General Election 2019 – the state of play in Scotland

We’re off and running in the race for Downing Street; five weeks of manifesto launches, leaflet printing, door knocking, TV debates and mudslinging await as voters choose their government for the next five years, or alternatively, votes for another hung parliament.

The campaign in Scotland will be simultaneously different in tone and substance from other parts of the UK and potentially crucial in determining who will walk across the threshold of Number 10 on December 13th.

How does the campaign begin?

The election of June 2017 resulted in the SNP continuing to be the dominant force at Westminster, albeit with a significantly reduced number of seats, from 56 in 2015 to 35 two years later; the election saw the revival of the other parties, particularly the Scottish Conservatives, who won an additional 12 seats, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats saw their share rise from a single seat to seven and four seats respectively.

The question now is whether we return to something closer to 2015 SNP supremacy or whether we see the continued re-emergence of multi-party representation from Scotland in the UK Parliament.

The state of the parties

The first important point to make is that, unlike in the rest of the UK, polling conducted in Scotland has not been plentiful of late; indeed in the period since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July, there have only been two polls in Scotland which have asked about General Election voting intention; this means that some of the movements observed in GB-wide polls may have been reflected in Scottish public opinion but are not being measured sufficiently often to know for sure.

Notwithstanding that caveat, the available polling points to a number of clues:

  • Support for the SNP is up from 37% at the 2017 election to around 40% now,
  • Both the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour have seen support fall back to around 20% each,
  • The Liberal Democrats vote share has risen to around 12%, from 7% in 2017,
  • The Brexit Party is less popular than in the rest of Britain but is still polling at around 5%.

Running these numbers through a seat predictor like the Electoral Calculus model [1] would give the SNP heart, suggesting that the party will return to Westminster with 50 MPs, with the Liberal Democrats up to five seats and the real losers being the Conservatives (down to three seats) and Labour (down to one).

But there are many reasons to be sceptical that this will be the final outcome!

There are a high number of marginal seats in Scotland

The first reason why Scotland may produce an unexpected, difficult to predict result lies in the high number of marginal seats which could fall two or three ways as a result of very small swings.

Scotland’s most marginal seats

As the chart shows, almost a quarter (14 of 59) of seats in Scotland have existing majorities of less than 1,000 votes, making them highly vulnerable for incumbents and high priorities for challengers. A further 20 seats in Scotland have majorities of under 3,000, putting well over half of Scotland’s seats into that category and making a firm prediction extremely risky.

That said, it is the SNP who will go into the campaign with the most optimism given the national polling. Of course, a potential national swing from Labour and the Conservatives to the SNP suggests that SNP should take the five Labour and Tory seats in these most marginal constituencies (since the SNP came second last time in each case), though interestingly the SNP would lose the highly marginal North East Fife to the Liberal Democrats, who came a close second last time and who have a higher swing towards them nationally than the SNP.

However, as well as defending four highly marginal seats that look vulnerable, Labour will target the six highly marginal SNP held seats, all held by the SNP in Labour’s previous heartlands in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Fife; given the national swing it looks unlikely that Labour can make much traction here, but a good local campaign or two might see the trend bucked on a limited scale.

The Brexit debate may help the Tories in their new ‘strongholds’

One of the most interesting features of the 2017 result in Scotland was the re-emergence of Tory representation, most notably in the North East of the country, where half of the 12 new Conservative seats were gained.

As well as benefitting from an unambiguous pro-union message and the popularity of its Scottish leader, Tory success in the North East was undoubtedly driven by attitudes to the European Union and the debate around Brexit. Analysis of the 2017 election result, reinforced by subsequent research, has indicated that party support is increasingly divided along “Remain/Leave” lines; as the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey has reported, support for the SNP among those who identify as ‘Eurosceptics’ fell by 15 points between 2015 and 2017, while increasing by 14 points for the Scottish Conservatives over the same period. [2]

Given the higher than average (though not majority) support for Brexit in constituencies held by the Tories in the North East, this analysis will give them some hope of keeping some of these seats, though decisions by the Brexit Party to stand in these areas may serve to dampen that hope somewhat.

How will the independence issue play?

The early salvos in the campaign have indicated that the SNP and the Conservatives will have the constitutional issue front and centre of the debate, both seeing it as playing to its core vote.

The most recent polling on the issue has indicated that support for ‘Yes’ has increased over the last few months, with the country now split down the middle. So, if the constitutional question continues to be the fault-line in Scottish politics, the SNP will be hopeful of picking up many of the Scottish Labour gains from 2017 and the Conservatives of holding a number of their gains.

Attitudes to independence since the EU Referendum in 2016

Turnout will be crucial

One of the features of the 2017 election was the almost half a million votes that the SNP lost compared to 2015 when the party galvanised and enthused its support to a landslide in the aftermath of the independence referendum. This enabled the other parties to capture seats unexpectedly particularly Labour, who gained six extra seats despite gaining only 10,000 extra votes across Scotland, and the Liberal Democrats, who gained three extra seats despite polling 40,000 fewer votes than in 2015.

One of the key determinants of this election, therefore, will be the extent to which the SNP can recapture the spirit of 2015 and enthuse those who subsequently stayed at home in 2017 to return to the polling booths.

So, what’s the big picture?

As the campaign kicks off, polling points to the SNP comfortably winning the election and gaining seats, with somewhere between 40 and 50 seats looking possible; whether this brings the party any closer to its goal of another independence referendum may depend on who wins the election across the UK. For the Tories, predictions of a wipe-out may be overstated but the party will be primarily focussed on minimising losses to the SNP, aware that this may prove crucial in the overall UK outcome. Labour’s position in the polls looks most vulnerable, particularly as many of its 2017 gains will be wiped out on even a small swing to the SNP, though the party will hope that good local campaign can help them hold in some areas and possibly even pick up the odd seat where they came a very close second to the SNP in 2017. The Liberal Democrats will be confident of holding its four seats, including that of the party’s UK leader Jo Swinson, and will be hopeful of picking up the marginal North East Fife from the SNP.

Buckle in for the next five weeks; the result could have significant implications!

[1] Electoral Calculus


Written by Mark Diffley

11 December 2019

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