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Caught in the backwash. The SNP subsides and the Conservatives surge

April 29th, 2017

Alastair Meeks who accurately predicted the SNP tsunami of 2015 looks at the best Scottish seat bets

In 2010, not a single seat in Scotland changed hands.  Electoral politics north of the border has got a bit more dynamic since then.  2017 will not be as wild as 2015 but the polls suggest a fair amount of movement.

The SNP already have 56 out of the 59 seats that they compete in, so their room for progress is limited. Indeed, the SNP have a job on their hands keeping what they’ve got.  Recent polls suggest that they have fallen back to the lower 40s while the Conservatives are polling something around 28% or so.  Scottish Conservative backers, never a reticent bunch, are getting excited again, this time with some reason.  Not much less than in England, there appears to be a wave election going on – not so much as in 2015 in Scotland, but still substantial.  The polls this month are suggesting a 10 to 12% swing to the Conservatives from the SNP.  Such waves are never distributed evenly and some seats will swing much more heavily than others.  How to pick them?

We have a recent example and I intend to follow it.  In 2015, the SNP didn’t so much have a wave election as a tsunami.  There is a strong correlation between SNP performance in 2015 and its absolute vote share in 2010, at least at the bottom end.  The seats with the ten lowest SNP vote shares in 2010 included all three of the seats that the SNP did not take in 2015 and four of the five most marginal SNP seats for this election.  It seems that we should look to prior vote share rather than swing required.

Using that measure, odds against bets on the Conservatives in Perth & North Perthshire, Moray and perhaps even Angus and Banff & Buchan seem worth considering.  Sure, they’re all already two way marginals but if swing is going to happen somewhere it’s going to happen in areas where the Conservatives are already strong and which are decisively anti-independence. 

If you disagree with me then you need to identify where the apparent Conservative rise is coming from (or conclude that it isn’t happening in reality, which is hard to reconcile with the recent polls).  I may be stereotyping wildly but I can’t picture Glasgow proving fertile territory for them.   If the Conservatives aren’t gaining much traction there, then they must be doing disproportionately well in other areas.

The Conservatives will in all probability hoover up in the Borders and they may take some other outside prospects but the odds now seem too short to me.  One possible exception is East Renfrewshire.  While they start with a relatively low vote share of 22% in 2015, they had tallied 30% in successive elections suggesting that Jim Murphy had got a lot of Conservatives to vote tactically for him.  He’s not standing this time and I expect the Conservatives to return home, bringing some friends with them.  In a very unionist seat, even 8/11 might be fair value.  I’m still not backing them, mind.

The Lib Dems haven’t shown progress in the polls, but hope springs eternal among the Scottish sandalistas.  Just by standing still, they potentially benefit from a swing towards them from the SNP as the SNP high tide subsides a little, while the 2015 election at least clarified which seats the Lib Dems are in best contention for representing the tactical unionist option.  Uniform national swing suggests they might take Dunbartonshire East and Edinburgh West, and you hear persistent murmurs about Fife North East based on their Holyrood performance last year.

While the Lib Dems obviously have good chances in all of these constituencies if they can harvest tactical unionist votes, their prices at present look too short in all of them.  The position is still clearer in Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross, where the Lib Dems are 4/6 favourites despite an 11% deficit behind the SNP, few Labour or Conservative voters to squeeze and with their former incumbent unable to stand.  I’m on the 11/10 with the SNP here and feel these odds should be at least the other way around.

All three of the holdouts against the SNP are marginals, but only one looks in serious jeopardy.  In the feverish aftermath of the 2015 election, SNP supporters sought to oust Alistair Carmichael judicially and despite failing to do so, hopes remained high for a while that the SNP could take his seat at the next election.  The moment, however, seems to have passed and while the SNP will try hard to take both Orkney & Shetland and David Mundell’s constituency of Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, both seem unlikely to fall, with the unionist majority in each seat now knowing clearly who to back.

The remaining seat, Edinburgh South, also has a clear unionist majority.  However, it also has a Labour MP and Labour have continued their freefall in the polls in Scotland since 2015.  The Conservatives will fancy their chances of taking the seat from third as the replacement unionist party and the SNP could yet slip through the middle.  Betfair Sportsbook prices all three almost identically, with Labour and the Conservatives at 13/8 and the SNP at 8/5.  Given the low prior Conservative vote share in 2015, they seem unlikely winners to me.  If pushed, I’d back Labour.  But I’m staying out of this one.

Alastair Meeks