SP21 – Ballot Box Battlegrounds 12-9

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For our second entry in the Ballot Box Battlegrounds series let’s go through seats 12 to 9 by marginality ranking. We’ll continue (until the bonus round) going through these battleground constituencies in order of least to most marginal. This batch is a bit more diverse than the last round, covering seats held by three different parties.

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.

Back in their 2011 wipeout, the Lib Dems lost all of their mainland constituency seats. Although their share of the national vote (on both ballots) was the same in 2016, they’d clearly been doing the ground work to concentrate that vote in key areas, as Edinburgh Western became one of two seats they re-gained. In addition to the Corstorphine, Drumbrae and Silverknowes areas of Edinburgh itself, this seat takes in some of the villages attached to the city – Newbridge, Kirkliston and (South) Queensferry.

They repeated their gain in the similar Edinburgh West constituency in the snap Westminster election the next year, and held that in 2019 with an increased majority. That was at the peak of their post-Brexit rebound however, and they’ve generally been polling lower since then. They could be at greater risk here, and this is a seat my projections often show flipping.

However, the Lib Dems are the masters at digging themselves into constituencies in a way national polling just can’t pick up, as they did here in 2016. They’ll be pouring substantial resources into this one to give Alex Cole-Hamilton the best chance of holding the seat against SNP challenger Sarah Masson. I’d say this is the most likely of the Lib Dem constituencies to change hands, but I wouldn’t be confident enough to put money on either outcome.

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 Lib Dems 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. If two of the three went SNP the Lib Dems wouldn’t have won a seat at all, and if all three went SNP the Conservatives would be down a seat too.

We love a neighbouring seat in this series, apparently, as Edinburgh Pentlands lies just to the south of the Western seat. It similarly combines sections of the main bulk of Edinburgh City – Wester Hailes, Colinton and Fairmilehead – with outlying villages of Ratho, Currie and Balerno. The previous version of this seat was won by Labour in 1999, but gained by the Conservatives in 2003 and held in 2007, before the SNP swept it in their remarkable 2011 majority.

Although the Conservatives held or re-gained other key seats in 2016, this wasn’t one of them. Indeed, although they’ve been pushing hard in this area of the city for the past few years, victory has eluded them. They didn’t manage to take the Edinburgh South West constituency of the UK Parliament in 2017, though they came close, and then the SNP tightened their grip in 2019.

On that basis, I’m inclined to say that the balance of probability lies in the SNP’s favour here. This will be a straight re-run of the 2016 election, as incumbent SNP MSP Gordon MacDonald faces off against Conservative List MSP Gordon Lindhurst. Clearly, as a marginal seat, the Conservatives shouldn’t be written off here, but they’ll be facing an uphill struggle – and given he was placed 7th on his party’s list, Lindhurst is depending on victory here to return to Holyrood.

We move from one of the Conservative’s 2003 gains to another, heading down to Galloway and West Dumfries. As the name indicates, Galloway makes up the bulk of this seat, joined by the portion of Dumfries to the west of the Nith. Surprising though it may seem now, the SNP had won the previous version of this seat in both the 1997 UK election and the first Holyrood election in 1999. Unlike Edinburgh Pentlands, the Conservatives have held this one ever since.

For most of that time the seat was held by Alex Fergusson, who served as Presiding Officer in the 2007-11 parliament, and became the first PO to re-stand for election. He retired in 2016 to be replaced by Finlay Carson, and then very sadly passed away in 2018. 

As with almost everywhere in Scotland, the SNP picked the overlapping Westminster seat (back) up in 2015, but lost it to the Conservatives in 2017, in whose hands it has remained. Just like the Lib Dems’ Edinburgh Western seat, projections based on current polling are highly variable as to whether this one changes hands – and it’s likely to be one the Conservatives perform better in than their national polling would suggest.

Finlay Carson has a lot more riding on this seat than his SNP opponent Emma Harper. She’s also been an MSP since 2016, and is atop her party’s list for the South region. That gives her a pretty good chance of re-election even if she isn’t able to pick up this constituency, given South is the SNP’s weakest region overall and thus the one most likely to see list MSPs elected.

Carson however is 7th on his party’s list, in a region they won 6 seats overall in 2016. If he doesn’t win, there’s a serious chance he’ll fail to return to Holyrood entirely. Although it’s a more marginal seat, the incumbent Conservative MSP for Ayr isn’t on the party list. If the votes were to fall such that they held Ayr but lost this seat, they’d need to win 8 overall for him to be re-elected.

Keeping it Conservative, we head north now to the Glasgow-adjacent Eastwood seat. The name reflects the historic district covering most of what is now East Renfrewshire, including Newton Mearns, Eaglesham and Waterfoot, as well as some tightly packed Glasgow suburbs around Clarkston, Williamwood, Netherlee, Busby, Giffnock and Thornliebank. This broadly affluent area was long a Conservative stronghold, but Labour won the UK Parliament seat in 1997.

Labour’s Ken Macintosh won the Holyrood seat at the first election, and held it every year until 2016 when the Conservatives emerged triumphant from a tight three-way contest. That was an omen of Conservative success in the East Renfrewshire seat at Westminster in the 2017 election, though the SNP would regain the seat in 2019.

Over that period, the Labour vote effectively crashed, achieving just 12.4% in 2019. Bear in mind too that larger seat includes the Barrhead and Neilston areas which are much more Labour (and SNP) favourable. Especially given Ken Macintosh is retiring following taking up the mantle of the impartial Presiding Officer for this Holyrood term, I’d be very surprised if the same didn’t happen here in May.

That’ll make this an entirely Conservative vs SNP contest. Incumbent Conservative Jackson Carlaw was his party’s Deputy Leader for most of the last session, then had a very brief spell as Leader in his own right before being replaced by Douglas Ross. In terms of majority, this is the party’s second safest seat at Holyrood, which perhaps isn’t saying much when there’s less than 5% in it!

Carlaw’s opponent is SNP councillor for Thornliebank and Giffnock Colm Merrick. An SNP victory here may depend on where the 2016 Labour vote goes – will it lean anti-Conservative, or more anti-SNP? My gut says that it may be the latter, given East Renfrewshire had the fifth highest No vote in 2014, and as noted above the most SNP-favourable bits of that council aren’t in this seat. 

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 Conservative numbers, as they’d have made up for the loss in the list, displacing the Greens instead.

Like Lothian, there’s actually an additional degree of marginality here. If the SNP had won both this seat and Dumbarton then in addition to the Greens, the Conservatives would have dropped a list seat.

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