The 2019 Election Battleground: Scotland

The 2019 Election Battleground: Scotland


There are 59 seats in Scotland which, as SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon never tires of reminding us, voted Remain at the 2016 EU referendum. However, she is less likely to point out that more people actually voted Leave in Scotland (1,018,322) than voted SNP at the subsequent general election in 2017 (977,568). And another awkward fact for Sturgeon is that estimates have suggested that around 400,000 of those Leave voters are in fact also in favour of Scottish independence.

It’s actually quite hard to describe the Scottish political landscape in a few sentences – entire books are written about it. But suffice it to say, the question of Scottish independence has dominated these last few years, after the 2014 independence referendum delivered a 55% pro-Union vote, yet the SNP won all but three of the 59 seats north of the border in that extraordinary election of 2015, only to lose 21 seats in 2017, not least due to a Scottish Conservative revival that saw them gain a dozen seats. The SNP’s electoral success has come in great part at the expense of the now beleaguered Scottish Labour Party which, from the 1960s until the beginning of this decade, was returning a block of more than 40 MPs to Westminster. Yet after just avoiding a total wipeout in 2015 and then returning seven MPs in 2017, current polling suggests that Scottish Labour has dropped back again in public support, allowing the Scottish Tories to consolidate their position as the second party of Scottish politics today.

As far as Brexit is concerned, unlike in Wales, there has been no pact in any seat between the nationalists and Lib Dems who are both vehemently against leaving the EU, while Brexit Party candidates are only on the ballot paper in 15 seats: in other words, every seat has three strands of Remain candidate to choose from but in most places only one candidate – the Conservative – is respecting the UK-wide outcome of the 2016 referendum.

But Scotland remains a volatile place electorally – and while the SNP dominate in terms of seats held, their grip on many of them is currently relatively loose: in nine of their 35 seats they have a majority of less than 1,000 and all but five are marginal based on the traditional definition of a seat held by a majority of less than 10%. If you are a Scottish voter who wants Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom above everything else, the question arises again as to whether you will hold your nose and vote tactically for a party which shares that view, even if you disagree with them on much else.

Leave voteshare at the referendum in 2016: 38.0%

2017 seat tally (compared with 2015)

  • Conservatives: 13 (+12)
  • Labour: 7 (+6)
  • Lib Dems: 4 (+3)
  • SNP: 35 (-21)

2017 voteshare (compared with 2015)

  • Conservatives: 28.6% (+13.7)
  • Labour: 27.1% (+2.8)
  • Lib Dems: 6.8% (-0.8)
  • SNP: 36.9% (-13.1)
  • UKIP: 0.2% (-1.4)
  • Green: 0.2% (-1.1)

Seats to Watch

Aberdeen South (32.14% Leave)
Brexit-backing Tory Ross Thomson is not seeking re-election here in the seat he gained from the SNP in 2017 by a majority of nearly 5,000. The SNP’s Stephen Flynn needs a swing of a little over 5% to take it back and prevent the new Conservative candidate – co-leader of Aberdeen City Council, Douglas Lumsden – from being elected.

Angus (48.24% Leave)
Unless anyone has evidence to the contrary, I believe Kirstene Hair – who gained this seat for the Tories from the SNP in 2017 with a majority of 2,645 – was unique among the MPs sitting in the 2017-19 Parliament in that she did not actually vote in the 2016 EU referendum. She said the decision before the country was “very difficult”, so sat the referendum out in order to “go with the will of the UK” and, as it turned out, the seat she would go on to represent registered the fourth largest Leave vote in Scotland. Dave Doogan of the SNP would need a swing of a little over 3% to take back the seat which the party had previously held on one set of boundaries or another since 1987.

Argyll and Bute (39.43% Leave)
A Lib Dem seat for many a year although gained by Brendan O’Hara of the SNP in 2015. He then held it in 2017 with a much-diminished majority of less than 1,500 over the Tory candidate Gary Mulvaney, who overtook the former Lib Dem MP Alan Reid to take second place. The trio are all fighting it out again at this contest.

Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (44.11% Leave)
One of the more unexpected Tory gains in 2017 when Bill Grant won the day. After two years at Westminster, he has opted not to seek re-election and it is up to Martin Dowey to defend the Conservative majority of 2,774 over the SNP, for whom Allan Dorans is the new candidate.

Ayrshire Central (41.62% Leave)
The SNP’s Philippa Whitford gained this seat from Labour in 2015 and in 2017 it was the resurgent Tories who ran her pretty close: Whitford held the seat with a majority of barely 1,000 and on a voteshare of less than 38%. The Conservative candidate – former Dunfermline Athletic and Dundee United goalkeeper Derek Stillie – will be eyeing up the more than 26% of the vote taken by third-placed Labour last time in his bid to take the seat.

Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (38.78% Leave)
Like so many Scottish seats, it’s not that long ago that Labour could hold this seat with a majority in excess of 20,000. And while it fell to the SNP wave in 2015, Labour’s Hugh Gaffney regained it in 2017 but by a majority of barely 1,500. Steven Bonnar of the SNP would win it back on a swing of less than 2%.

Dunbartonshire East (26.87% Leave)
Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson was first elected here in 2005, at which point she was the youngest member of the House of Commons. But after her spell in the Coalition Government, she was – along with most of her colleagues – defeated in 2015, with the SNP’s Jon Nicolson, a former BBC journalist, taking the seat. In 2016 the seat then registered the fifth highest Remain vote in Scotland at the EU referendum and in 2017 Swinson won it back by a margin of over 5,000 and Nicolson has now opted to stand elsewhere in his effort to return to Westminster. Standing for the SNP this time is Amy Callaghan, who would need a swing of more than 5% to leave the Lib Dems leaderless in Parliament.

