SP21 – Ballot Box Battlegrounds 8-5

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For our third entry in the Ballot Box Battlegrounds series, we’ve reached seats 8 to 5 by marginality ranking. We’ll continue (until the bonus round) going through these battleground constituencies in order of least to most marginal. By this point, things are getting pretty tight.

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.

We’re halfway through our list of marginals, so it’s numerically satisfying that brings us almost back to where we started, with the other side of Perthshire. As the name implies, this constituency combines the former county of Kinross with the southern stretches of Perthshire. The latter includes the bulk of the city of Perth itself, as well as the historic burghs of Crieff and Auchterarder, plus smaller towns and villages like Bridge of Earn, Almondbank and Comrie.

The seat, and its previous version, had been held by the SNP’s Roseanna Cunningham since creation. Prior to that, Cunningham had won the 1995 Perth and Kinross by-election from the Conservatives, then held the seat at the 1997 UK Election. Following the unseating of Labour MEP David Martin in 2019 – albeit Brexit would have removed him from office a few months later anyway – she’d held the title of Scotland’s longest serving parliamentarian. 

Though I’m a strong proponent of the notion most votes are cast on party rather than personal lines, long-serving parliamentarians in particular do often have a notable personal portion to their share. With Cunningham’s retirement, the door may be more open for seasoned Conservative List MSP Liz Smith to manage a gain in what is the most marginal SNP-held seat at Holyrood, whilst Jim Fairlie will be on the defence in this traditional stronghold for his party.

In 2017, the Conservatives did win the overlapping Ochil and South Perthshire seat at Westminster, though they lost it again in 2019. My inclination would be to suggest the Ochil bit of that seat did the heavy lifting for the SNP whilst South Perthshire probably remained quite Conservative. All of that said, in the Holyrood seat the SNP will be boosted by how much of Perth is in it, and a recent by-election in the Almond and Earn ward showed a solid advance versus 2017. Polling is obviously also on their side, so though it’s the most marginal SNP held seat, it’ll prove a toughie for Smith to flip.

Note too that this is a Double Marginal seat. In 2016, the SNP won one constituency more in Mid Scotland & Fife than their overall fair share of seats under D’Hondt. If the Conservatives had won this seat, Labour would have won a further list seat they were proportionally entitled to.

One of just two seats to share a land border with England, Dumfriesshire covers the bulk of the historic county of that name. The area of Dumfries itself to the west of the Nith isn’t in this constituency, though historic boundary purists may note that simply follows the traditional boundary between Dumfriesshire and the Stewartry. In any case, beyond that big chunk of Dumfries, other major towns and villages across the shire include Annan, Lockerbie, Moffat, Gretna, Langholm and Sanquhar.

This was a Labour seat up until 2016, when it was won by the Conservative’s Oliver Mundell. That made Dumfriesshire as an overall area something of a family affair, as his father David has represented the Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale seat at Westminster as a Conservative MP since 2005. As with other recently Labour held seats that have tipped to the Conservatives, I’d expect voters to continue to shift towards the SNP and Conservatives and away from Labour.

Hoping to gain the seat for the SNP is Joan McAlpine, who has been a South MSP since 2011. She’s certainly in with a reasonable shot at doing so, but (usual caveats in mind) polling projections vary as to whether this seat stays blue or dons a yellow tint. At second place on her party’s list, failure to win here doesn’t necessarily doom McAlpine, given they won three list seats in the region in 2016. However, we’ll soon encounter two other South constituencies which are more marginal than this one.

If the SNP were to gain those two seats but miss out here, McAlpine might find herself unseated by her party colleagues’ successes. I’d also expect that given the strength of the Mundell name in the area over nearly two decades that the Conservatives will outperform their national polling trends in this constituency. 

Labour only won three constituencies in the 2016 election, and the fact that their least marginal seat is the 6th most marginal in the country speaks to how close they were to constituency wipe out at that election. Despite the name, East Lothian does not contain all of the council area of the same name, nor is it in the Lothian Region. Excluding the Musselburgh area, it includes the county town of Haddington plus areas such as Dunbar, East Linton, North Berwick, Cockenzie, Prestonpans, and Tranent.

Despite their poor showing overall at the last election, Labour managed to increase their majority in this seat. In 2011 it had been just 151 votes, enough to prompt a recount and give a real scare to then-Leader Iain Gray, who had won this seat to effect his return to Holyrood in 2007. He’s now one of the class of 1999 MSPs who has opted to retire at this election, but his replacement isn’t entirely fresh-faced.

Martin Whitfield, who was MP for the Westminster East Lothian seat from 2017 until 2019, has been put forward to defend this rare Labour constituency. That may well give his party slightly better prospects than they’d have otherwise had. His opponent will be SNP councillor for Dunbar and East Linton Paul McLennan, who’ll be hoping to repeat his party’s 2015 and 2019 UK Parliament results. Given Labour have been polling quite badly, I’d lean towards this being a loss for them. There is one more little complication though, possibly.

Although Alba aren’t present on the Constituency element, I do wonder if there may be a slight Alba effect here one way or another. One of the two MPs who defected from the SNP to the new party is East Lothian MP Kenny MacAskill. I’d be unsurprised to find that has impacted some voters in both directions, either more motivated to vote for or against the SNP. The relative size of each group and their influence, however, is unknown and possibly unknowable.

To round up today’s lot of battlegrounds, we stay within Labour’s small handful of seats. Like East Lothian, Edinburgh Southern broke slightly with their general trend for losing seats in 2016, as they gained this from the SNP. This has some overlap with their single Westminster seat of Edinburgh South, in the Morningside, Marchmont, Newington and Liberton areas, as well as part of Merchiston. It also draws in the Craiglockhart area which isn’t in the UK seat, whilst lacking Gilmerton and Fairmilehead.

As marginal as this seat is, I’m inclined to suggest it’s probably the constituency Labour will find it easiest to hold onto. Although it doesn’t overlap entirely with the Westminster equivalent, and much of their vote there will be a personal Ian Murray vote, I’d expect a lot of voters to be influenced by the general sense that Labour are best placed to beat the SNP here, and to vote accordingly.

SNP candidate Catriona Macdonald will – obviously – be aiming for that not to be the case, and to make up for her defeat in the Westminster seat in 2019. Labour MSP Daniel Johnson isn’t as well established as his UK counterpart, but I’d be surprised if he hadn’t spent the past five years laying the local groundwork for re-election. This one will almost certainly be much more difficult for the SNP to convert than simple models suggest.

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. Labour would have made up the difference on the list, by bumping off the second Green.

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. On 2016 results then, only Labour would be unchanged in this region regardless of how the constituencies fell.

We’ve just got one more set of marginal Battlegrounds to go, which will appear on Monday. Then we’ll be off to the mysteriously titled “bonus round” – if you can guess which four constituencies will be in that you’ll win a prize. (The prize is me being impressed, it’s not a very good prize.)

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