Stephen Daisley

Holyrood 2021: Seats to watch out for

Holyrood 2021: Seats to watch out for
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar on the campaign trail. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.
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Scotland goes to the polls today to vote for 129 members of the Scottish Parliament. Polls forecast victory for the ruling SNP but there are a string of seats where the result last time was close enough to inject some unpredictability into proceedings.

SNP targets

Dumbarton

Incumbent: Jackie Baillie (Labour) 

Majority: 109

This is the seat the Nationalists want more than any other. Politically, it is a stubborn west-coast hold-out against the glories of nationalism. Symbolically, it is home to the Clyde Naval Base and the UK’s nuclear deterrent, which the SNP wants to scrap. But perhaps most important of all is the personal dimension. Jackie Baillie, the Labour MSP who has held Dumbarton for all 22 years of the Scottish Parliament’s existence, sat on the Holyrood inquiry committee and was noted for her exacting questioning of Nicola Sturgeon. She was just as exacting with Alex Salmond, but that hardly matters. You don’t try to hold Nicola Sturgeon to account and get away with it.

Baillie, who is moderate, pro-Union and pro-Trident, will need tactical votes to survive. The Conservative candidate in Dumbarton has no chance of winning but Tory voters hold the key to the seat. If they vote Conservative, the pro-Union vote splits and Sturgeon gains another seat and moves even closer to a majority. If enough Conservatives vote tactically for Baillie, she will see off the Nationalist challenge and sour the SNP’s election night.

Edinburgh Central

Incumbent: Ruth Davidson (Conservative)

Majority: 610

Former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson delivered a surprise victory in 2016 in this very liberal, very affluent and very young seat. Davidson isn’t standing this time (she’s off to the House of Lords) and the SNP’s former Westminster leader Angus Robertson hopes to win the constituency back. Given the politics of the city — Edinburgh voted 61 per cent against independence but 74 per cent for Remain — and Robertson’s advocacy for EU membership, he has to be considered the favourite. The only bump in the road is that Scottish Green list MSP Alison Johnstone is contesting again, having taken almost a fifth of the vote last time and having acquired a greater public profile since then. Johnstone is pro-independence and pro-EU but might attract leftish voters looking for an alternative to the SNP. Whether that will be enough to split the separatist vote isn’t clear but it is Unionists’ best (perhaps only) chance of retaining the seat, either via the Tories or Labour.

Ayr

Incumbent: John Scott (Conservative)

Majority: 750

Farmer John Scott has been Ayr’s MSP since the 2000 by-election but his majority has yo-yoed and is now down to 750, which makes this a key target for the SNP. Scott’s Toryism is that of yesteryear — patrician, gentlemanly, unfailingly polite — but without any of the aloof entitlement. That might be enough to swing some of Ayr’s 5,000 Labour voters behind him. Absent that, he will have to hope that the presence of former SNP MSP Chic Brodie on the ballot, now heading up his own socially conservative pro-independence party Scotia Future, will take votes away from SNP candidate Siobhan Brown. That, however, seems like wishful thinking. If Scott holds on here, it will be a testament to his personal vote rather than any party consideration.

Aberdeenshire West

Incumbent: Alexander Burnett (Conservative)

Majority: 900

Alexander Burnett took the Conservatives from third place to win Aberdeenshire West in 2016. This monied, rural constituency is home to, among other estates, Balmoral Castle and the SNP has sensibly put up Fergus Mutch, a former Holyrood spin doctor from the party’s right wing. A young-ish Fergus Ewing, the cautious, Tweed-wearing Mutch is arguably more Tory than Burnett and well-placed to overturn his opponent’s slim 900-vote majority. Burnett will have to hope enough of Aberdeenshire West’s 7,000 Liberal Democrats vote tactically for him, otherwise he will struggle to cling on here.

