GE24: Ballot Box Battlegrounds 9-6

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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:
🔵Conservative: David Duguid
Majority: 2399 (5.2%)
Boundary Changes: Major & Name Change
Boundary Change Impact: Same Winner
Closest 2019 Equivalent: Banff and Buchan
Sitting MP Status: Deselected, replaced by Douglas Ross

2024 Candidates

🟡SNP: Seamus Logan
🔴Labour: Andy Brown
🔵Conservative: Douglas Ross
🟠Lib Dem: Ian Bailey
🟣Reform UK: Jo Hart

Summary of Boundary Changes and Impacts

What was the Banff and Buchan seat loses most of the inland Buchan portion, but and gains instead the portion of the current Moray seat (and council area) east of the Spey. Despite the name, this section barring Fochabers is all historic Banffshire, meaning despite the removal of “Banff” from the constituency name, there’s more Banffshire here by population than any Westminster seat for decades. Nonetheless Buchan, an area with no separate historic existence, got to be preserved as part of the Gordon and Buchan constituency name, but Banffshire has been erased entirely. I think this is a very small yet real injustice.

These changes result in a relatively significant trim to the Conservative majority here, dropping by almost half from 9.7%, having been the 20th most marginal seat under the old boundaries. David Duguid, the sitting Conservative MP, was re-selected by his party. He then took quite seriously ill and, at the last minute whilst recovering in hospital, was deselected and party leader Douglas Ross effectively made himself the candidate instead, at the same time breaking a three-year pledge to leave Westminster at this election.

Notional 2019 Result

The loss of both the Banff and Buchan and Moray constituencies in 2017 were undoubtedly the biggest blows the SNP endured that year. These had been two of the seats they’d held for the longest period, with unbroken representation for bang on 30 years, starting at the 1987 election. Most notably, Alex Salmond got his start as SNP MP for this seat, which he held right up until 2010.

Most people would consider that came down partly to the fact that the Banff and Buchan constituency was the only Scottish constituency estimated to have voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. The swing against the SNP was huge here, losing around 21% of the vote at an election they were down 13% nationally. It was a key target for them in 2019 but the Conservatives actually managed to, very slightly, increase their majority.

What eats away at the Conservative majority on the new boundaries is that the Banffshire portion of Moray added is generally the more SNP-leaning part of that area, plus the loss of the very Conservative inland Buchan portions. Neither the Lib Dems nor Labour have much of a history in this area even in their good days, so there’s very little prospect of either making much difference to the outcome here.

At this point, let me let you into a secret: I actually wrote most of this series in January, shortly after the the publication of 2019 notionals. I’m very glad that I did because it was one less thing I needed to do in full when we got a surprise July election. But it also means I did have to come back to this one to add: WHAT THE HELL. Did anyone have “Leader of the Scottish Conservatives brutally deselects a sick colleague so he can stand in his, safer, Westminster constituency after spending three years saying he’d stand down” on their bingo card? I didn’t.

That absolutely enormous miscalculation prematurely sunk Ross’ leadership. He announced he’d leave the role after the election, and also that if elected as MP he’d resign from Holyrood, having originally intended to continue being the only Dual Mandate parliamentarian in the entire UK (it’s not allowed at the Senedd or Stormont). This is the kind of behaviour voters do not look particularly kindly on. Add in the earlier mentioned fact this was the most Brexit-y part of Scotland and Reform UK are polling well, and the chances of the Conservatives losing this have gone up significantly I reckon.

