By Russell Bruce
The three Westminster constituencies that meet the Border are currently held by each of the three unionist parties.
In the middle is Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, currently held by David Mundell, Scotland¹s sole Conservative MP. Over in the west, Dumfries and Galloway is currently held by Labour¹s Russell Brown.
The Tories are pouring money into the region, their top target being the third Borderlands seat, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, currently held by Liberal Democrat Michael Moore. The Conservative candidate is the MSP John Lamont, who is making his third attempt at the Westminster seat.
One thing Lamont and SNP candidate Calum Kerr agree on is that this is a straight SNP/Tory contest following the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote. Just as the Liberal Democrat vote all but evaporated with the Holyrood SNP landslide in 2011, the polls are pointing to a similar result in their Scottish Westminster seats this May.
Polling analysts are comparing 2010 results with the current round of polls for May. Whilst this is understandable in a UK context, the situation in Scotland is a great deal more complex, and a great deal more interesting than the “surprise” rebound of the SNP following the referendum as reported south of the Border.
In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish electorate had worked out how best to vote to turf out the Tories. Differential voting patterns emerged for Westminster and the Scottish Parliament. The constituency and regional list votes for the Scottish Parliament gave voters another twist to work into their voting strategies.
Much of the shift in the Labour vote across Scotland started in 2011. The Referendum was a means of consolidating that move behind the campaign for Independence. During this period the polls were also showing a convergence of voting intentions for Westminster and Holyrood with the SNP ahead for both parliaments.
The solid lead that the SNP has built up since the referendum is a continuum of this trend, recruiting those who trust the Scottish Parliament and want to see more real powers devolved, even if some were unsure about independence. This alignment in voting intentions for Holyrood and Westminster is therefore a natural progression to achieve the greatest influence for Scotland¹s interest after May 7.
Calum Kerr, the SNP’s candidate for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk therefore has some reason to be confident he can win the seat. He is aware of the challenge posed by his Tory opponent, who is already flooding the constituency with weekly letters by post, and a constituency-wide postal distribution of his first six-page leaflet. But it takes more than money to win: you have to win the people over and Kerr does have a dedicated team behind him.
According to Wings over Scotland, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson MSP only had an audience of 100 people, including candidates and journalists, for her speech at the Conservative half-day conference in Edinburgh last week. That same evening, in the Cross Keys Hotel in Kelso, 240 members turned out for an amazing adoption meeting for the SNPs Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk candidate.
Over the years I have attended a few such meetings, but never one so well-organised, entertaining and impressive. Kerr’s follow-up act was the irrepressible Alex Salmond. Despite being up since 5.30am, apparently putting the finishing touches to his forthcoming book, the former First Minister had the audience enthralled, and MSP Christine Grahame in stitches, as he shared with the audience his reason for backing her for Presiding Officer in 2011.
Salmond knows just how important this win in the Borders will be. On election night, commentators will be expecting wins in Dundee, Glasgow and the West of Scotland. Always one to champion the unexpected, Salmond said a win in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk would cement the message that Scotland was sending a strong message south, reclaiming the Borderlands from unionist occupation and Tory ambition.
It helps also that the constituency has a Salmond family connection in the person of Gail Hendry, his sister, and – by no coincidence – Kerr’s election agent. In the Salmond tradition, she likes to win and plans accordingly. Salmond is taking the importance of the Borderland constituencies very seriously and will be back this week for a Burns celebration event in Dumfries to help fund the campaigns in the other two local constituencies.
Emma Harper is standing for the SNP against David Mundell in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, and Richard Arkless is taking on Labour¹s Russell Brown in Dumfries and Galloway. Statistically Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk is the most winnable of the three Borderland constituencies. Here, Electoral Calculus predicts, based on recent Scottish polling, an SNP gain with 57 per cent probability, against 31 per cent probability for the Tory and 11 per cent probability for Michael Moore.
In 2011 the SNP won on the regional list vote in the constituency as a result of a broad consensus that the party had provided a competent and popular government during their first term at Holyrood.
With the LibDem vote in free-fall and the anti Tory vote seeking a new home, Calum’s challenge is to persuade voters of the necessity to back a popular and trusted government in Holyrood, and take the demand for more powers right to the heart of Westminster.
For 50 years Borderers campaigned for the re-opening of the Waverley line, but it took an SNP government to deliver it. I mean no disrespect to those who doggedly campaigned for so long, but the ability to deliver only comes with the power of government, and by not putting the ambitions of an important part of Scotland forever on the back burner.
Kerr’s campaign will be well organised. Teams will be out on the ground, backed by decent financial resources, though without the deluge of money pouring into the Tory campaign. Kerr has launched an Indiegogo rowd-funding campaign to try and balance the spending.
The Borders are an important and valued part of Scotland. To help ensure the yellow in the post-election map stretches from John O¹Groats to the boundary with the old Scottish lands of Berwick-on-Tweed, Kerr will be scrapping with Lamont for every vote.
It is promising to be a classic local contest.