Edinburgh Southern

Incumbent: Daniel Johnson (Labour)

Majority: 1,123

Incumbent Daniel Johnson has earned a name for himself as a hard-working local MSP but his majority is precarious and the SNP bent on capturing the last Labour-held seat in Edinburgh. Challenging him is Nationalist rising star and local businesswoman Catriona MacDonald. Johnson will need the tactical votes of Tories to cling on in this leafy, suburban seat.

East Lothian

Incumbent: Iain Gray (Labour)

Majority: 1,127

East Lothian has been Labour since the first session of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 but the party’s majority is now a tenth of the 11,000-vote advantage it enjoyed back then. With former party leader Iain Gray standing down at this election, the SNP stands its best chance yet of seizing the seat. Standing in the Nationalists’ way is Martin Whitfield, who represented the Westminster version of the seat between 2017 and 2019. A quarter of the vote here goes to the Tories and if enough of their supporters switch to Whitfield, he will be able to keep the SNP out. Absent tactical voting, Whitfield has an almighty battle on his hands.

Dumfriesshire

Incumbent: Oliver Mundell (Conservative)

Majority: 1,230

Oliver Mundell took Dumfriesshire from Labour in 2016 and has a battle on his hands keeping it from the SNP’s Joan McAlpine, who came second here last time and is currently a list MSP for South Scotland. McAlpine is a true-believing nationalist but has earned respect across the political spectrum for standing up to her own party over gender identity politics. Labour’s Colin Smyth, also a regional MSP, is mounting a challenge, too. Mundell has shown himself to be a plain-speaker — he was thrown out of Holyrood’s debating chamber last year for calling Nicola Sturgeon a liar — but that can cut both ways with the electorate. If he can fend off both the Nats and Labour to retain Dumfriesshire, it will be an impressive feat.

Galloway and West Dumfries

Incumbent: Finlay Carson (Conservatives)

Majority: 1,514

Tory Fin Carson has a modest majority in Galloway and West Dumfries, a southern constituency an hour’s drive from Carlisle. Fortunately for Carson, his opponent is Emma Harper, the SNP list MSP who recently pronounced that ‘jobs can be created if a border is created’ between Scotland and England. Of course, Scottish nationalism being what it is, that kind of talk might only motivate more SNP voters to come out for Harper. Like many of his colleagues, Carson will need tactical voting.

Eastwood

Incumbent: Jackson Carlaw (Conservatives)

Majority: 1,611

Former Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw is up against it in this iconically Middle Scotland seat, and he doesn’t have much of a majority to fall back on. Eastwood’s Westminster analogue, East Renfrewshire, reverted to the SNP in 2019 despite the best efforts of Paul Masterton. Carlaw faces the same problem as Masterton: he is a representative of the party that delivered Brexit in an area where Remain took 74 per cent of the vote. He can’t rely on tactical Labour votes in this three-way marginal, plus he has to contend with a Ukip candidate eating into his support from the right.

Shetland

Incumbent: Beatrice Wishart (Lib Dem)

Majority: 1,837

Shetland has been Liberal country uninterrupted since the days of Jo Grimond and a bastion of liberalism and Whigism for generations before then. However, the SNP has been making headway in the last decade. Incumbent Beatrice Wishart got in at the 2019 by-election, which saw the Lib Dem vote collapse by almost 20 per cent even as the overall turnout increased. The Tories and Labour both lost their deposits here last time, so Wishart can’t fall back on tactical voting. Her best bet is that Shetlanders rebel against the SNP’s centralising style of governing in Edinburgh and decide they prefer an independent-minded, rather than independence-minded, MSP.

Edinburgh Western

Incumbent: Alex Cole-Hamilton (Lib Dem)

Majority: 2,960

Another well-to-do seat the SNP desperately wants to take back. Standing in their way is Alex Cole-Hamilton, one of the most passionate Lib Dem advocates for the Union. He has also been to the fore recently as a member of the Holyrood inquiry, where he grilled Salmond and Sturgeon. Much like Jackie Baillie, the Nationalists would like to claim his scalp for this alone. Whether they succeed will come down to local Tory and Labour voters. Those two parties took a quarter of the vote combined in 2016 but if enough of their supporters switch to Cole-Hamilton, they can get a dedicated community MSP and keep the SNP out.