Key Details

Notional 2019 Winner:
🟡SNP: Laura Mitchell (2019 candidate)
Majority: 2906 (5.2%)
Boundary Changes: Major & Name Change
Boundary Change Impact: SNP win over Conservative
Closest 2019 Equivalent: Moray
Sitting MP Status🔵Conservative Douglas Ross Standing in Aberdeenshire North and Moray East (Not Notional 2019 Winner, elected to Holyrood in 2021)

2024 Candidates

🟡SNP: Graham Leadbitter
🔴Labour: James Hynam
🔵Conservative: Kathleen Robertson
🟠Lib Dem: Neil Alexander
🟢Green: Draeyk van der Horn
🟣Reform UK: Steve Skerret
🟤Family: Euan Morrice

Summary of Boundary Changes and Impacts

It’s a neat coincidence that the geographically neighbouring seat to the previous one is also neighbouring in terms of marginality ranking. Retaining most of the current Moray seat (including the inland “spike” of historic Banffshire), the rest of the area added to it is rather clear from the name; it’s got Nairn plus Badenoch and Strathspey. The pairing of Moray and Nairn isn’t without precedent, as they had previously formed a joint constituency for 65 years up until 1983.

Moray had been a very, very close seat under the old boundaries, the third most marginal with the Conservatives leading by just 1.1%. That makes this another of the notionally flipped seats, with the SNP estimated to have won instead. The 2019 SNP candidate was Laura Mitchell, but it’ll be Elgin South councillor Graham Leadbitter seeking to “hold” this one. We all know from the previous seat what absolute shenanigans the Conservative’s actually sitting MP Douglas Ross has gotten up to. He has left Forres councillor Kathleen Robertson facing a tougher fight to notionally re-gain the seat than he had in 2019. 

Notional 2019 Result

Similar to the neighbouring seat, losing was Moray truly crushing for the SNP in 2017 – in fact even more so, given that the casualty was their Depute and Westminster Group Leader, Angus Robertson. Whereas the Banff and Buchan seat as-was was estimated to have outright voted for Brexit, Moray was notable as the closest council area in Scotland at just 122 votes more for Remain than Leave. That’ll have been what helped propel Douglas Ross to victory, only a year after he’d been elected to the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands region.

Although Ross resigned from Holyrood as a result of becoming an MP, he only very narrowly held the seat in 2019. The next year, after a few months where the party felt new leader Jackson Carlaw wasn’t making enough headway, he was rather brutally ousted and Douglas Ross installed in his place. As such, he had to effect a return to Holyrood which he did in 2021, but unlike going in the other direction resigning as MP would have required a by-election, and given the highly marginal nature of the seat the SNP would have thrown everything at it and potentially caused a serious embarrassment had they won it back.

The new boundaries avoid embarrassment by allowing for Ross to have been notionally defeated by the SNP in 2019 without actually having been so. Although the parts of the old Moray seat this one loses are generally more SNP leaning than what’s left, the Conservatives are significantly weaker in the Highland portions that were added. That’s how that doesn’t just flip the seat to the SNP but leaves it significantly less marginal than it had been before the changes.

Given their recent difficulties, it’s not going to be easy for the SNP to hold this seat. Yet the Conservatives aren’t doing fantastically at the moment either, and so it’s not going to be easy for them to win. Despite the fact the Lib Dem and Labour votes aren’t appreciably bigger than in that neighbouring seat, and they certainly aren’t in the running to win here, I do think both actually have the possibility to siphon votes away from the two likely winners.

The Lib Dems have very little history in Moray but they do in the Highland side of the constituency, and are a natural home for scunnered Conservatives. Labour likewise actually have quite a solid little base in Elgin that could see them eat up a few votes there too. There’s also more potential for the Greens to snap up a few votes in this seat, with the 1.2% in the chart before coming entirely from the Highland end of the seat. They didn’t contest Moray in 2019, but their Forres councillor is on the ballot this time around. On the flip side, Reform UK also have some potential to spoil things in this sort of seat, and more credibly than the 2019 UKIP candidate in Moray.

Voters here also won’t have been able to miss the furore around Douglas Ross’ shift east. Although he may very well argue his seat was split and he’s standing in the side he used to represent as a councillor, don’t expect that nuance to cut through the sense that he’s cut and run. Again, that’ll sit badly with a few locals, and could cost his party a few votes as a result. All of these different little factors could help decide who ultimately wins between the SNP and Conservatives, even if my general assessment is to favour the incumbent in such matchups at the moment.

