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Betting on the Scottish battlegrounds

November 11th, 2019

Goodness knows I try not to offend. Among the more controversial posts that I have ever put up, however, was one that concerned the SNP’s results at the last election. I noted that the SNP had lost more seats than the Conservatives and that they came within a whisker of losing many more. Their strategic position for the next election looked terrible.

This did not go down well with the nationalist fraternity. Yet here we are in 2019, facing that next election. How do things look for the SNP now?

This gets a bit data-heavy, so forgive me for giving you a couple of external links. Here is a link to a table of the Scottish seats organised from an SNP perspective, from safest seat to most challenging target (I’ve included all the best odds at the time of writing as well – be aware that Coral also have seat prices taken from Ladbrokes and Betfair Sportsbook have Paddy Power’s prices).

As you can see, from Paisley & Renfrewshire North onwards, there is an abundance of marginals. 15 SNP seats would fall to an adverse swing of 2%. Six seats could be taken with a favourable swing of 2%. For a party that got swings of 30% and more in 2015, these margins are the vibration of a grass stem on the edge of a volcano.

From an SNP perspective, however, recent polls have been broadly encouraging. They are polling ahead of their vote share in the 2017 election – though it should be noted that they underperformed their pre-election polling then. One hopes that the pollsters have made appropriate corrections this time around. Better still, both the Conservatives and Labour have fallen back since then, with the Lib Dems making something of a revival. The Lib Dems pose little threat this time for the SNP, seriously challenging in only one seat (Fife North East). This turn of events suits the SNP well. 

None of this alters the strategic position. In a world of four party politics, Gore Vidal’s dictum applies: it is not enough to succeed, others must fail. The big risk for the SNP is that there is greatly increased tactical voting this time round from unionists. The big opportunity for them is that with the unionists having fallen out over Brexit and over Jeremy Corbyn’s politics, tactical voting may in fact wane.

Let’s turn to the betting. Here are the Scottish seats ranked by odds on the SNP winning them (I’ve stripped out parties with a best price of more than 20/1 to make the table more usable). You will immediately see that the order differs markedly from the order by swing. Labour are seen as ripe for the taking while the Lib Dems are seen as the tough nuts to crack.  

The effects are really quite extreme. The SNP are 1/8 to take Rutherglen & Hamilton East, a Labour seat and Labour are third favourites in East Lothian, a seat they hold.  Meanwhile the Lib Dems are 4/6 to take Fife North East, presumably because they are seen as very transfer-friendly for other unionist parties.

Enough chit chat. What are the betting opportunities? Well, the first thing to note is that the SNP are best priced at 5/6 (the bookies’ evens) in 47 out of 59 seats. That suggests that if you are going to play the under/over markets, you’re probably better going under – you can get 5/6 with William Hill, with the line set at 49.5.  This looks like a clear bet to me.

Next, the prices seem to be based on the assumption that unionists will not get their act together with tactical voting. This seems very questionable to me, given that the number one topic for most Scots remains independence (whether for or against). The 4/6 with Paddy Power on the Lib Dems in Fife North East looks marked to me, but the point applies still more strongly in seats where the incumbent is not from the SNP.  Many of these are first term incumbents and can hope for a bounce: so the 7/2 with Paddy Power on Labour in East Lothian and even the 4/1 on Labour in Glasgow North East look reasonable bets. The 11/4 with Paddy Power on the Conservatives in Ayr, Carrick & Cumnock looks generous, given that the SNP need a 3% swing to take the seat.

Nor are SNP-held seats immune. They are surely far too short in Perth & North Perthshire at 1/6, given they took the seat by just 21 votes. The Conservatives must be worth a punt at 3/1. While it is one of the longest standing SNP seats, that does not mean all that much in the maelstrom of Scottish politics: three of the six seats that the SNP held in the 2010-15 Parliament have already fallen to the Conservatives. There are similar examples.

I would, however, steer clear of those SNP-held seats like Edinburgh North & Leith and Lanark & Hamilton East where both Labour and the Conservatives fancy their chances. In all probability they will both knock each other out, particularly at a time when their vote share looks to have declined. At 2/9 in both of these seats, the SNP are not going to get you rich, so I wouldn’t bother on that side of the fence either.

Bear in mind: it’s not so much that I expect the SNP to underperform – I don’t particularly – but that their ultimate seat count is at least as dependent on how their opponents work together or against each other as on their own performance. That right now seems murky, so the value will tend to be found against the short-priced bets. Trying to keep hold of what is going on is like trying to keep hold of a greased pig. Of course, when you’re trying to keep hold of a greased pig, the chances of ending up in a mess are high, so these are markets where it’s always wise to have an eye to safety. Proceed with care.

Alastair Meeks