North East Fife

Incumbent: Willie Rennie (Lib Dem)

Majority: 3,465

North East Fife was a reliably Lib Dem seat until being swept away in the 2011 SNP landslide. Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie reclaimed it in 2016 but his majority is not insurmountable. Rennie is one of the most effective critics of the SNP government, having forced their failings on policing, mental health and Covid testing onto the national agenda. He is also steadfast on the Union and made of sterner stuff than most Lib Dems, which should bring him the backing of some of North East Fife’s 6,000 Conservative voters. If he gets enough of them, he could clinch a commanding win over the Nationalists. If not, and if the SNP vote turns out in droves while Lib Dems stay at home, he could be in trouble.

Conservative targets

Perthshire South and Kinross-shire

Incumbent: Roseanna Cunningham (SNP)

Majority: 1,422

One to watch. SNP veteran Roseanna Cunningham is standing down at this election, giving Tory list MSP Liz Smith an opportunity to snatch this rural redoubt from the Nationalists. PSK is one of those constituencies the Tories really ought to be winning by this stage. Smith is in with a real shot here; the only question is whether a lacklustre national campaign trips her at the finish line.

Edinburgh Pentlands

Incumbent: Gordon MacDonald (SNP)

Majority: 2,456

Pentlands hasn’t voted Tory since 2007 and Lothian list MSP Gordon Lindhurst is having his second go at changing that. Lindhurst didn’t shift the dial much last time, despite the Conservatives having the wind at their backs, which raises the possibility that the party has simply maxed out its vote here. That said, the 2017 local elections saw the party’s vote more than double in the very unTory ward of Sighthill/Gorgie while recording significant boosts in already friendly territory like Colinton/Fairmilehead and Pentland Hills. Another of those seats the Tories need to win again if they are ever to be more than just an opposition party.

Angus North and Mearns

Incumbent: Mairi Gougeon (SNP)

Majority: 2,472

The late Alex Johnstone built up the Tory vote in this seat, and its predecessor Angus, over four elections and now a five per cent SNP-to-Conservative swing would place this seat in the blue column. The party’s candidate this time, Braden Davy, will need tactical voting help if he’s to pull that off in this election. The incumbent is Nicola Sturgeon’s public health minister Mairi Gougeon.

Aberdeen South and North Kincardine

Incumbent: Maureen Watt (SNP)

Majority: 2,755

The Tories went from fourth to second place in ASNK in 2016 and could benefit from the fact that SNP incumbent Maureen Watt is retiring. North East Scotland list MSP Liam Kerr is the party’s candidate and the result will be an indication of whether the Ruth Davidson phenomenon can outlast Davidson herself, or whether the Tories have peaked in this coastal seat.

Moray

Incumbent: Richard Lochhead (SNP)

Majority: 2,875

In 2016 Douglas Ross, now the Scottish Tory leader, cut the SNP’s majority in this northern seat from 11,000 to just under 3,000, but he isn’t contesting it this time. The Conservatives aren’t popular with Morayshire fishermen these days (or fishermen elsewhere in the north and north-east of the country), plus this constituency has been SNP since 1999. The Tory candidate is local councillor Tim Eagle and he faces SNP higher education minister Richard Lochhead. Eagle’s only chance is a collapse in Lochhead’s vote, a serious bout of tactical voting, or both.

Perthshire North

Incumbent: John Swinney (SNP)

Majority: 3,336

Another one to watch. Nicola Sturgeon’s chief bruiser, deputy first minister of the Scottish government, and much-criticised education minister, John Swinney is a controversial figure and one the Conservatives would dearly love to unseat in a constituency they consider prime Tory territory. The fact they have failed in every election since 1999, when the seat was called North Tayside, can’t be overlooked but nor can the fact Swinney’s majority is at its lowest ebb in 22 years. Tory list MSP Murdo Fraser is having another swing this time, having challenged Swinney in all five previous devolved elections. There aren’t many Labour or Lib Dem supporters in Perthshire North, so Fraser will need to persuade soft-SNP voters that Swinney’s time is up. It’s not out of the realms of possibility that Fraser pulls off an upset here but it won’t be easy.

