GE24: Ballot Box Battlegrounds 17-14

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With just a couple of weeks left for parties and candidates to lock-down those votes, and an increasing number already cast by post, it’s time for that BBS election staple: Ballot Box Battlegrounds. Throughout this series, we’ll take a look at the 17 marginal constituencies in Scotland, based on the notional results of the 2019 election on the new boundaries. Before getting into the meat of this piece, it’s worth reflecting a bit on the slightly strange circumstances we find ourselves when it comes to talking about marginals.

Ahead of 2019, Scotland was in the odd situation that almost all of our seats were “formal” marginals – that is, requiring a swing of 5% or less to change hands, i.e. a majority of 10% or lower. This time around we’ve got a much more modest pile of formal marginals, but that disguises the fact that most of the seats that are likely to change hands aren’t on this list. As I laid out in this piece, Labour’s poll lead over the SNP is likely to see them win most Central Belt seats.

Those “informal” marginals, if you will, are obviously vitally important, but it just wouldn’t really be as interesting to read “this is a Central Belt seat, so even though it’s not formally marginal, Labour will likely win it” over and over again. I’m therefore sticking to covering formal marginals as I did before 2019, and the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. This should give a wider flavour of what’s going on in Scotland beyond just the Central Belt, though there are a few of those seats in this list as well!

Key Details

Notional 2019 Winner:
🟑SNP: Kirsten Oswald
Majority: 5426 (9.8%)
Boundary Changes: None
Sitting MP Status: Reselected

2024 Candidates

🟑SNP: Kirsten Oswald
πŸ”΄Labour: Blair McDougall
πŸ”΅Conservative: Sandesh Gulhane
🟠Lib Dem: Alan Grant
🟒Green: Karen Sharkey
🟣Reform UK: Matt Alexander
🟀Family: Maria Reid
🟀Liberal: Allan Steele
🟀Independence for Scotland: Colette Walker

Summary of Boundary Changes and Impacts

None whatsoever, meaning the majority is unchanged too. Kirsten Oswald, the sitting SNP MP, was re-selected by her party.

2019 Result
Commentary

Don’t be fooled by the fact East Renfrewshire doesn’t have any boundary changes, because we’re starting off with an absolute corker of a seat here. In all honesty, as much as this may be the least marginal of the marginals, it’s probably the most interesting constituency in this entry.

You see, in a Scottish context East Renfrewshire is a real rarity. Rural Conservative seats are very widespread across Britain, and indeed all six they won in Scotland in 2019 were rural constituencies. In England, there are also plenty of affluent urban or suburban constituencies with Conservative MPs, or at least a recent history of them. Those have been much rarer in Scotland, basically confined to East Renfrewshire in 2017, and in Holyrood the equivalent Eastwood seat, plus Ayr and, until 2011, Edinburgh Pentlands.

Whilst all constituencies and all voter groups are diverse, and we shouldn’t be too broad brush in our statements, these are the kinds of areas where the general political sentiment would be positive on the one hand towards the Union, tax cuts, and business. In other words, traditional Conservative positions. On the other hand, those same voters also quite like the European Union, LGBTI+ people, and immigrants, which the Conservatives have very notably not been particularly keen on recently.

That being the rough shape of local opinion would explain why in 2019, an election defined by Brexit, the vehemently anti-Brexit SNP not only had a much bigger swing than they saw nationally, but actually had an even higher vote share than their 2015 landslide, despite a lower vote nationally. It can similarly be seen in how Jackson Carlaw, MSP for Eastwood, was one of just three Conservative MSPs to vote for the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

So what do those kind of voters do this time? Brexit, whether you like it or not, has happened and is no longer a defining issue. People supportive of the Union may be much less inclined to lend a Pro-Independence party their vote this time around, especially if they’re scunnered with the SNP after 17 years in government. At the same time, expect a similar degree of distaste for the Conservatives after 14 years at the top and seemingly going heavy on the culture wars that leave a lot of affluent but socially liberal voters cold.

Presumably, the only game in town then would be Labour, who languished in a very distant third place by 2019. That was a dramatic fall for the party that had held it from 1997 up to 2015. In 2017, having seen the Conservatives win Eastwood the year before on a “Party of the Union” ticket, Labour tried to emphasise their own Pro-Union cred by standing Blair McDougall, who’d been a senior figure in the successful Better Together campaign. That wasn’t sufficient that year, and they barely even tried in 2019, but he’s back this time, and could it be that now it’s Labour best placed to beat the SNP locally? Add in the fact that the Greens are standing here for the first time and did relatively well in the 2022 locals, which will most impact the SNP, and this is definitely one to watch.

