SP21 – The Jaikets on Shoogly Pegs

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Of the 129 MSPs that were sitting in Holyrood before it shut up shop for the election, we already know that there are 34 retirees who won’t be returning this May. As is the nature of elections however, they aren’t the only MSPs who will be looking for something new to do with their lives in three weeks’ time.

For various reasons, there are quite a few sitting MSPs who may not make the transition from name on a ballot paper to bum on a seat this time. In this piece, we’ll go through the MSPs who are most at risk. This is based on recent polling, so folk whose position was shaky in 2016 but could expect to be more comfortable this time aren’t included.

Remember, these are only currently sitting MSPs. There are also a number of new candidates who are defending seats a party colleague won in 2016, but aren’t particularly secure in doing so. “Not being elected to Holyrood at all” is far less notable than “not being re-elected to Holyrood” though!

Sunk by Selection

One way in which sitting MSPs can be put at risk is finding themselves either deselected or in a less favourable list position than they had been at the last election. Nobody was deselected this time, but there have been a few people who have slipped down the list rankings. In the unlikely event that this year saw an exact repeat of 2016, they’d lose their seats.

Claudia Beamish (Labour, South Scotland)

First elected in 2011, Beamish was one of a total of three Labour MSPs who were elected for the South Scotland region in 2016 – but this time, Beamish has been ranked fourth on the list. She’s also contesting the Clydesdale constituency.

It seems rather unlikely she’ll win either of those, given Labour’s current polling. They came third behind the Conservatives in Clydesdale last time, so overtaking to win it seems a tall order. The party also won just shy of 18% of the list vote in 2016. That’s perhaps only 2-3% short of what would be necessary for a fourth seat, but growth to that degree in this region that would surprise me at the moment.

Maurice Corry (Conservative, West Scotland)

There’s being sunk via your party’s selection process, then there’s the case of Maurice Corry, which is more like his ship was bombed into oblivion. A new face and one of four Conservative MSPs elected for the West Scotland region in 2016, he’s been pushed down to eighth on the list. He’s not being re-elected from those depths. Speaking of bombs, he’s also contesting the Dumbarton constituency, but hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in hell there either.

James Kelly (Labour, Glasgow)

Originally elected as Rutherglen MSP in 2007, Kelly was one of the relatively small number of Labour constituency holdouts in 2011. Though he lost that seat in 2016, his placing on the list cushioned the blow and he returned to parliament as one of four Labour MSPs for Glasgow. He’s slid down to fifth this time, which is why it now seems unlikely he’ll be similarly cushioned this time.

Effectively, in order for Labour to win a fifth Glasgow seat, the Conservatives and Greens both need to fall short of electing a second. The Conservatives managed to win two in 2016, and strong Green polling recently suggests they are in with a shot at two as well. That leaves very little wriggle room for Kelly to get in. He’s making another run at the Rutherglen constituency too, but though it’s the most marginal seat in the region, it’s still not actually a marginal, and would require a shockingly poor performance from the SNP to gain.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Conservative, Highlands & Islands)

In 2016 the Conservatives won three seats in the Highlands & Islands region. At fourth on the list, Halcro Johnston wasn’t one of them, but he came into Holyrood as a mid-term replacement when a certain Douglas Ross was elected MP for Moray and vacated his seat. Rather than ranking lower down the list than last time, the top four names are all exactly the same as they were then thanks to Ross’ return to the leadership, placing Halcro Johnston fourth.

If they do win three again in May, it won’t be electoral misfortune that removes him from Holyrood, but simply the party’s change in leadership. All of that said however, the Conservatives were really not very far from winning a fourth seat here in 2016. In particular, Labour only won their second seat by about 1100 votes – so Halcro Johnston is one of the most likely winners in this piece.