Angus South

Incumbent: Graeme Dey (SNP)

Majority: 4,304

This is a big ask for Tory candidate and current list MSP Maurice Golden, but Graeme Dey’s vote share did drop by almost 10 per cent in 2016. Golden would need a similar drop to take Angus South this time. Unlikely, but an opportunity to cut the SNP majority further.

Aberdeenshire East

Incumbent: Gillian Martin (SNP)

Majority: 5,837

The SNP’s Gillian Martin should be safe in this north-east seat. It’s home to a chunk of Scotland’s fisheries industry — bonjour, Monsieur Brexit — and was previously held by Alex Salmond. Note, however, that the Nationalist vote plummeted by 19 per cent in 2016. Whether that was a reflection of Salmond’s absence from the ballot paper or discontent with the SNP’s independence agenda (Aberdeenshire voted 60 per cent No in 2014) is up for debate. But it’s yet again one of those seats the Tories need and ought to be taking from the Nationalists.

Labour targets

Cowdenbeath

Incumbent: Annabelle Ewing (SNP)

Majority: 3,041

Former Scottish Labour deputy leader Alex Rowley hopes to reclaim his old seat from the SNP and with Annabelle Ewing, the woman who won it from him, retiring at this election, he might be in with a decent shot. That’s all the more so since the pro-independence Scottish Greens are standing and could take votes from the Nationalists. A little vote-splitting, a little tactical-voting, and a little luck could see Rowley emerge victorious.

Rutherglen

Incumbent: Clare Haughey (SNP)

Majority: 3,743

The SNP’s Clare Haughey snatched Rutherglen from Labour’s James Kelly last time and he’s standing to try to snatch it back. Now the Scottish government mental health minister, Haughey has a respectable majority but Kelly has a good public profile and spearheaded the successful campaign to repeal the SNP’s Offensive Behaviour Act. How well or badly Haughey performs could signal whether Labour’s former Lanarkshire heartlands are turning back to their old party or minded to stick a while longer with the SNP.

Coatbridge and Chryston

Incumbent: Fulton MacGregor (SNP)

Majority: 3,779

Socialist bastion Coatbridge and Chryston fell to the nationalists in 2016, one year after the Westminster seat Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill was captured. The latter has changed hands twice since and is back in the SNP's grip. Could the Holyrood seat return to the Labour fold this time? Coatbridge councillor Michael McPake has been tasked with pulling this off. It’s not as unlikely as it might seem on paper. There is still a lot of sympathy — even affection — for Labour in this area.

Lib Dem targets

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross

Incumbent: Gail Ross (SNP)

Majority: 3,913

The SNP’s Gail Ross isn’t standing again, which gives the Lib Dems a chance to pinch this seat in what used to be bright yellow Liberal heartland. Candidate Molly Nolan is a Harvard graduate, not a phrase you hear often in connection with the Scottish Parliament, and has focussed her campaign on rural jobs, infrastructure and climate change. Last time, Jamie Stone (now the MP for the Westminster seat) put the Lib Dem vote up nine per cent, turning the seat into a two-horse race. Nolan needs a swing of around seven per cent to take this constituency from the SNP, who have put up list MSP and children’s minister Maree Todd.

Argyll and Bute

Incumbent: Mike Russell (SNP)

Majority: 5,978

Argyll and Bute has been SNP since 2007 and Scottish government constitution minister Mike Russell, standing down at this election, has built up a redoubtable majority over the years. The Lib Dems have an outside chance — and it very much is an outside chance — in the form of the area’s ex-MP, Alan Reid. When he stood in 2016, he took the party from fourth to second place, pushing up their vote almost 14 per cent. The SNP's Jenni Minto can only be considered the favourite here but even if Reid fails to capture the seat, he could cut the Nationalist majority enough to make 2026 a more promising prospect.

