Tak’ the High Road: an electoral guide to Scotland

2015 saw the beginnings of a real divergence between Scottish politics and the rest of mainland Britain. With the SNP now dominant in all forms of Scottish politics from Westminster right down to local Government, it is inevitable that we’ll see a unionist backlash,

Here we take a look at the importance of the constitutional issue, the state of play of Scotland and the prospects for the parties.




“What about…now? Now? Now?”

Independence, Independence, Independence.

Since the 2014 Referendum, Scottish politics has been increasingly divided along constitutional lines. The Scottish Government, led by the SNP, announced last March they would be seeking IndyRef2. They will be using this election as a means to shore up their mandate and strengthen their hand in negotiations with Westminster who are firmly opposed to another referendum. The SNP are supported by the Scottish Greens in their independence crusade.

Opposing them are the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Since the referendum and the collapse of Labour, Ruth Davidson’s Tories are now the main party of unionism. They’ll be hoping to make big gains as unionists cast away traditional loyalties to protect the union, of which there has been increasing evidence.

This could be the election which solidifies the constitutional divide in Scotland, making its politics more akin to Northern Ireland than England or Wales.

Fishing for Brexit

Underpinning the issue of independence is Brexit. Scotland overwhelmingly voted to Remain by 62% and indeed only one constituency, Banff and Buchan, is estimated to have voted to Leave.

That’s not to say there isn’t a significant Leave minority. There has always been an anti-EU section of the SNP and opinion is more balanced in North East Scotland, where there has been long-running resentment over EU fisheries’ policy. 

Bread and Butter

Like with Wales, your day-to-day policy areas are devolved in Scotland. However, anti-SNP parties will be keen to blur the lines between Westminster and Holyrood.

The SNP has come under increasing fire for its record on education. Scottish education was once world-leading, but has recently fallen behind and now significantly underperforms England. The SNP claim that failings have been exaggerated and they are instituting reforms.



“No, honestly Mhairi, I’m really happy for you.”

Party Seats Vote Share


50.0% (+30.1)










Scotland was a fascinating sub-plot of the 2015 General Election. The SNP recorded the best vote share by any Scottish party since 1955. Its capture of 56 out of 59 seats was by a single party since 1880, when the Liberals won every single seat. A swing of 24% from Labour to the SNP (in some seats it was high as 39%) meant the BBC had to recalibrate their swingometer. 

The biggest victims were Labour, for which Scotland used to provide the backbone of their parliamentary party. In terms of seats, this was their worst Scottish election on record and their worst in vote share since 1922.

Despite progress elsewhere, the Tories yet again failed to recover in Scotland, having been in almost continual decline since 1979 when they held 22 seats. They narrowly avoided a wipeout by holding onto their sole seat of Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweddale by a majority of just 798.

Overlooked was the disastrous performance of the Lib Dems. Making up a fifth of their parliamentary party, Scotland used to be a key stronghold. They were decimated with key figures like Danny Alexander and even former leader Charles Kennedy losing their seats. They held on by 817 votes in Orkney and Shetland to stay on the scoreboard.



Onwards to independence

2016 saw elections to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. Like for the Welsh Assembly, these elections are held using the Additional Member System (AMS). The results were: (changes from 2011)


Additional Member System

Total Seats(+/-)
Constituency Vote Regional Vote
Seats(+/-) Vote Share(+/-) Seats(+/-) Vote Share(+/-)






























The SNP did manage to lose their overall majority in this election. However, given this was after nine years in Government, and using a system designed to avoid majorities, it is remarkable they came so close to getting one. They did also manage to pick up several seats off Labour.

The Tories had their best Scottish Parliamentary Election in their history. They overtook Labour and became the Official Opposition. They also made unexpected constituency gains like Aberdeenshire West and Ruth Davidson managed to capture Edinburgh Central. 

For Labour things went from bad to worse. They lost nearly all their constituencies, and lost all their seats in their former strongholds of Glasgow and the Central Belt to the SNP. A surprise gain of Edinburgh Southern was a small consolation prize.

The Lib Dems stayed exactly where they were with their vote share making no advance. Tactical unionism saw them make gains in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western which compensated for their losses on the regional lists.

The Greens had a very good election, overtaking the Lib Dems in terms of seats. They are sadly contesting only three seats in 2017, so are unlikely to make much of an impact this year.



“Prime Minister, I’ve come to discuss legsit”

The Polls 

Since the election was called the polling averages for Scotland-only are (changes from 2015):

SNP 43%(-7) CON 30%(+15) LAB 16%(-8) LD 7%(-1)

Based on Uniform National Swing that would mean a seat outcome of:

SNP 47 (-9) CON 9(+8) LAB 0(-1) LD 3(+2)

Polling seems to confirm the trend observed at the 2016 elections. The Conservatives are making a big recovery, but largely at the expense of other unionist parties rather than the SNP. The SNP would suffer not insignificant losses though, and dipping well below 50% would hurt their ability to claim a mandate for a referendum

Labour’s collapse appears to be continuing, and if replicated on polling day would be their worst result in vote share since 1910 and it would be the first time ever it failed to win a seat in Scotland. The Lib Dems are struggling to make a comeback, but could make seat gains by virtue of the collapse of Labour.

