the Conservatives beat the SNP on first preference votes in the council election the month before probably set alarm bells ringing for Robertson too. With Conservative support in the polls roughly back to 2017 levels and Brexit a defining issue of the election, I’d be more surprised by an SNP win than a Conservative hold here.
#47 – East Dunbartonshire (Liberal Democrat, Majority: 10.3%)
This is the first election in nearly a decade where a UK party leader holds a Scottish seat, giving Jo Swinson a lot more time in the spotlight than your average Scottish MP. Especially as that Lib Dem revival appears to have stalled, there’s been a lot of fevered speculation (and far too over-confident pre-emptive schadenfreude) about whether she’ll lose her seat.
Some of this has centred around the fact the SNP beat the Lib Dems in East Dunbartonshire in May’s EU elections. I don’t think that’s a useful comparison. For one thing, the East Dunbartonshire council area is larger than the constituency – about half of Kirkintilloch plus the whole Campsies area isn’t included at Westminster. Given Swinson and the Lib Dems’ base of support is in Bearsden and Milngavie, the constituency is a bit more favourable than the council.
For another, as you can see in the graphic above, the Lib Dems didn’t exactly win the council elections here the month before either. In fact, they only won about 15% of the vote – well behind both the SNP and the Conservatives. As lots of constituencies in the Battlegrounds series have shown, people often vote differently (and different people vote) at different levels of government. Swinson’s Westminster support far outstrips Lib Dem support at other levels in East Dunbartonshire.
It’s also the case that, especially in the Bearsden and Milngavie area, this constituency is demographically a Lib Dem dream. It’s relatively affluent (though not exclusively – parts of Milngavie and especially Kirkintilloch have substantial deprivation), relatively highly educated, and voted strongly against Independence and for the European Union. As much as their overall revival doesn’t seem like it’ll be anywhere what was expected a couple of months ago, they are doing better than in 2017.
Finally, let’s talk about personal popularity. It has been remarked upon and reported in the press that not only has Jo Swinson become less popular since becoming leader, but that is just as if not even more true in her own constituency. The perception seems to be that means she’s set to lose her seat – but being honest, most voters these days don’t particularly like their MPs! The electorate in general is a bit suspicious about politicians, and party leaders especially. They often turn out and vote for them regardless of personal ill-will. And in a constituency that’s so strongly pro-Union, the idea the SNP would be the natural beneficiaries of that distaste borders on fanciful.
Now! All of that said, I’m not saying there is no possibility that she does lose her seat to the SNP. It’s actually very possible. I’m simply saying that it’s not the neat, easy, conversion that so many people are suggesting it will be. Party leader seats are not lost at the drop of hat. On the whole, I think whilst her majority may narrow, Swinson will hold this.
#53 – Ross, Skye and Lochaber (SNP, Majority: 15.4%)
In all the drama of Labour being swept away across Scotland in 2015, we sometimes forget the same was true of the Lib Dems. Nowhere was more symbolic of that than Ross, Skye and Lochaber, where former leader Charles Kennedy lost his seat. Regardless of personal political views, Kennedy was such a towering figure in Scottish politics that I think most people would have felt at least a little bit of sadness seeing him lose – sadness that was amplified just a month later by his tragic death at the much too young age of 56.
Having been a Lib Dem area for decades until that defeat, they fell further in 2017 when it was the Conservatives who emerged as the SNP’s main challengers. The constituency took on additional importance shortly after, as the defeat of Angus Robertson in Moray necessitated a hunt for a new SNP group leader at Westminster. Ian Blackford was duly elected to that role, and in much the same way some pro-Independence voices have been getting over-excited at the prospect of Swinson losing, some pro-Union folk are keen to see the unseating of a second Westminster SNP leader in a row.
There have been reports that this hope has been bolstered by the Conservatives and Labour effectively giving the Lib Dems a free run at winning the seat back. They have a candidate on the ballot but won’t actively campaign. I’m not really convinced that will be enough, however. This is now the 7th safest seat in Scotland, with a reasonably comfy margin just above 15%.
Quite apart from the fact the SNP are both polling better than their 2017 result and can be expected to put in the work to try and avoid being Moray-ed, the Lib Dems have quite the gap to bridge. A Lib Dem heartland this may be, but fondness for Charles Kennedy isn’t the same thing as active support for any other candidate from his party. As much as this is exactly the kind of seat that would see the Lib Dems substantially outperform their national result, their recent polling just doesn’t seem indicative of big enough movement. So for the Lib Dems, I’m afraid this unlikely to be a Moray.