Gordon Lindhurst (Conservative, Lothian)

Another one of the Conservatives’ new batch of 2016 MSPs, Lindhurst was one of four elected in Lothian. He’s found himself on an almost Corry-esque slip down to seventh on the list, which has all but ensured he won’t be returning to Parliament on that ballot. There is yet a possible route for him to hold his seat though, which is by winning the Edinburgh Pentlands constituency.

That’s one of the marginal battlegrounds this election, which the Conservatives have been trying to regain since they lost it in 2011. Given they didn’t manage to do so in their 2016 revival, nor did they win the overlapping Westminster seat in 2017 or 2019, I’d rate this as a very outside chance – but it is a chance.

Panicked by Polling

Of course, often the main contributor to lost seats is the churn between parties as some do better and others worse than the previous election. Holyrood’s voting system adds an additional layer of complication, where candidates can lose out not because they did poorly, but because their colleagues did well. Shirley Anne-Somerville was emblematic of this in 2011. Her seemingly rock-solid 3rd place on the SNP’s Lothian list amounted to naught when the SNP won every other constituency in the region but the one she was standing in.

Emma Harper (SNP, South Scotland)

Back in 2016, the SNP won a total of seven seats in the South Scotland region, of which three were on the lists. Emma Harper was one of that trio, and theoretically has the best chance of being re-elected, as she’s top of the list. She could however be undone by complex shifts in the constituency representation pattern across the region.

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility to imagine them in a situation where they drop to being entitled to six seats in the region, but nonetheless gain both East Lothian and Ayr, and are therefore due no list seats. Even if that were the case though, she could avert that fate by winning the Galloway and West Dumfries seat, which is probably a tossup between her and the Conservative candidate.

Joan McAlpine (SNP, South Scotland)

Moving down the SNP’s South Scotland list, Joan McAlpine is in second. That makes her vulnerable to the same dynamics as Harper, but even more so as they’d need to get further down the list to compensate. She could also avoid this fate by winning the Dumfriesshire seat, but although that’s more marginal than the Galloway seat, I’d rate her chances there as slightly lower given the Mundell family business that is representing the area for the Conservatives.

Paul Wheelhouse (SNP, South Scotland)

Finally for the SNP’s South MSPs, Paul Wheelhouse is third on the list and most at risk of being unseated. If the SNP win either Ayr or East Lothian that alone could doom him, as they’d need to grow enough to win eight seats overall in that case. Both would completely scupper him. He’s also standing in the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire seat, but the Conservatives are basically rock-solid there. That puts Wheelhouse in the unenviable position that the better his party does elsewhere in the region, the worse his chances will be. 

John Scott (Conservative, Ayr)

It’s basically a South Scotland bonanza in this section of the article, as that’s where John Scott’s Ayr constituency is located. This is the third most marginal seat at Holyrood, and I won’t re-hash what I wrote about it in the Battlegrounds series. Suffice it to say there is a very good prospect of the SNP gaining this seat, which Scott won at the first ever Holyrood by-election in 2000. He isn’t on his party’s list at all, so if he loses, he’s definitely out.

Finlay Carson (Conservative, Galloway and West Dumfries)

Finlay Carson took over this seat from his party colleague, the now-late Alex Fergusson, in 2016, who’d first won the preceding version in 2003. Surprising as it may seem at this point, it had been the SNP who’d won it in 1999, and indeed at the 1997 UK Election. It’s quite marginal this time, and he’s seventh on his party’s list. They won a total of six MSPs in the region last time, so they’d need to grow their overall vote share somewhat for Carson to manage re-election if he does lose the constituency. If John Scott holds on in Ayr, Carson’s effective placing becomes 8th, and it’d be even harder to effect a return without a constituency seat.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Lib Dem, Edinburgh Western)

At this point we’re at probably the most extreme end for who could be at risk. Edinburgh Western is another of the key marginals in this election, and one that projections from recent polling often suggest will change hands. Though Cole-Hamilton has the cushion of being top of the Lothian list for the Lib Dems, sometimes the overhangs in projections are so beefy that they’d fail to take that too, as three of the five polls in April have suggested.

