Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Scotland Votes: Lothian Part 1: Edinburgh

This post covers the seats in Edinburgh proper, the rest of the Lothian seats and the regional seats are here.

Lothian is a hell of a region. Here one can find every type of voter. At a constituency level there are seats held by Labour, the SNP, the Tories and the Lib Dems. In the regional seats there is Scotland’s sole independent and Scotland’s strongest Green result. Lothian is the name of a historic province of Scotland, but in reality this electoral region primarily covers Edinburgh, the West Lothian council region and very small parts of East Lothian and Midlothian council areas. Edinburgh is a highly affluent city, which has a reputation for economic competitiveness, low unemployment, a youthful population and is famed for its arts and cultural scene. It has a large population from outside Scotland and is also very middle class (though, like any city, there are working class areas), and its suburbs tend to reflect this. It is a city with massive diversity, and its politics reflect this, the four largest parties all have a constituency seat in the city, and they’re all very close, as you can see below.

Constituency

MSP

Majority

Swing Required

First Elected

B-V.co.uk

Edinburgh Central

Sarah Boyack

-719

1.3%

4.1%

1999

Lab Lean

Edinburgh Eastern

Kenny MacAskill

-545

0.9%

2007

SNP Lean

Edinburgh Northern & Leith

Malcolm Chisholm

2204

3.7%

4.2%

2007

Too Close

Edinburgh Pentlands

David McLetchie

2742

4.4%

4.5%

2003

Con Lean

Edinburgh Southern

Mike Pringle

3955

6.2%

2003

Too Close

Edinburgh Western

Margaret Smith

5759

8.6%

1999

Too Close

Edinburgh Central is the first of our three way marginals in the city, and what a seat it is. Boundary changes have changed it from a Labour seat into one that is notionally held by the Lib Dems. Incumbent MSP Sarah Boyack is Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Environment, and Climate Change. During the first Scottish Parliament term she also served as Minister for Transport, Environment and Planning. On paper, the Lib Dems are best placed to ‘gain’ this seat as they now notionally hold it! Their candidate is Alex Cole-Hamilton, head of policy for a children’s charity, Cole-Hamilton was a candidate in Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency in 2005. Of course with polls as they are he will have to swim very much against the tide to win this seat. Labour shouldn’t get cocky, however, because the SNP are not far behind the top 2. The SNP’s Marco Biagi is employed by the SNP at Holyrood, he is a prominent local activist. A uniform swing on the latest YouGov poll in this seat would give a result of SNP: 31.7%, Labour: 30.2%, Lib Dem: 21.75%, basically sending the Lib Dems from first to third and the SNP from third to first. However Labour benefit from the incumbency of Boyack, who, as a frontbencher, gains extra notability, credibility and attention. They also gain from the fact that Labour will have identified this as a key battleground seat a while back, whereas the SNP have far higher priorities and targets. As a final arbiter I decided to check the betting markets, and while they are not perfect they all have Boyack as a clear odds-on favourite, so I’m calling this as a Labour lean. If anyone disagrees with me, you can get a 2/1 on the SNP and an 11/1 on the Lib Dems if you’re falling ballsy.

Edinburgh Eastern is another seat that boundary changes have notionally changed a seat from the control of one party to another, going from SNP to notional Labour control. Fortunately for the SNP they have one of their most prominent MSPs in this seat in the form of Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary in the Scottish Government. As prominent a post as this usually is, it has become even more prominent during the last four years due to the furore over the release of Al Megrahi. I won’t cover the details of the case, because I frankly think most of our readers will be sick of hearing about it by now, but MacAskill has been repeatedly called upon to explain the Scottish Government’s actions in a decision he had ultimate responsibility for. If you want a detailed profile of MacAskill here’s a 2009 one from the Times. He evidently has a reputation as a bit of a SNP maverick, and has had a couple of minor brushes with the law (over the Poll Tax and accusations of being drunk and disorderly). He is generally considered to be extremely competent, and exudes a large degree of self-confidence. Labour’s candidate is Ewan Aitken, a local councillor who has served as council leader and leader of the local Labour group. He is also an ordained Church of Scotland minister. While Al Megahi certainly gives Aitken an avenue to personally attack MacAskill quite strongly, the strong SNP polling and MacAskill’s personal profile makes me call this as a lean for the SNP, and in any case I am not convinced the Al Megahi issue will actually swing many votes.

