SP21 – Ballot Box Battlegrounds 4-1

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Part four of the Ballot Box Battlegrounds series brings us to the most absolutely marginal seats in Scotland. These are the ones where the key players in each will be fighting tooth and nail to to tip the scales in their favour. If anyone tries to tell you that any of these are in the bag for a given party, that’s your cue to laugh them off the internet!

Remember that due to the mixed nature of the Holyrood voting system, constituencies aren’t the be all and end of all of the election. In most cases, the party that loses out on a constituency will make up for that loss on the list anyway. Sometimes, however, that wouldn’t be the case, and based on 2016 results we’d have seen an overhang. Those constituencies are marked as “Double Marginals”, and the impact on list seats explained.

In addition to the 2016 results there, the maps also show the winner in each polling district in the 2017 council elections. We have this more detailed data due to the fact those elections are machine counted, but bear in mind that 2017 did have a different dynamic. This additional data is provided to give a rough indication of where parties are likely to be strongest in each constituency, not a guarantee that’s how they will (have) perform(ed) at Holyrood.

One of Scotland’s more geographically beefy constituencies, West Aberdeenshire covers a substantial inland tract of that council area. From Aberdeen suburbs including Westhill and Blackburn, it extends to take in towns and villages such as Banchory, Ballater and Braemar in the south, and Kintore, Alford and Huntly in the north. The larger southern portion was originally part of the West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine seat that was won by the Lib Dems in the first three elections, whilst the north was in Gordon which was similarly orange tinted until the SNP won it in 2007.

The redrawn and current constituency went to the SNP in 2011, as part of their clean sweep in the North East. They performed so strongly then that not only did they win all 10 constituencies in the region, but a list seat to boot. As the saying goes however, what goes up must come down, and they lost both their list seat and this constituency in 2016.

That was a bit of a prelude to the SNP’s losses across the North East in the 2017 Council and UK elections. Although they regained the Gordon Westminster seat in 2019, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine remained in Conservative hands. The question then is whether the SNP’s Fergus Mutch can do at Holyrood what he narrowly missed out on for Westminster, or whether Alexander Burnett will have been bolstered by other Conservative successes here.

There’s also the matter of what will happen with that substantial Lib Dem vote. Though it was much reduced from when they held the seat and even compared to 2011, it’s still one of their better results. I’d expect this to do the same as other Conservative-SNP marginals with big shares for a third party, and see that eroded as voters flock to one of the possible winners.

That seems even more likely as Mike Rumbles, who had been the MSP for the preceding WAK seat, is standing down. It’s not inconceivable some of that share in 2016 was a residual vote for Rumbles himself. On the other hand, this is where their #1 list candidate (and thus likely MSP) for the North East, Banchory and Mid Deeside councillor Rosemary Bruce, has been put up, which may indicate the Lib Dems intend to sink substantial resource into this area. 

Note too that this is a Double Marginal seat. If the SNP had held this seat in 2016, then they’d have had one more than their overall fair share of seats under D’Hondt for the North East. In a relatively rare case of an AMS overhang being a simple one-for-one exchange, it’d be the Conservatives who would have ultimately been down an MSP.

Although it now follows somewhat different boundaries, with Troon and Prestwick alongside Ayr itself forming the seat since 2011, Ayr has a notable place in the Scottish Parliament’s history. It was both the most marginal seat at the first election, and site of the first ever by-election. Labour won by just 25 votes in 1999, but their MSP resigned less than a year later. Conservative John Scott triumphed in the resulting by-election, giving his party their first Holyrood constituency, and he has held this seat since then.

The Conservative vote here proved resilient in both the 2011 and 2016 elections, though the SNP did narrow the gap each time. That’s brought this one firmly back into the realms of the marginal, and a top SNP target for this election. They’ve selected Ayr West councillor Siobhan Brown in their quest to knock the Conservatives out of their historic stronghold.

For John Scott, the stakes are high. He’s not on his party’s list in the South region at all, and therefore if he loses his seat he won’t be returning to Holyrood. Since the sad passing of his party colleague Alex Johnstone in 2016, Scott has been his party’s longest-serving MSP. A victory here would therefore be big news for the SNP, but given the strength of the Conservative vote in the south of Ayr and in Troon, it may yet prove difficult for them.

As is already seeming to be a bit of a pattern in this piece, it’ll perhaps be worth watching what happens with that Labour vote. It wasn’t particularly high last time, but there’s still enough there to be the decisive factor if deployed tactically. If Labour voters locally are feeling the competitive squeeze here, they may well opt to try and keep one or other of the two main competing parties out.

It might come as a slight surprise to find that Edinburgh Central was only – “only” – the second most marginal seat in 2016. Perhaps fittingly for the constituency which contains Holyrood itself, there has been a lot of attention put on this one.  In addition to the historic core of the city in the Old and New Towns, it includes the Stockbridge, Craigleith, Murrayfield and Haymarket areas, as well as chunks of Gorgie and Fountainbridge. 

The original version of the seat was consistently won by Labour, but they narrowly lost it to the SNP in 2011. In 2016, this was one of the three Edinburgh seats the party lost, with then-leader of the Conservatives Ruth Davidson picking it up, capping off the best night her party had had in Scotland for decades.

That may explain why it has been so… totemic to the SNP. It’s not fun for a party to lose a seat at the best of times, never mind to an opposing party’s leader. As part of that, a lot of ire went the Greens’ way for standing a candidate here, being perceived to have split the vote, but as I’ve noted a couple of times (and do again below), the imperfect and often unpredictable nature of AMS would have cost the Greens their second MSP here if the SNP had won, whilst Davidson would have been returned anyway.