Projections aren’t perfect however, as I’m always pointing out, and I think they probably underestimate the Lib Dem strength in Edinburgh Western. Whereas a lot of the other folk in this piece are certain goners or tossups, the balance of probability lies very much in Cole-Hamilton’s favour here.

Rebranding and Standing

Finally, there are also often MSPs who’ve changed affiliation in the middle of the term, and immediately stand for re-election under a different banner. There haven’t been very many such MSPs who have been successful so far, however – unless I’m mistaken, there are only two. The first was of course the inimitable and very sadly missed Margo MacDonald. She was re-elected a remarkable three times as an Independent MSP after having been in the SNP for the first term of Holyrood. Another former SNP MSP, John Finnie, also made a successful switch, when he was elected as a Green in 2016.

Michelle Ballantyne (Reform UK, formerly Conservative, South Scotland)

Ballantyne wasn’t one of the Conservatives’ original 2016 MSPs, but entered Holyrood as part of a series of shuffles. John Lamont resigned the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire seat to focus on winning a Westminster seat in 2017, then Rachael Hamilton resigned her list seat to contest the constituency, thereby bringing Ballantyne into the chamber. She then carved out something of a niche on the party’s right wing, in which capacity she stood against Jackson Carlaw in the 2020 leadership election.

Carlaw’s time at the helm was relatively brief, and after some speculation, Ballantyne opted not to stand against Douglas Ross who therefore took the reins unopposed. She was very evidently not happy with the situation in the Conservatives though, and in November left to sit as an Independent. That lack of affiliation wouldn’t last long though, and in January she was announced as the Scottish leader of Reform UK, the rebranded form of the Brexit Party. Although she’s top of their list in South and I’d expect that to be where they do best as a result, I don’t think there’s any realistic prospect of them winning any seats at all.

They’ve barely been registering in polling, and it’s not entirely clear what voters the party would actually attract at the moment. Remember that in 2016, when UKIP were at the height of their success, a month before the EU referendum, and after a few good polls, they only got 2%. With Euroscepticism no longer a major feature of the landscape and plenty of other options on the ballot fulfilling the devosceptic role, I’d be surprised if Reform UK even matched that.

Andy Wightman (Independent, formerly Green, Highlands & Islands, formerly Lothian)

One of six Green MSPs elected in 2016, and one of two for the Lothian region, Wightman resigned from the party just before Christmas. He’s beating the potentially unique track of not only standing under a different label than the last election, but in an entirely different region. As he’s standing as an Independent, unlike Reform UK we don’t have any polling evidence we can use to determine how well he’ll do. Instead, basically everyone is operating on their own gut feel and personal biases, ranging from people who think he’ll walk it to those who think he hasn’t got a chance at all.

I’m more towards the latter camp, as part of my long-standing scepticism of anything that seems big in the Scottish Politics social media bubble. It’s certainly true that Wightman has profile that predates his election as an MSP, as an expert in land reform and local government. That’s exactly the kind of CV that will go down well somewhere like the Highlands & Islands. But even if we accept a generally higher level of awareness of such issues there, there’s still a wide gulf between weel kent in a politically interested bubble, and an attractive voting option for the wider electorate.

Especially in an election defined in part by big constitutional issues, and with another reasonably high profile “dissatisfied with the existing pro-Independence parties” option on the paper, I think Wightman may find it difficult to pick up the 5-6% he’d need to win a seat. I’d put money on him being the best performing Independent anywhere in the country, but not on him winning.

Returning to my scepticism of the bubble, I remember someone who was not in RISE but was absolutely convinced they’d win a seat in 2016. They thought that because they followed basically everyone involved in RISE, so it looked like a big deal to them. That big deal amounted to just 1% in Glasgow, which was their best result. I spoke above of personal biases, and this is mine – you can be as popular as you like amongst folk on Twitter, but those of us who live on that website are a bit odd and not reflective of your average voter!

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