SP21 – Ballot Box Battlegrounds 16-13

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

Every Wednesday in March, we took a look at one of the five Holyrood parties. We went over their electoral history in the parliament, what polling suggests may be in store for them this time, and what the key seats that are in play are. For the first couple of weeks in April, we’ll be taking the logical next step and investigating the key battleground constituencies in more detail.

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’ll (until the bonus round) be going through these battleground constituencies in order of least to most marginal. Today’s first entry in the Ballot Box Battlegrounds series covers seats 16 to 13 by marginality ranking.

We kick off our Ballot Box Battleground series with the Perthshire North constituency in Mid Scotland and Fife. Stretching from the low-lying Carse of Gowrie where the Tay begins to widen, up to Highland Perthshire, it includes such towns and villages as Scone, Coupar Angus, Alyth, Blairgowrie, Aberfeldy and Pitlochry. It also lays claim to those parts of the city of Perth lying east of the Tay.

This seat, and the preceding Tayside North, have been held by the SNP’s John Swinney for Holyrood’s entire history. Swinney is one of his party’s big hitters, starting out as one of their 6 MPs in 1997. He then served as leader between 2000 and 2004, and was considered a capable Finance Secretary throughout the first two terms of the SNP Government.

When Nicola Sturgeon took the reins in 2014, he moved into her old role as Deputy First Minister too. At the start of the 2016 session, she moved him to the Education portfolio in what was widely understood to be a marker of the importance she was giving to it. It would be fair to say that Swinney has not had his troubles to seek in either role this term. A persistent attainment gap, a grading scandal in the first months of the pandemic, and role in releasing legal advice on the Salmond case have all left Swinney a rather bruised figure.

The question here then becomes whether his personal vote can survive those personal circumstances, or whether the Conservatives can take a major scalp. In 2011, Swinney’s lead over Murdo Fraser was 34.5%. That was slashed to just 9.8% in 2016, taking this seat into marginal territory. At the snap UK election the following year, the SNP barely held the overlapping Perth and North Perthshire seat by a majority of just 21 votes. That seat includes the whole of Perth city which is the most strongly SNP section of Perthshire, so it’s likely there was a Conservative lead in just the area covering this constituency.

However, the SNP’s 2019 victory in that seat was much safer, which may give them some degree of comfort here too. Difficult a term as he may have had, Swinney is not going to go down easily. Although we’ve got 15 other seats more marginal than this one, few will be so hard-fought and so politically important as this one.

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.

The Highlands and Islands seat of Moray has some striking similarities with Perthshire North. It has been held by the SNP since 1999, with class of 1999 MSP Richard Lochhead having moved from the North East region into this seat in 2006 following the sad passing of Margaret Ewing, who had a long history in the area, having won the UK Parliament constituency in 1987.

Despite the name, it doesn’t quite cover the entirety of the Moray council area, with the section around Buckie and Cullen lying both outside the constituency and the region. That means it’s also smaller than the UK’s Moray constituency, which went to the Conservatives in 2017 in a major upset victory for now-Leader Douglas Ross over the SNP’s then-Depute (and Westminster) Leader Angus Robertson.

As Ross has opted not to contest this constituency, there’s rather less dramatic flair here than there might have been. Certainly, the Conservative candidate Tim Eagle is in with a clear chance of taking this seat, which crashed from a 28.3% SNP majority to 8.6% between 2011 and 2016. But he’s probably less likely to do so than Ross would have been – not least because as councillor for Buckie his existing patch is just outside the constituency – especially given Lochhead’s 15-year tenure as the local MSP.

A newly drawn seat for the 2011 election, Aberdeen South and North Kincardine does what is says on the tin. From Aberdeen South it includes the Torry, Nigg and Cove areas of the city, plus the Dee villages of Cults, Milltimber and Peterculter, and from Kincardine it draws Portlethen and Newtonhill. At the previous elections, Aberdeen South had been its own constituency, whilst all of Kincardine was in the West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine seat. Both of these were held by the Lib Dems for that period, before the SNP won the new seat in their 2011 clean-sweep of the North East.

Rather than losing support between 2011 and 2016, what made this a marginal was the substantial increase in Conservative support. That would be further evidenced at the 2017 UK election the following year, when the party won the two Westminster seats that overlap, though Aberdeen South would go back to the SNP in 2019.

Incumbent MSP Maureen Watt is standing down at this election, and SNP councillor for Torry/Ferryhill Audrey Nicol will be facing off against Conservative list MSP Liam Kerr. From the 2017 polling district results, we can see a bit of a divide between the coastal end of the constituency which leans SNP, and the more inland sections which went towards the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour. Obviously, slightly different dynamics will apply at a Holyrood election. Whether the SNP win again here may come down in part to whether the opposition vote solidifies behind the Conservatives.

Neighbours in geography and neighbours in marginality, Angus North and Mearns is just south of the previous constituency. It includes most of the remainder of the Kincardine area with the main settlements at Stonehaven, Inverbervie and Laurencekirk. Apart from Montrose, the Angus portion is mostly inland, covering Brechin and Forfar plus the sparsely populated rural interior.

This constituency is made up of components of three previous constituencies – again that West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine seat that was Lib Dem leaning, plus the SNP held Angus and North Tayside seats. As in the rest of the North East the SNP won easily here in 2011, but suffered a relatively steep loss of votes in 2016 in the face of a substantial Conservative advance. In the 2017 UK election they lost both of the UK parliament seats that overlap, but regained Angus in 2019.

Minister for Public Health Mairi Gougeon’s challenger is Forfar Conservative Councillor Braden Davy. He might have a slightly tougher time of it than his colleague did in 2016, however. Alex Johnstone had served as an MSP for the North East since 1999 and was a prominent figure in the party. Unfortunately, he very sadly passed away shortly after his re-election. He was the only serving MSP to pass in this sitting of Holyrood, and was fondly remembered by many of his colleagues across the chamber as they gave their closing speeches before the election recess.

Looking at 2017 local election results, there’s a clear divide divide between SNP support in the larger towns bar Stonehaven, and Conservative leads in the smaller towns and villages bar Brechin. If the Conservatives want to take the seat this time around, they’ll need to have broken into those urban areas and eaten away at the SNP’s support there.

That’s it for our first batch of Battlegrounds! These pieces will be going out on Mondays and Friday for the next two weeks, so check back then for the detail on the most hotly contested constituencies in the country.

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