As promised on Twitter, having hit a nice round number in terms of donations, here’s a sneak peek at an upcoming project – Ballot Box Battlegrounds. When campaigning for the next elections gets underway, Ballot Box Scotland will be looking at some of the key contests. Although the next regularly scheduled election is the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, the tense situation at Westminster could see a sudden UK General Election at any time. So for for this preview, let’s look at North East Fife (the most marginal seat anywhere in the UK) plus Lanark and Hamilton East (a tight three-way marginal).
As this is a sneak peek, it isn’t necessarily the finished product. In particular there isn’t precise commentary on which way a seat might go because that will be informed in part by the general polling situation when the election is actually called. Feedback and improvements for the graphic layout are of course very welcome. Full versions of Battleground posts will likely include 3-5 constituencies per post.
North East Fife (Most Marginal)
North East Fife isn’t only the most marginal constituency in Scotland – it’s the most marginal anywhere in the UK. Just two votes separated incumbent SNP MP Stephen Gethins from the Lib Dem’s Elizabeth Riches. The technical term for such a close result here in Scotland is of course “he won by a bawhair.”
This constituency (with varying boundaries) was represented by Lib Dem Ming Campbell from 1987-2015. Campbell, a former leader of the party, retired at that election so didn’t face the indignity of other long-serving colleagues in being personally defeated as the SNP tide swept the country.
At the 2016 Holyrood Election, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie won the roughly equivalent seat the party had lost in 2011 with a reasonably comfortable 10.1% majority. Then, in the 2017 council elections, the Lib Dems topped the poll in almost all of the wards that make up the constituency, with a lead of about 4.2% over the SNP.
In that context it’s perhaps somewhat surprising that they failed, however narrowly, to win this seat last time. However, that’s what makes this such a key battleground this time around. For the Lib Dems this is the only other Scottish constituency they can conceivably win at their current levels of support, whilst the SNP will be looking to reassert themselves after being bruised in 2017. Expect both parties to fight tooth and nail for this one, and local activists should come prepared for a long night of recounts just in case.
Lanark and Hamilton East (8th Most Marginal)
Lanark and Hamilton East is likely to be one of the most fascinating contests this time around. Angela Crawley’s lead for the SNP over the Conservative’s Poppy Corbett was only 0.5%. Labour’s Andrew Hilland was then hot on the Conservatives’ heels at just 0.2% further behind, meaning this could go any of three ways.
As with most of the Central Belt, this was a solidly Labour seat before the SNP surge, with the various configurations of Hamilton and Clydesdale seats preceding it also heavily Labour for decades. Hamilton itself was no stranger to the SNP before 2015 though, having famously elected Winnie Ewing at the 1967 by-election, which marked the start of the SNP’s continuous presence at Westminster. Keeping it in the family, her daughter Annabelle came close to clinching the Hamilton South seat at a 1999 by-election.
A look at the council wards that make up the constituency may explain why this is such a tight three-way marginal, with each of the SNP, Conservatives and Labour having the lead in multiple wards that the constituency overlaps. The SNP lead in Hamilton, the Conservatives in and around Lanark plus the Bothwell and Uddingston ward, and Labour in Larkhall and Carluke. Looking only at those wards mostly in the constituency, at Council level they went around 32.1% Labour, 31.2% SNP, and 28.0% Conservative.
For the Scottish Parliament, the constituency covers most of the Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse constituency plus the northern portion of Clydesdale, both of which have been held by the SNP since the 2011 election. It also takes in the southern end of Uddingston and Bellshill which the SNP won for the first time in 2016. Before the SNP took them, all three Holyrood constituencies were held by Labour MSPs.
Expect all three parties to go with a heavy tactical vote message targeted at one another’s voters. Whether or not the seat flips and to which party is likely to come down to who can best sell that message.