SP21 – Ballot Box Battlegrounds Bonus Round

Keep tabs on all the latest polling, articles and information ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election in the Ballot Box Scotland Holyrood Hub!

The 16 marginal seats we’ve already been through may be the most likely to change hands, but they aren’t the only constituencies worth watching this time around. To bring the Ballot Box Battlegrounds series to a close, we’ll be going through four other seats that could prove particularly fascinating. Even if they they remain with the same party, they could nonetheless tell us a lot about Scotland’s direction of travel.

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 “List 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.

Banffshire and Buchan Coast

As you can tell from my use of “Ballot Box Battlegrounds” for this series, I appreciate a bit of alliteration, so Banffshire and Buchan Coast is almost perfectly titled. Perhaps they could replace Coast with Beaches? This seat covers a huge number of towns and villages along that coastline – too many to possibly list. The major ones to reel off would probably be Buckie, Cullen, Banff, Fraserburgh and Peterhead.

This is a long-standing SNP stronghold, with an SNP presence in the UK’s Banff and Buchan constituency dating to 1987, when one Alex Salmond won it. He was the inaugural holder of the Holyrood equivalent in 1999, but resigned the seat in 2001, opting to remain at Westminster. That led to a switcheroo where Stewart Stevenson, who had been the intended Westminster candidate, successfully stood in the resulting by-election instead. Stevenson then held the seat with a seemingly unassailable lead for every election after, though the 23% he ended up with in 2016 was down rather a lot from nearly 49% in 2011.

So, what makes this one a battleground? Well, in 2017, the SNP lost the Westminster seat after 30 years holding it. Then, in 2019, the Conservatives actually slightly increased their majority in that seat. Now, it’s important to bear in mind that the two constituencies have notably different boundaries – the UK seat lacks that generally SNP friendly chunk around Buckie, and includes a larger stretch of inland areas such as Turriff that might be more Conservative friendly. Nonetheless, this has been talked up as a prospective surprise Conservative gain in the same way Aberdeenshire West ended up being last time.

After 20 years in the role, Stevenson is standing down, and two Aberdeenshire councillors will be battling it out to replace him. Carrying the SNP colours is Karen Adam who represents the Mid Formartine ward, whilst in the Conservative corner we have Mark Findlater who represents Troup. Of the two, only Findlater represents a ward that’s within the constituency, which may give him a very slight bump via voters who already know him locally.

Regardless of ward locations however, this is a very large SNP lead to overcome, and even if this constituency did mirror the UK version, things have moved on in the past 18 months. Rather than viewing this as a close contest, I’d say it’s highly likely to be an SNP hold, but with enough of a chance for the Conservatives that no one paying attention would be completely shocked if they did come out on top.

Glasgow Kelvin

In true Glasgow style, we weren’t for letting the city centre of Edinburgh get all the fun in this election. In addition to the city’s economic heart, Glasgow Kelvin effectively covers the entirety of the trendy West End, including areas like Hillhead, Hyndland, Finnieston, and Partick, plus less trendy but still rather nice bits like Firhill, Anderston and Thornwood. That’s not in any way a dig at the latter areas by the way – in the 2016 election I cast my vote at Thornwood Primary School, and I genuinely liked living in the area!

Kelvin is unique not just in Glasgow but in all of Scotland for the runner up in 2016 – it wasn’t Labour, who won the seat in the first three elections, nor was it the Conservatives, and certainly not the Lib Dems. Instead, Green Co-Leader Patrick Harvie was the runner up behind the SNP’s Sandra White, who’d been a Glasgow MSP since 1999 and won the constituency in 2011.

The strong support for the Greens in this seat, which incorporates three wards they’ve had councillors in since 2007, is almost certainly partly down to a very large student population, being home to three universities – Glasgow, Strathclyde and Caledonian – as well as a major college campus. It’s true the world over that younger voters are more likely to vote for Green parties, and that’s even more true of students. In the context of a pandemic however, that could be a problem for the Scottish Greens, as a substantial part of that usually resident population just won’t be there.

Though the seat isn’t a marginal, there is a parallel with the Brighton Pavilion seat that their southern counterparts, the Green Party of England and Wales, won and have held since 2010. In 2005, GPEW were 13.5% behind Labour, and actually in third place overall. At the next election they were also benefitting from a long-serving incumbent standing down, and the incumbent’s party had been in government for over a decade. There’s also a local university contributing a reasonable student population.

However, the SNP of 2021 are rather more popular than the Labour Party of 2010 were, and we’ve already hit upon the student hitch. GPEW were also able to sink almost their entire resource into one seat, since nowhere else was winnable, whereas the Scottish Greens generally benefit from a partly-proportional system that gives them more opportunities to win seats elsewhere, and thus less need (and ability) to concentrate their resources on a single constituency.

White is one of the substantial number of retirees this election, and is passing the baton of SNP candidate to Kaukab Stewart. Patrick Harvie is again the Green candidate, and may benefit from having the higher profile of the two as a Glasgow MSP for 18 years. Although there are other constituencies the Greens are standing in, including the other Co-Leader Lorna Slater in Edinburgh North and Leith, this is their only realistic prospect for a constituency breakthrough, and one the SNP certainly aren’t going to make easy for them.