No one can blame the SNP for being miffed they didn’t have another MSP here – after all, parties don’t care where their seats come from, it’s the number of them that matters. But that applies equally to the Greens, who wouldn’t have much cause to feel apologetic they got their fair share of seats.

Anyway, the SNP then had a very highly publicised selection contest, with speculation that Edinburgh South West MP Joanna Cherry would enter the race. She eventually opted not to, citing the impact of the party’s recently adopted rule that required MPs attempting to move to Holyrood to resign their Westminster seat to allow for a by-election. Instead, it came down to a contest between former Moray MP (and Depute/Westminster leader of the party) Angus Robertson and 2011-16 MSP for the constituency, Marco Biagi, which Robertson won relatively narrowly.

Whilst the SNP’s selection was rather dramatic, the Conservatives were a lot quieter. Davidson is standing down at this election, passing the torch to Corstorphine/Murrayfield councillor Scott Douglas. He’ll certainly have a degree of personal support in the constituency, but he’ll also obviously lack Davidson’s profile. That alone could be enough to tip the seat the SNP’s way, but it’ll be messy. A decisive factor could be what happens with the Green and Labour votes.

The Greens have opted to stand Alison Johnstone again, whilst Labour have a new face in Maddy Kirkman. Neither of them seem in the running to win, but the question of whether they hold onto all of their votes, lose them, or even gain some could play a big role in shaping the final result. This one is going to be a wild ride, and I haven’t the foggiest idea how it’ll turn out.

Note too that this is a Double Marginal seat. Had the SNP held this seat in 2016, that’d have given them one more than their D’Hondt entitlement in Lothian. The Conservatives would have made up the difference on the list, by bumping off the second Green, as noted above.

In fact, Lothian overall is something of a quadruple marginal, as there would have been further domino effects if the other two non-SNP constituencies had been won by that party. Unless Edinburgh Western was the one non-SNP seat, the Lib Dems lose out on a seat entirely, otherwise the Conservatives would lose an additional seat, as they do if all three went SNP.

Finally, that brings us to the shoogliest seat in Scotland – and it’s a corker. In addition to Dumbarton itself, this constituency includes the areas around Helensburgh, the Gare Loch and the western banks of Loch Lomond, and much more importantly, the Vale of Leven. That’s where I was born and grew up! I remain very fond of the Vale and it really just tickles me that my hometown gets to be one of the most important places in the country this year.

Labour’s Jackie Baillie has held this seat since Holyrood was set up in 1999, but was reduced to a majority of just 109 votes in 2016. As close as that was, it does mean she survived a second election in a row where you’d have expected her to have been swamped based on national swings. SNP challenger Toni Giuliagno will likely find this one much harder to gain than that slender majority suggests. Even if Baillie’s time as a constituency MSP draws to a close, she’s once again top of her party’s regional list in West, and so will return to Holyrood either way.

More than any other seat in the country though, what may swing this one is the degree of tactical voting. If you look at the tint according to 2017 results, there’s very little of the Labour red visible. Instead, the SNP held sway in most of the Vale of Leven plus the Lomond villages, whilst the Conservatives were strongest in and around Helensburgh. Whilst 2016 and 2017 were very different elections, I do think the latter was broadly indicative of the “natural” voting patterns in the area, as perhaps shown by the fact Labour and the Conservatives were almost tied on the list vote portion of Holyrood.

From looking at that evidence it seems clear that a big part of what kept Baillie in play here in 2016 was the willingness of otherwise Conservative-leaning voters to vote Labour in the constituency. Another key contributor to Baillie’s success is likely to be the presence of HMNB Clyde, home to the UK’s fleet of Trident nuclear deterrent submarines. Baillie has been very vocally supportive of the deterrent throughout her time as an MSP.

The base is a massive employer locally, a fact I’m keenly aware of as the only member of my family to actually hail from the Vale. My mum is Glaswegian and my dad is Galwegian, and I only ended up being born a Dunbartonshire lad because my dad got a job at the base. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in any part of this constituency that doesn’t have at least some connection, whether through family or friends, to the base. The SNP’s long-standing policy of a nuke-free Scotland, even if they state they wish to retain the base for conventional naval forces, has historically caused some locally to be wary of the party, and of Independence.

All that said, West Dunbartonshire (which includes the Vale and Dumbarton) was one of just four council areas with a majority Yes vote in 2014, so wariness may have receded in some quarters. It’s also clear that the SNP don’t need to gain too much of the Labour vote from last time to put themselves clear enough that no realistic amount of tactical voting could close the gap. Though I moved away in 2009, I kept a particular eye for the Dumbarton results in both 2011 and 2016. This time around, the eyes of the whole nation should be on this one.

Note too that this is a Double Marginal seat. Had the SNP gained this seat in 2016, that’d have given them one more than their D’Hondt entitlement in West. That wouldn’t have made any difference to Labour numbers, as they’d have made up for the loss in the list, displacing the Greens instead.

That then brings us to the end of this election’s most marginal seats. As a non-political tip from our most marginal seat, after the election is over and pandemic restrictions have eased enough to do so, you could do worse than get on a train out to Balloch. Once there, get some ice cream from Wizgonies, and enjoy the most beautiful part of the country. I’m more than a little biased, but looking up Loch Lomond, past the Maid of the Loch and up to Ben Lomond towering over everything never fails to take my breath away. 

But wait – the Battlegrounds aren’t over yet! We’ve still got a bonus round. These are seats which don’t meet the standard definition of “marginal”, but which may nonetheless turn up some fascinating results.

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