South of Scotland marginals and reverse targeting

South of Scotland marginals 2021

By Russell Bruce

We thought we would take a look at what is happening in the South of Scotland and what needs to be done to break that blue line along the border. So we will take it constituency by constituency. We have uncovered data that voters might find helpful in their decision to cast their votes in the days remaining as postal votes land on the doormat. For independence supporters the only two parties it makes sense to vote for in this region are the SNP and Greens on the regional list. The Greens are starting with a base of 4.7% from 2016 and polling indicates they are in a strong position to get through the 5% barrier in May to take one of the regional list seats. We do not see any evidence that Alba would do other than complicate the ability of the Greens and SNP to win a list seat in the South of Scotland and would only result in Alba votes being excluded from D’Hondt calculations though failure to reach 5% or have fewer votes in the final round than the Greens or SNP. The FT’s poll of polls analysis and interactive calculator (paywall) indicates the SNP and the Greens are the only Indy parties in line for a regional list seat in the South.


A Conservative seat that John Scott has represented since 2000 when he won the seat from Labour in a by-election. This is an SNP target seat. Only 2% (716 votes) behind the Tories in 2016 this is one of the most marginal constituencies in Scotland and the second most likely gain for the SNP in the South. An interesting feature of the regional list vote in Ayr in 2016 is that the SNP were 2.5% ahead of the Tories. This is exactly what we mean by reverse targeting as last time more people voted for the SNP in Ayr on the Regional list. Good to win on the list vote but getting though to those who split their vote could help with making the breakthrough. The Greens were on 4.2% and the Lib Dems on 2%. It can be difficult sometimes to dislodge a long serving MSP and much will be down to the local campaign and the SNP’s Siobhan Brown in a contest this close. Siobhan currently represents Ayr West on South Ayrshire Council.

Ayr Footnote: Chic Brodie is standing for Scotia Future. Brodie is a former SNP list MSP for the South of Scotland and previously a Liberal in general elections from 1974 to 1987 then a Lib Dem in 1992 to 2001. Scotia appears to be a one candidate party standing in this constituency.

Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

This was won by Jeane Freeman for the SNP in 2016 with a very convincing 19% (6006) majority over the Labour party. On the regional list the SNP polled 43.2% over Labour on 24.2% and Tories on 23.8%. The SNP candidate in May is Elena Whitham. The Greens were 3.1% on the list with the Lib Dem candidate losing his deposit with just 2%. Even UKIP at 2.5% beat the Lib Dems on the regional list. We judge this a safe SNP seat in the South of Scotland and one that will contribute a useful number of SNP list votes


Another SNP seat where the current MSP, Aileen Campbell, is standing down. The very able and impressive Màiri McAllan is standing for the SNP. A seasoned campaigner, Solicitor and Notary Public currently appointed as Special Adviser to the First Minister of Scotland in Environment, Climate Change, Land Reform, and Renewable Energy policy, we expect to hear much more from Ms McAllan in the future. Among Màiri’s law qualifications is Bachelor of Laws, Ghent University under the Erasmus overseas honours programme. An opportunity Brexit has prevented today’s students from taking advantage of.

The SNP had a 5979 (17.8%) majority in 2016 over the Conservatives with Labour third on 20.7% with the LibDems on 2.4%. On the regional list the SNP at 39.7% had a 13.4% lead over the Conservatives on 28.3% with Labour 20.1%, Greens 4.7% and LibDems slightly ahead of UKIP on 2.6%. We predict Clydesdale an SNP hold.


One of the constituencies forming the Border Blue line this is none the less a marginal. With a majority of just 3.4%. Joan McAlpine for the SNP still has a bit of a challenge but has some opportunity as the former Labour MSP Dr Elaine Murray, who was known and respected locally, is not standing again. Dr Murray held the seat for Labour from 1999 to 2011. She lost to Conservative Oliver Mundell in 2016.

Joan McAlpine has a real opportunity to pick up some of the former Labour vote as this is a straight Tory/SNP contest. Notably in 2016 Elaine Murray, although third, had 25.2% of the vote, significantly above the 19.3% Labour managed for Dumfriesshire on the list vote. Murray’s 2016 constituency vote of 9,151 did not carry through to the 7,019 (19.3%) list vote in the constituency. That 2132 vote difference is more than enough to take Mundell Jnr out. The LibDems are kicking the lost deposit ball again. The Greens have a 3.2% list share to build on.