The Locals

There were also local elections held across Scotland this month. Scottish Councils are elected using the Single Transferable Vote (STV). STV is a preferential system which uses seats that elect several candidates. Very broadly speaking it produces very proportional results. Voters also act very differently under STV conditions as it discourages tactical voting.

So it’s difficult to draw to many comparisons to a First-Past-The-Post election. However, the results were as follows (changes from 2012):

Party Councillors(+/-) First Preference Votes












As we know, local elections aren’t the best indicator for general election results. Especially when they are with a different voting system. However, the locals broadly confirmed what we already knew. The SNP are peaking, the Tories recovering, Labour collapsing and the Lib Dems sticking.

There was some interest in Labour losing control of Glasgow City Council for the first time in nearly 40 years. Despite this major psychological defeat, Labour would be happy if this was replicated on 8th June, as it would significantly outperform their polling.



Sturgeon mused

Nicola Sturgeon has successfully shepherded a post referendum SNP to sheer dominance in Scotland. Despite now seven years in Government, the Party have overwhelmingly won all forms of election and have a massive poll lead.

Amazingly, the SNP can only physically gain three seats this time. Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and Orkney and Shetland are unlikely gains as both are very strong unionist seats. They will certainly be making a run at the Labour-held Edinburgh South. The majority here is less than 3,000 and they’ll be hoping the unionist vote could split Labour support three ways between the Tories and Liberal Democrats, who used to compete here.

Sturgeon may be firmly on the Scottish throne, but her crown is slipping a little. Her personal ratings have undergone a dip and her government has come under increasing scrutiny over its competence. The Party’s fixation with independence has also further alienated unionists whilst its leftward drift has seen a lot of its rural ‘Tartan Tory’ support ebb away. Spread thinly across Scotland, the SNP will be more concerned about minimising losses.



Ruth, I’m not THAT keen on the union.

It used to be a long-running joke that there were more Pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs. They were wiped out in 1997 went on to regain one in 2001 and just clung on to their one seat in 2015. For a party that has been the only one to ever receive over 50% in Scotland, it was quite a decline.

But under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, the Tories are back in Scotland. They more than doubled their representation at Holyrood in 2016 to replace Labour as the official opposition. They further consolidated their gains in this month’s local elections.

The Tories are hoping to seize on a coalescing of the unionist vote in opposition to IndyRef2. Davidson, who probably markets herself to the left of the English and Welsh parties, is also a useful weapon as she remains popular. 

On the downside for them, they’re coming from a very low base so they’re simply too far away to make sweeping gains. Top of their target list is Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. Coming only 328 votes short last time, this highly unionist seat is a dead cert.

Other probable targets look like West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine and Dumfries and Galloway. If they’re really rocking they might also be in play in more ambitious seats like Perth and North Perthshire, Aberdeen South and East Renfrewshire. 

One seat they are very keen on though is Moray held by the SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson. Robertson has been a real thorn in the side of the Government at PMQs and they would love to unseat him. He has a big majority but it’s a unionist area with a decent Tory vote and interestingly voted to Remain in the EU by the thinnest majority of 50.1%. One to watch.



Enter a caption

In one of the most dramatic changes in British political history, the Labour Party now finds itself third in Scotland. The Party was by the largest, in both seats and votes, since 1964 and even in their disastrous year of 2010 they managed to increase their vote share. This year looks set to confirm their relegation to an also-ran.

Their continued decline in the polls means even massive tactical unionist votes will make it difficult for Labour to make gains. Instead they’ll be focussing on keeping on the board in Scotland as they look to defend Edinburgh South from a strong SNP challenge.

If we do see a massive unionist tactical vote though there are a couple of seats they could be in with a shout. East Renfrewshire, the old seat of Jim Murphy, requires only a small swing, but the Tories also have designs on this seat. More ambitious are East Lothian and Edinburgh North and Leith. 



Imagine a cross between Tim Farron and Zac Goldsmith. You’re picturing Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie. 

Regionally, the Liberal Democrats were historically very strong in Scotland. Traditions of non-conformism in the Highlands and the Orkney and Shetland Isles made them liberal bastions. Indeed former leaders, Menzies Campbell, Charles Kennedy and Jo Grimond all hailed from there.

The now fading Liberal recovery never took hold in Scotland, as polling places them stuck in their 2015 position. They should be fine against the SNP in Orkney and Shetland, the most unionist area in Scotland. A Liberal has also held this seat since 1950, and if you take out 1935-1950, it’s been a Liberal stronghold since 1847.

Despite their lack of advance, tactical unionists give them a real chance in some seats. It was this that handed them some gains in the 2016 Holyrood elections.

They have their eyes on East Dunbartonshire, where former MP Jo Swinson is standing again. Swinson’s vote help up very well last time only to be swept away by the SNP tide. She’ll be hoping enough unionists will lend her their votes to put her over the top.

There’s a similar story in North East Fife and Edinburgh West where the Lib Dems saw good local election results to follow up their victories here in 2016. The latter seat is particularly interesting as it was held by the SNP’s Michelle Thomson who was forced to stand down over a financial scandal. 

In all three though, the Lib Dems could be victims of a unionist ‘tactical unwind’. They certainly benefitted from Tory votes being lent to them in 2015, and perhaps they will return home as the Conservatives firmly take on the unionist banner.

Having now taken a look at both Scotland and Wales, we take a trip across the Giant’s Causeway to Northern Ireland, where it’s a whole different ballgame… 




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