East Lothian (35.40% Leave)
The SNP won this seat in 2015, but Labour’s Martin Whitfied snatched it back by 3,000 votes in 2017, making it technically the second safest Labour seat in Scotland. It would take a swing of less than 3% for the seat to be regained by the SNP, whose candidate is Kenny MacAskill, who was Cabinet Secretary for Justice at Holyrood during Alex Salmond’s time as First Minister.

Edinburgh South (22.15% Leave)
The Scottish seat registering the third highest Remain vote at the EU referendum and which also sent the only Labour MP to Westminster from Scotland at the 2015 election in the form of Ian Murray. It is by a long way Labour’s safest seat north of the border, with Murray holding it in 2017 with a significantly increased majority of more than 15,000.

Edinburgh West (28.77% Leave)
A Lib Dem seat for most of the last two decades, won by the SNP in 2015, but regained by the Lib Dems in 2017. Christine Jardine defends a majority of a few votes shy of 3,000 with the SNP’s Sarah Masson requiring a swing of a little below 3% to win the day.

Fife North East (36.31% Leave)
The most marginal constituency in the entire UK in 2017, the SNP’s Stephen Gethins retained this seat with a majority of a mere 2 votes over the Lib Dems after three recounts. Held between 1987 and 2015 by former party leader Menzies Campbell, this is the Lib Dems’ top target in the country, with Wendy Chamberlain having been selected to fight it as long ago as June 2018. And while the SNP and Lib Dems will characterise it as a two-horse race, Conservative candidate Tony Miklinski piled up nearly a quarter of the vote in 2017 and is also standing again.

Glasgow North East (40.66% Leave)
A straight fight in recent years between Labour and the SNP, with the SNP achieving their greatest swing of the 2015 election here (an eye-watering 39%) as they took the seat. Paul Sweeney regained it for Labour in 2017 by 242 votes but the former SNP MP Anne McLaughlin is back to try and oust him.

Gordon (38.82% Leave)
A Lib Dem seat from its creation in 1983 until former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond made a dramatic return to Westminster as he gained it for the SNP in 2015 on a swing of more than 14%. However, the 2017 election proved even more dramatic as Conservative Colin Clark ousted Salmond, winning more than 40% of the vote – up from the mere 12% he had won two years earlier – and the Lib Dems trailing in fourth place. Clark is now defending a majority of 2,607 over the SNP, whose candidate this time is Richard Thomson.

Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (43.26% Leave)
Gordon Brown’s old constituency was, like so many other Labour seats, swept away by the SNP tidal wave in 2015 as they won it by nearly 10,000 votes. But it was regained by Labour in 2017 by a margin of just 259 votes by Lesley Laird, who is the Scottish Labour deputy leader and Shadow Scottish Secretary. On the ballot paper challenging for the SNP is Neale Hanvey, although his party withdrew its backing for him part-way through the campaign over alleged anti-Semitic comments; but with nominations having already closed when the allegations came to light, it was too late for him to be replaced. If he were to win, he would presumably therefore sit from day one as an Independent.

Lanark and Hamilton East (35.96% Leave)
The SNP’s Angela Crawley gained this from Labour with a majority of more than 10,000 in 2015, but in 2017 she held on in what is now the UK’s tightest three-way marginal: her majority was 266 over the Conservatives, with Labour less than one hundred votes behind them in third place. Shona Haslam is now challenging for the Conservatives while Andrew Hilland dons the red rosette.

Midlothian (37.94% Leave)
A Labour seat for decades which was snatched by the SNP’s Owen Thompson in 2015 but regained for Labour by Danielle Rowley in 2017 by fewer than 1,000 votes. Thompson has gone nowhere and now needs a swing of 1% to take it back at this election.

Ochil and South Perthshire (39.50% Leave)
The SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh won this seat from Labour in 2015, only for Conservative Luke Graham to oust her (from third place) in 2017. His majority of a little over 3,000 would be vulnerable to a swing back to the SNP of 3%, with former SNP MP Jon Nicolson having abandoned East Dunbartonshire to fight this contest.

Perth and North Perthshire (39.90% Leave)
Former rock musician Pete Wishart is now the longest-serving Scottish MP, having first been elected here for the SNP in 2001. On each occasion the Conservatives have been in second place and the contest could barely have been much closer in 2017 when Wishart triumphed by 21 votes. The consolation for his Tory opponent, then MEP Ian Duncan, was a peerage and a ministerial job, so donning the blue rosette for this contest is local councillor Angus Forbes.

Renfrewshire East (25.68% Leave)
This seat covering the prosperous outskirts of Glasgow was a Tory seat in the 1980 and 1990s – once their safest in Scotland – which went on to be won by Labour in the 1997 landslide but then snatched by the SNP’s Kirsten Oswald in 2015. At this election Oswald would need a swing of 4.5% to regain the seat she held for two years, which registered the fourth highest Remain vote in Scotland in 2016.

Rutherglen and Hamilton West (37.57% Leave)
Labour’s most vulnerable seat in Scotland, won back from the SNP by Ged Killen in 2017. The MP he defeated, Margaret Ferrier, needs the smallest of swings to overturn his 265-vote majority and win it back.

Stirling (32.20% Leave)
The Conservatives’ most vulnerable seat north of the border, won back from the SNP in 2017 by Brexit-backing Stephen Kerr by a margin of a mere 148 votes. As if to exacerbate the differences between the parties on Brexit, the SNP are putting up europhile MEP Alyn Smith here to challenge him.

Estimated Leave votes by constituency have been calculated by Chris Hanretty of the University of East Anglia