East Lothian

The last Labour seat in the South of Scotland was held by former Labour leader Iain Gray who is not standing in 2021. A Labour seat back to 1999 it is now a close marginal and the SNP’s top target in the South. With just 3% separating SNP and Labour on Gray’s 1127 majority, could the last red seat in the South of Scotland fall to the SNP in 2021?

Like Dumfriesshire The Labour constituency vote was much higher in 2016 than the list vote in the constituency. East Lothian’s regional list vote at 26.4% put Labour in third place behind The SNP on 33.5% and runner up the Tories on 27.8%. That extra 11.4% for Gray as the former Labour candidate and MSP and one of Labour’s many former leaders provides scope for the SNP candidate to pick over the bones of one of just 3 Labour constituency seats they held in the last parliament. The SNP candidate is Paul McLennan currently Councillor for Dunbar and East Linton ward.

Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire

When it come to the Border Blue line this one is 24 carat blue. Established in 2011 when the Lib Dem held Tweeddale, Ettrick, and Lauderdale and the Roxburgh and Berwickshire constituencies were abolished. Roxburgh Berwickshire was held by the Lib Dems until John Lamont won it for the Tories in 2007. He then went on to win Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire in 2011 and again in 2016. Lamont stood down to fight the 2017 General election and Rachel Hamilton held the seat for the Tories at the April 2017 by-election with 53.5% of the vote.

The SNP candidate Paul Wheelhouse has been returned on the regional list since 2011 and has served in a number of ministerial positions – latterly Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands. Rachel Hamilton who has inherited the strong organisational base John Lamont built looks certain to return to Holyood in this safest of all Tory seats in Scotland. Wheelhouse is third on the regional list and would be very lucky to scrape a return via the list again if the SNP pick up perhaps 2 of the 4 South of Scotland constituency marginals.

An additional complexity is that this is one of the seats the Greens are standing in this time. In 2016 the Greens polled 4.5% in Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire on the regional list so they have something to build on to gain a South of Scotland regional list seat.

Galloway and West Dumfries

Pollsters and analysts predict a Conservative hold in this constituency but there is quite a lot of interesting history in this Tory/SNP marginal that just requires a 2.27% swing for the SNP to take it. Despite how close the result was in 2016 we do not underestimate the challenge Emma Harper has to take this seat. Emma was elected on the list in 2016 and is first on the SNP regional list for 2021. In 2015 she stood for Westminster in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale achieving a close second place just 798 votes behind the Conservative winner having achieved a swing of 27.5%.

The Scottish parliament constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries is a different mix stretching out to the Stranraer coast. The Greens are standing their lead list candidate for the South of Scotland, Laura Moodie in this constituency. The big question. If the Greens in this seat take SNP votes will that damage Emma Harper’s chances of closing that final gap? It is a constituency that is part of successive Westminster seats that the SNP have held at times going back to 1974 when George Thomson won Galloway which he held until 1979. Alasdair Morgan took over, winning the new constituency of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale in 1979 which he held until 2001. Richard Arkless won Dumfries and Galloway at the 2015 general election but was one of the SNP casualties in 2017.

This is a seat where the SNP must hold on to every SNP vote to pull off what would be a stunning, if difficult breakthrough. There is not the volume of Labour votes here at 14.6% last time and 14.3% on the list compared to Dumfriesshire but certainly enough to work on. The LibDems on 2.8% in 2016 are definitely stuck in the lost deposit league. Emma Harper has a strong organisational team behind her.

Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale

Last but not least of the South of Scotland constituencies, this is another seat that has seen boundary changes in recent years. Since establishment on 2011 it has been held by the SNP’s Christine Grahame. Carved out of the old Midlothian seat and the former Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, the latter was the last remaining vestige of former LibDem dominance in the Borders. In the 2011 election LibDem Jeremy Purvis came second with 28% of the vote but well behind Christine Grahame on 43.5%. In 2016 Michelle Ballantyne, then a Conservative, took second place with the LibDems falling to fourth place. We expect Christine Graham to comfortably hold this seat. One interesting, if academic question is – will the Lib Dems hold on to their deposit in this seat.? They managed to hold on to a vote share of 10.6% last time, so can they stay in the second league on May 6th?