Key Details

Notional 2019 Winner:
🟡SNP: Allan Dorans
Majority: 2329 (5.0%)
Boundary Changes: None
Sitting MP Status: Reselected

2024 Candidates

🟡SNP: Allan Dorans
🔴Labour: Elaine Stewart
🔵Conservative: Martin Dowey
🟠Lib Dem: Paul Kennedy
🟢Green: Korin Vallance
⚫Alba: Corri Wilson
🟣Reform UK: Andrew Russell

Summary of Boundary Changes and Impacts

None whatsoever, meaning the majority is unchanged too. Allan Dorans, the sitting SNP MP, was re-selected by his party.

2019 Result

We’re back to some very easy territory here, as like the rest of Ayrshire there are no changes to muddy the waters. This is one of the seven seats that the Conservatives gained from the SNP in 2017 before losing again in 2019. Of the three SNP-Conservative marginals in this entry it’s probably the one where Labour have the greatest likelihood of ruining someone else’s day, despite a poor result last time.

Even through the worst of their troubles the party has remained very strong in the Cumnock portion of this constituency. On top of that, some of the more well-heeled voters in Ayr might view them as a safe place to park their vote if they are scunnered with both of the Government parties. 

Key Details

Notional 2019 Winner:
🟡SNP: Kenny MacAskill
Majority: 2207 (4.3%)
Boundary Changes: Minor & Name Change
Boundary Change Impact: Same Winner
Closest 2019 Equivalent: East Lothian
Sitting MP Status: Changed Party to ⚫Alba & Reselected

2024 Candidates

🟡SNP: Lyn Jardine
🔴Labour: Douglas Alexander
🔵Conservative: Scott Hamilton
🟠Lib Dem: Duncan Dunlop
🟢Green: Shona McIntosh
⚫Alba: George Kerevan
🟣Reform UK: Robert Davies

Summary of Boundary Changes and Impacts

In addition to the reversal of the components in the name, loses most but not all of Musselburgh, retaining the Pinkie and Levenhall areas.

The loss of most of Musselburgh cuts the SNP’s notional majority down from 6.6%, and moves it up from the 10th most marginal. Kenny MacAskill, the sitting MP, defected to Alba, but has oddly chosen to contest the Alloa and Grangemouth seat. In his stead, former SNP MP for East Lothian, George Kerevan, has the hopeless job of being the Alba candidate. The new SNP candidate, Lyn Jardine, is a councillor for Dunbar and East Linton.

Notional 2019 Result

Musselburgh is easily the most SNP-friendly part of East Lothian, so the fact most of it has been carved out explains why the SNP majority here slips. It’s not inherently fatal to them for that to be the case, as they won the Holyrood seat in 2021 and that version has precisely zero Musselburgh in it. However, given the fact Labour have pulled into a national lead, it’s very hard to see how the SNP could hold this one. On top of that, this is the other seat (after yesterday’s Cowdenbeath and Kirkcaldy) to be home to an Alba defector.

Kenny MacAskill defecting to Alba wasn’t necessarily the biggest surprise, given that unlike other SNP MPs, he’d served in Salmond’s cabinet the entire time he was in office. Following his former leader into a new party made a certain sort of sense. More weird however is that he’s done a runner to stand in Alloa and Grangemouth instead. An argument could be made that, as a former MSP for Edinburgh East and Musselburgh, the fact the latter was taken out of the seat meant removing his old stomping grounds.

Yet if that was the explanation, he’d presumably stand in the new, UK Edinburgh East and Musselburgh. A cynic suggested to me that MacAskill is seen as a more serious and credible political figure than the astrally projecting Neale Hanvey, and as such it’d be more damning to lose his deposit. I’m not sure how much that tracks, seeing as legging it to another seat is also quite embarrassing, but it’s one suggestion anyway. Regardless, Alba aren’t winning this seat, and it’s vanishingly unlikely the SNP will either.

The last entry in this series will go live tomorrow (the 20th), as we get right down into the most wafer-thin majorities in Scotland.

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