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross (List Marginal)

By far the largest constituency in Scotland, Caithness, Sutherland and Ross basically covers almost all of the three historic counties in the name. The exceptions are that it’s missing the Dingwall and Black Isle areas from what was traditionally Ross (and Cromarty). As with much of the Highlands, this was a Liberal (Democrat) stronghold since the 80’s, and that carried through to the new Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Jamie Stone was one of very few Scottish Lib Dem MSPs not to feel the sting of defeat in 2011 – not because he was successfully re-elected, but rather because he stood down at that election. His unfortunate party colleague was then treated to something of a steamrollering from the SNP’s Rob Gibson. Though Gibson retired in 2016, making way for Gail Ross to become the SNP MSP, Jamie Stone re-emerged from retirement and managed to substantially close the gap, though not to marginal territory.

Since then, there have been a couple of changes to the playing field. First up, Gail Ross is the third MSP in as many elections to retire. She cited the pressures of balancing the role of parliamentarian with family in such a large constituency so distant from Holyrood. Regardless of your personal political views I would hope that we can all agree that’s deeply unfortunate. Combine that with the pandemic resulting in new ways of working previously claimed to be impossible, and I’d hope that the next Parliament takes the need to improve flexibility, accessibility and childcare arrangements very seriously indeed.

The other is that Jamie Stone made a return to Parliament in 2017 – it’s just that it was the one down in London instead! He won the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross seat at Westminster, and held on in 2019 – though that was by the skin of his teeth.

Highlands and Islands MSP and Minister for Children and Young People, Maree Todd, will be the SNP candidate this time around, whilst the Lib Dems are standing Molly Nolan. The latter have clearly been gunning for this seat – if nothing else, I’ve certainly noticed a lot more of Nolan in their Twitter feed than other Highland candidates! Given the historic leanings of the area, their success in the Westminster seat, and the party’s expertise in picking up key seats by focusing on them to the exclusion of almost all else.

Some complicating factors here though, for both sides. Lessening the Lib Dem chances will be that Stone definitely has a bit of a personal vote here, that won’t necessarily transfer to Nolan. That’s long been a recognised difficulty for the Lib Dems UK-wide, and could scupper their chances. On the other hand, as a danger for the SNP, a full quarter of the vote went to the Conservatives and Labour last time. If voters are feeling tactical, there is an obvious direction to go here, and that could pad out the Lib Dem vote.

If Todd fails to gain the seat, there’s a chance she might not get back into Holyrood. She’s functionally second on the Highlands and Islands list, as the actual #2 is Kate Forbes, who is in a much safer constituency. Polling has been divided as to whether the SNP would win a list seat or not here, and therefore whether they’d get one or two seats if they lost a constituency. 

Note too that this is a List Marginal seat. Had the Lib Dems gained this seat in 2016, that’d have given them one more than their D’Hondt entitlement in Highlands and Islands, which was entirely covered by their Orkney and Shetland constituencies. The SNP would have made up the difference on the list, bumping off the second Labour MSP.

North East Fife (List Marginal)

Though none of our bonus seats are marginals, North East Fife isn’t far off it, with a Lib Dem lead of 10.2% in 2016. In addition to the university town of St Andrews, this constituency covers the picturesque East Neuk of Fife, the historic county town of Cupar, Leuchars and the Tay villages.

This is a historic Lib Dem stronghold, but in the 2011 election like all of their other mainland constituencies, they lost it to the SNP. That was so unexpected that I have it on good authority the then First Minister exclaimed “Rod F***ing Campbell?!” upon hearing of his candidate’s victory. The yellow hue on the map was short lived though, as Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie was able to regain it in 2016. Far-removed as we all were from the Fife action, I distinctly remember the murmurs of shock and surprise in the Glasgow count hall when that result came up on the big screen.

The UK version of this seat is rather famed for having been the most marginal anywhere in the UK at the 2017 election, with the SNP holding on by just 2 votes. The fact it was much closer run than at Holyrood the year before may be partly down down to slightly different boundaries, which take in a large chunk of an SNP-favourable area. It’s also possible that having been caught off-guard by a defeat the year before, the SNP knew they’d have to put a lot of resource in. That only bought them a bit of time, as the Lib Dems would go on to take the seat in 2019.

Although this is one that simple projection models often tip into the SNP’s column, I have to admit I’d be very surprised if that happened on the day. Beyond the fact they’ll have been boosted by their UK-level success in the seat, over the past five years Willie Rennie is absolutely going to have done the political equivalent of building a very impressive fortified castle, complete with moat, drawbridges, cannons, and some pointy stakes.

Losing UK leader Jo Swinson’s East Dunbartonshire seat in 2019 was a bitter blow indeed, and they won’t be seeking to repeat the experience. Hoping to do exactly that with his best Amy Callaghan impression is the SNP’s Rhuaraid Fleming, but it’s going to be a toughie. As with the Caithness seat, this is also one where it’s easy to imagine those Conservative votes going the Lib Dems’ way on a tactical basis. If I were a betting man, I’d be putting it on orange.

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 they had held this seat as well, the Lib Dems would have made up the difference on the list, blocking the Green MSP.

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