Key Details

Notional 2019 Winner:
🟑SNP: Brendan O’Hara
Majority: 4897 (9.7%)
Boundary Changes: Minor & Name Change
Boundary Change Impact: Same Winner
Closest 2019 Equivalent: Argyll and Bute
Sitting MP Status: Reselected

2024 Candidates

🟑SNP: Brendan O’Hara
πŸ”΄Labour: Hamish Maxwell
πŸ”΅Conservative: Amanda Hampsey
🟠Lib Dem: Alan Reid
🟣Reform UK: Melanie Hurst
βšͺIndependent: Tommy MacPherson

Summary of Boundary Changes and Impacts

A relatively small expansion to this constituency in electorate terms, but a big one geographically, adding the Morvern and Glencoe areas of Highland’s Fort William and Ardnamurchan ward. Most of this additional area was actually historically in the County of Argyll before the 1973 reforms to local government in Scotland.Β 

Moderate though these changes may be, they do pad out the SNP’s advantage over the Conservatives, which had been a slightly lower 8.6% on the old boundaries. Brendan O’Hara, the sitting SNP MP, was re-selected by his party.

Notional 2019 Result
Commentary

Following on from our Borders excursion in the prior seat, there are actually a lot of similarities here, just the other way about. When the Conservatives gained their Holyrood Borders seat from the Lib Dems in 2007, the SNP similarly relieved the Lib Dems of the Holyrood Argyll and Bute seat. Although I certainly wouldn’t call Argyll and Bute an SNP stronghold, they have been pretty well established here for their entire time in government. Given this is at the upper end of marginality, and the top two parties are both in decline, that probably favours the incumbent.

Although it’s a historically Lib Dem seat, I wouldn’t rate their chances particularly highly here. In the 2022 local elections, their support further withered in the Helensburgh end of the constituency, which is the biggest population centre. Don’t be fooled by them standing their former MP Alan Reid either; he has been their candidate in all four of the previous parliamentary (two Holyrood, two Westminster) since he lost his seat, so if he ever had a personal vote he clearly exhausted it in 2015. Rather than going for a win, they might instead hope to capitalise on Conservative collapse and pull back into second.

Key Details

Notional 2019 Winner:
πŸ”΅Conservative: John Lamont
Majority: 5148 (9.6%)
Boundary Changes: None
Sitting MP Status: Reselected

2024 Candidates

🟑SNP: David Wilson
πŸ”΄Labour: Caitlin Stott
πŸ”΅Conservative: John Lamont
🟠Lib Dem: Ray Georgeson
🟒Green: Neil MacKinnon
🟣Reform UK: Carolyn Grant
🟀Family: Hamish Goldie
βšͺIndependent: Ellie Merton

Summary of Boundary Changes and Impacts

None whatsoever, meaning the majority is unchanged too. John Lamont, the sitting Conservative MP, was re-selected by his party.

2019 Result
Commentary

After the long screed on East Renfrewshire, you might find this section mercifully short. Although the SNP won this seat in their 2015 landslide when they turfed out former Scottish Secretary, Liberal Democrat Michael Moore, that was by a mere 0.6% over the Conservatives. The Borders have since very much become a stronghold of the Scottish Conservative revival, and they easily won this seat in 2017.

It’s very hard to see how this one will be anything other than blue on the day, in part because it’s the safest of the Conservatives’ six 2019 seats. The Lib Dems have largely given up the ghost in the Borders, and Labour have never been in serious contention here. Even with both the SNP and Conservatives suffering in the polls, it’s pretty clear they are the only prospective winners. Given John Lamont’s profile in the area, bearing in mind he was an MSP for the overlapping Holyrood seat for a decade first, he’ll also be able to count on a decent amount of personal support no doubt.

Key Details

Notional 2019 Winner:
πŸ”΅Conservative: David Mundell
Majority: 4338 (8.5%)
Boundary Changes: Minor
Boundary Change Impact: Same Winner
Closest 2019 Equivalent: Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale
Sitting MP Status: Reselected

2024 Candidates

🟑SNP: Kim Marshall
πŸ”΄Labour: Daniel Coleman
πŸ”΅Conservative: David Mundell
🟠Lib Dem: Drummond Begg
🟒Green: Dominic Ashmole
🟣Reform UK: David Kirkwood
🟀Family: Gareth Kirk

Summary of Boundary Changes and Impacts

Only some very slight changes to this seat. On the one hand, it’s given up the small portion of Dumfries it contained – the Crichton, Noblehill and Kingholm Quay areas which form part of the Nith ward. On the other, it has added a stretch around the tiny village of Ae in the Lochar ward.

Further reducing the urban element to this constituency naturally benefits the Conservatives, giving their majority a small boost from the prior 7.7%. David Mundell, the sitting Conservative MP, was re-selected by his party.

Notional 2019 Result
Commentary

This might be the easiest of this batch of battleground seats to talk about. David Mundell had been the only Conservative MP in Scotland for a decade by the time of the 2015 election, and the SNP oh-so-narrowly failed to unseat him then. Nearly another decade further down the line and I’d quite frankly be astonished if he was turfed out at an election where his primary competition has lost a lot of popularity too.

With that neat and easy finish, that’s our first batch of battlegrounds completed! We’ll be looking at the next four tomorrow (the 18th) so check back then for the details on some more hotly contested constituencies.

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