Other results to watch out for

Alba back

Alex Salmond made a comeback in this election, springing directly from the Holyrood inquiry to a new political force, Alba. If the SNP is Ukip pretending to be the Labour Party, Alba is not pretending. It is an unabashedly nationalist outfit. One campaign video invoked how the Scots ‘broke the spine of English superiority’ at Bannockburn. Alba is standing only on the regional list, Salmond’s pitch being that the proportional system sees list votes for the SNP wasted. Instead, he argues, nationalists should give them to Alba and ensure a ‘supermajority’ for independence at Holyrood. Polls suggest Alba has failed to cut through — no wonder, given its very amateur operation — but its message might have more appeal than the polls are registering. Might we see a ‘shy Alba voter’ phenomenon in which SNP voters tell pollsters they are full-square behind Nicola Sturgeon but, in the privacy of the polling booth, give Salmond their list vote in the hopes of hastening independence? 

The dauphin takes on the queen

The new Scottish Labour leader has undoubtedly fought the cheeriest, most upbeat campaign, including an impromptu bout of booty-shaking at an outdoor dance class. But Anas Sarwar has taken on an even more daunting challenging than reviving the fortunes of the Labour Party in Scotland: he is standing against Sturgeon in her Glasgow Southside constituency. Last time, the Nationalist leader took a mere 61 per cent of the vote, so Sarwar’s on a hiding to nothing. Or maybe not. If he can eat into La Sturgeon’s majority, as Spectator contributor Susan Dalgety has suggested, he could demonstrate that Scottish Labour is back in business.

Dear Green place

Glasgow Kelvin is home to Scotland’s greatest concentration of ageing yuppies, skinny-jeaned hipsters, and people willing to pay a fiver for a cup of coffee. The constituency contains Glasgow’s city centre and parts of its west end, including all three of the city’s universities. Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie stood for Kelvin for the first time in 2016 and shot straight into second place. His chances of taking the seat this time are decidedly outside but the incumbent MSP Sandra White is standing down and if the Greens are going to make a constituency breakthrough any time soon, it will be here.

Unity ticket

George Galloway, former MP for Glasgow Kelvin, later Bethnal Green and Bow, and later still Bradford West, is standing on the South Scotland regional list for anti-nationalist outfit All for Unity. Galloway is AfU’s best chance (albeit an extremely slim one) of gaining a seat, since South Scotland is red, white and blue territory. But the party has had little cut-through beyond social media. It has, however, tapped into discontent with the main parties among more strident and politically active opponents of the SNP. If Galloway does make it into Holyrood, those parties will have paved his way by failing to detect this discontent until it was too late.

Independent’s day?

Lothian MSP Andy Wightman quit the Greens last December over its hardline position on gender ideology, complaining of ‘intolerance’ towards dissenting views, and is now standing as an independent in the Highlands and Islands, where he now lives. He needs about 15,000 votes to win a list seat, a huge ask for a one-man campaign, but his message of radical localism could cut through in a region that feels alternately neglected and bossed around by remote Holyrood. Wightman’s fortunes will be a useful barometer of the standing of independent politics after two decades of devolution, a system in which independents and single-MSP parties initially did reasonably well.

The battle for second place

The top-line result is a foregone conclusion: SNP wins. What is still unknown is whether the Scottish Tories will manage to hold onto second place or whether Anas Sarwar’s energetic campaign will be enough to propel Scottish Labour back into the main opposition slot. Since Labour beat the Tories on the constituency vote in 2016 but trailed them on the list, this is not as straightforward a question as it might seem. Does it only count if Labour wins more seats than the Tories, or will they be accorded a moral victory if they beat Douglas Ross’s party on the constituency and list votes but remain third in seats? Of course, the Conservatives could defy all expectations and hold second handsomely, but even that is unlikely to quell questions about Ross’s lacklustre campaign.

Written byStephen Daisley

Stephen Daisley is a Spectator regular and a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail

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