Ballot Box Battlegrounds GE19 – 16-13

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!

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#16 – Argyll and Bute (SNP, Majority: 2.8%)

Note: This piece originally appeared in the Helensburgh Advertiser, which is why it wasn’t initially published here.

At the 2017 election, the Liberal Democrats’ success in winning back three Scottish MPs disguised the fact that in a lot of their former seats, they lost a substantial amount of support. Argyll and Bute is one of a few Highland (mostly – Helensburgh is the awkward lowland bolt-on) seats where the Conservatives quite firmly displaced the Lib Dems as the SNP’s main competition.

Argyll and Bute was an obvious place for a Conservative comeback last time because it neatly combines two places they typically do well in. They’ve always done better than average in rural areas, which Argyll has in spades. At the same time they also draw plenty of support from affluent towns, so Helensburgh voted particularly strongly for the party recently. Most notably, Helensburgh Central is one of a good number of wards across Scotland where they missed out on a councillor in May 2017 by standing too few candidates.

With all of that in mind, this would be a constituency you might expect them to have a really good shot at. There’s less than 3% in it. However, recent polling suggests, the Liberal Democrats could be back in the game, with former MP Alan Reid taking another run at the seat. If the Lib Dems do indeed make this one of their priority seats, it’s going to make for a messy contest to be the party that can most credibly claim “Only We Can Beat the SNP here!”

With a certain degree of Independence related tactical voting a fact of life in Scotland, any confusion about what the cleverest Pro-Union vote is naturally boosts the SNP’s chances. Remember that they have a pretty high baseline vote in most of the country anyway, and those recent polls have the party gaining ground versus 2017. First Past the Post doesn’t need stonking majorities, and it doesn’t reward challengers who neatly split the vote. So long as Brendan O’Hara’s vote holds up to where it was at the last election, he’s likely to hold on whilst the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives scrap over second.

#15 – Edinburgh South West (SNP, Majority: 2.2%)

Edinburgh South West was one of the seats the Conservatives were very clearly pushing to win in 2017. That’s no surprise when you remember that in its various forms, this part of the city has typically been a strong area for the party.

Before their 1997 wipeout, it was one of their last remaining seats in the Central Belt, and they held the Holyrood equivalent from 2003 until 2011. In the council elections the month before the last snap, they had a pretty solid lead over the SNP, and in fact narrowly ensured that the Colinton/Fairmilehead ward is one of a very few on the mainland with no SNP councillor.

Despite all of those advantages and the clear targeting of the seat, it wasn’t one they flipped. Since 2017, Joanna Cherry has only grown in profile for a… mixture of reasons. Your average voter is most likely to have heard of her part in the various legal cases against the UK Government on Brexit. Combine that profile with the SNP’s polling bump and that likely puts her in a solid position.

It’s also worth in this election remembering that Edinburgh wasn’t just one of the most strongly Remain areas in Scotland, but in fact the most heavily Remain voting major city anywhere in the UK. That’s likely to play against the Conservatives this time in a way it didn’t in 2017. Don’t expect the Lib Dems to come anywhere near gaining the seat, but they could see a stronger than average boost that comes largely at the Conservative’s expense.

#14 – Midlothian (Labour, Majority: 2.0%)

Located at the eastern end of what used to be a mining belt through Lanarkshire and Lothian, Midlothian is the example par excellence of the SNP-Labour struggle for dominance in post-industrial Scotland. It’s been so closely fought between the two parties that at council level Labour had a lead of just 31 votes over the SNP in 2012, which by 2017 had reversed to the SNP having a barely more comfortable half a percent.

So, this is exactly the kind of seat that you would have expected Labour to do well in. Sure enough, at the last election their better than national increase combined with the SNP’s substantial decline saw Danielle Rowley off to Westminster. With Labour in the polling doldrums and the SNP on the up however, this currently looks like it’ll require a dramatic divergence from the national result to stay Labour.

Keep an eye on both the Conservative and Lib Dem vote shares as well. Neither of them are in the running to win the seat, but given the Council and Constituency overlap perfectly it’s a useful indication of where things might go in a few years’ time. It also almost perfectly mirrored the national balance between Remain and Leave in 2016.

Until 2017, the Conservatives hadn’t won a single councillor in Midlothian since 1992. Even the advent of STV in 2007 wasn’t enough. In 2017 however they managed to win a councillor in every ward but Dalkeith. If they go substantially backwards in this vote, expect at least a few of those seats to go elsewhere in 2022.

The Lib Dems on the other hand used to be quite strong here, with councillors even in the FPTP era and a quarter of the vote in 2005. Even with this being a good Remain area it’s vanishingly unlikely they’ll get anywhere near that, but they may see enough to prepare a return to the council chambers.

#13 – Dunfermline and West Fife (SNP, Majority: 1.6%)

Following in the previous constituency’s footsteps, we’ve got another historic mining area in Dunfermline and West Fife. It’s the “West Fife” bit that covers an impressive number of former mining villages scattered across the countryside. To this day, Labour remains the strongest party in these communities.

Labour are also strong in the small portion of Cowdenbeath ward that overlaps with the constituency (doesn’t show on the map as it’s just a bit). Dunfermline itself has swung more strongly to the SNP in recent years, in common with most large towns across Scotland, as has Rosyth to the south. Areas like North Queensferry in the southeast are a little bit Conservative leaning, but not large enough to make much of an impact.

I’ve said words to the effect of “keep an eye on the Lib Dems” quite a lot already, and I’ve got plenty more constituencies to say that about, but it’s especially true here. A certain Willie Rennie won a 2006 by-election here for the party, showing they’ve got a historically strong base here. They won’t repeat that feat at the moment, but they’re even better suited as a comfortable pro-Unions vote here than in most of the country.

The SNP’s Douglas Chapman has a majority below 1000 votes so may be feeling a bit vulnerable. But put together that prospective Lib Dem revival, polls indicating an SNP bounce, and Labour polling shockingly badly of late, and there may be cause for comfort.