Thursday, 31 March 2011

Scotland Votes: Highlands and Islands Part 2: The Highlands

This post looks at the mainland Highlands seats in the Highlands and Islands region. The Island seats can be found here. The regional list seats can be found here.



Notional Majority

Swing Required

First Elected

Argyll and Bute

Jim Mather




SNP Lean

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross

Jamie Stone




Too Close

Inverness and Nairn

Fergus Ewing




SNP Safe


Richard Lochhead




SNP Safe

Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch

John Munro




Too Close

Argyll and Bute is a key battleground seat – the Lib Dem’s number 1 target in Scotland and one of their best chances for a rare gain. They hold the equivalent Westminster seat and held this seat until 2007 when Jim Mather took it on an impressive 9.2% swing. Mather had already been a prominent list MSP, however, as a member of the SNP Shadow Cabinet. The SNP candidate for the seat is Mike Russell, a regional MSP for South Scotland and the Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning in the Scottish Executive. He was first elected as a MSP in 1999, lost his seat in 2003, and then regained it in 2007. In his first term he served as Shadow Education Minister and received awards such as ‘Scottish Politician of the Year’ and ‘Debater of the Year’. He has, however, been involved in a couple of scandals. One of his aides was forced to quit after it was found he was using his blog to smear rivals in 2009 though, in fairness, Russell has never been shown to hold definite knowledge of this. Additionally, this year Russell has been accused of using his position as Education Secretary to influence school closures in this seat for his own electoral benefit. His other great weakness is that, as far as I can tell, he has little to no actual connection to the seat. That will provide a contrast with Lib Dem candidate Alison Hay who has been a councillor in this seat since 1992 and who has lived here since 1983. She was also leader of the council between 1999 and 2001. She is on the board of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and the Spokesperson for the Environment for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The Lib Dems are focusing on her local links and knowledge in the election.

Also notably the Conservatives are running perennial candidate Jamie McGrigor, a list MSP for Scotland and the Highlands since 1999 and Tory Shadow Minister for the Environment who lives in the seat. He would require a swing of more than 7.6% to win, which is possible but I’m afraid rather unlikely considering the local dynamics so he is not much of a threat to the main two in my opinion, but with the coalition at Westminster there may be an opportunity for the Lib Dems to attract some tactical voters and dig into this fairly sizeable minority. Additionally Labour got 14.4% of the vote last time round and may drag votes off either the SNP or Lib Dem, though their candidate, Mick Rice, lived in Birmingham until recently and so strikes me as being a bit weak.

Almost all polling shows the SNP gaining votes and the Lib Dems losing them however, so purely on uniform national swing the SNP should increase their majority. It will require an excellent local campaign for the Lib Dems to take this seat back. That said, they have some decent firepower at their disposal and the Lib Dems have always been good at targeting seats like these, nothing is impossible, but I think, for now, the seat is best called as a SNP lean.

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross MSP Jamie Stone is standing down after holding this seat, the most Northerly mainland Parliament seat, since the Parliament’s creation in 1999. The Lib Dems are running Robbie Rowantree, a local councillor. The SNP’s candidate is Rob Gibson, a regional MSP for the Highlands and Islands region, and a former head of the SNP’s student wing. The SNP are intensely targeting the seat. It would be a huge embarrassment and worry to the Lib Dems to lose this seat, however, as the broadly equivalent Westminster seat has been held by the party since 1983 and is held by John Thurso, one of the party’s best known backbenchers. On a uniform national swing on every opinion poll the party would lose this seat and the party generally has more trouble holding open seats, but the long Lib Dem history in the seat, the strong local presence and the fact that, if they have any sense, the party will be deploying local heavyweights John Thurso and Charles Kennedy in the seat makes me shy away from calling this as a SNP lean. I really think this one is too close to call.

Inverness and Nairn MSP Fergus Ewing is the son of legendary SNP MP, MEP and MSP Winnie Ewing. In days gone past the Lib Dems would have stood a solid chance here but Ewing has held the seat since 1999, now, is Minister for Community Safety and polls are well in the SNP’s favour. Lib Dem candidate Christine Jardine, a journalist and broadcaster, will have trouble holding onto second place against Labour’s Dave Stewart, a Highlands and Islands MSP, in my opinion. Should be safe for the SNP.

The SNP’s Richard Lochhead first won Moray in a by-election in 2006. The Moray Westminster seat has been held by the SNP since 1987. Lochhead is the Rural Affairs and Environment Secretary in the Scottish Government and should hold his seat easily against 25 year old Scottish Conservative Douglas Ross, a local councillor and assistant to Highlands and Islands List MSP Mary Scanlon. While Ross is clearly an up and coming politician in the making, securing the 13% swing necessary to unseat Lochhead would be a big ask at the best of times. The seat is safe for the SNP.

The Highland Lib Dems must be holding their heads in their hands. The party is generally much better at holding seats when they have an incumbent to rally around, but in both their Highland seats their MSPs are standing down. Normally this wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but with polls as they are the local party must be more than a little bit concerned. To be fair to Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch’s John Munro, he is the oldest MSP in the Parliament, so it’s about time he hung his order papers up, but it’s still not good news for the party. The Lib Dems are standing Alan MacRae, a Skye born businessman, to run for the seat. He was selected back in 2008, so he’s had plenty of time to work the constituency and get his name out. The SNP have re-selected Dave Thomson who was their candidate here in 2003 and 2007. Notably the seat overlaps with the Westminster seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, the seat of Charles Kennedy and with Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, seat of Danny Alexander. No doubt both will be deployed in the defence of this seat. That said, the uniform national swing would have Thomson take this seat. Uniform national swing is one thing, however, a single seat is another. I think this one is too close to call.


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