Another three way marginal as we head to Edinburgh Northern and Leith. This is currently the seat of Malcolm Chisholm, who was MP for the equivalent seat from 1992 until 2001. He was a minister in the Scottish Executive during the Labour years as Minister for Health and Community Care and the Minister for Communities (both junior posts). As a veteran representative in the area and a former minister he has a certain incumbency advantage, but the SNP are not far behind him. A swing of 3.7% would elect Shirley-Anne Somerville, who is a Lothian list MSP. Theoretically the Lib Dems could also take this seat, Their candidate is Dan Farthing, Policy and Communications manager at the Haemophilia Society. It’s probably not unfair to rule the Lib Dems out, though, considering the party’s travails, it would require one hell of a campaign for them to take this seat. Therefore this is pretty much just a straight Lab-SNP fight. On the one hand uniform swing would have the SNP take this seat, but, on the other the latest shows the party falling back a bit, which may suggest that their momentum is starting to fizzle out a bit. Additionally Chisholm has now represented this area, in one form or another, for 19 years, and there is something to be said for incumbency and experience. Too close to call I think.

Edinburgh Pentlands is that rarest of things in Scotland: a Conservative held seat. It is held by David McLetchie, who was leader of the Scottish Conservatives from 1999 until 2005. McLethie first won the seat in 2003, when he unseated current Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray (who was elected to a different seat in 2007). McLetchie was generally considered to be a highly capable leader and was often described as leading a far more competent opposition than the SNP’s in the early parliament. He stepped down in 2005 after it was revealed he had claimed the highest taxi expenses of any MSP (£11,500) and then used the taxis for party business rather than constituency business. This didn’t seem to hurt him too much electorally in 2007, as he doubled his majority and he was made Conservative Chief Whip after the election. Technically his seat is within reach for both the Labour Party and the SNP. Labour’s candidate is Ricky Henderson, Labour deputy leader and finance spokesman on the local council. The SNP’s candidate is Gordon MacDonald, a local accountant and the SNP’s regional treasurer. MacDonald probably has a better chance than Henderson, considering the polls, but McLetchie’s profile and former solid results make me suspect he will win despite the types of swings projected the polls. It’s also worth considering that the Scottish Conservative vote is fairly solid, generally, as the party is basically at its core vote, therefore the SNP or Labour will need to homogenise the anti-Tory vote behind them in a way that just doesn’t look likely from where I’m sitting. It’s possible this seat will be lost, but unlikely in my view.

Now onto the first of the two Lib Dem held seats here with a visit to Edinburgh Southern. On paper the incumbent MSP, Mike Pringle, has a solid majority. In a normal year I would not quite call this as a safe seat, but it would be hard to see the Lib Dems using it. Alas, nothing is normal with the Lib Dems in Scotland anymore what with many polls showing their constituency vote cut in half. Pringle has evidently worked the constituency well, in a typical Lib Dem display of constituency tactics. He was the candidate for the seat in 1999, coming third with 22.3%. He then came from third to win this seat by 158 votes in 2003. Once elected, he consolidated his majority, going up to an almost 2,000 votes over Labour. Luckily for him the boundary commissioner has almost doubled this. He’s gotten some negative press during the campaign for (possibly unintentionally) flouting parliamentary rules regarding leaflets. Pringle’s Labour opponent is Paul Godzik, a local councillor and the party’s local spokesman on Education. Fortunately for Pringle while the Lib Dems are polling extremely badly, the Labour Party is not polling wonderfully encouragingly either, and the one party that is, the SNP, is in fourth in this seat. By my maths a uniform swing would see Pringle hold his seat, albeit it is very close. However, swings are not uniform and there is a clear anti-Lib Dem choice here. One wonders if perhaps the Lib Dems are now so toxic North of the border that people who would otherwise like to vote SNP will vote Labour simply to give the Lib Dems a bloody nose, using their second vote to vote for their ‘real’ preference. Certainly Scots have demonstrated analogous behaviour before, and this is educated Edinburgh, where voters probably understand their electoral system better than most. That said, Pringle has the advantage of incumbency, which often proves to be a deadly weapon in Lib Dem hands, and with the coalition at Westminster local Tories may also be willing to tactically vote for the party (though one suspects that this will not be a large number). Too close to call in my view.

The other Lib Dem seat is Edinburgh Western. Home to Margaret Smith. She has been the MSP here since 1999 and is the party’s Education and Young People spokesman. Unlike Edinburgh Southern this is a seat which, in a normal year, I would call as safe for the party. Indeed, on paper, this is the safest seat in the city. Unfortunately she is up against the SNP who are polling almost as wonderfully as the Lib Dems are polling poorly. The latest YouGov poll projects an 9% uniform swing from Lib Dem to SNP. This would see the SNP beat the Lib Dems by 0.4% of the vote. Like Edinburgh Southern, similar questions apply about the willingness of Labour and Conservative voters to tactically vote in one direction or the other, and Smith has incumbency on her side. The SNP’s candidate is Colin Keir, a local councillor. While this seat has a larger majority, because the Lib Dems are facing the SNP here rather than Labour I think there is an incredible amount of symmetry between this two seats. Similarly, then, I see this one as too close to call.

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