The 2019 election result in East Dunbartonshire is an incredibly important one, and not just because the leader of the Liberal Democrats lost her seat. What lessons can it teach us about politics in Scotland as a whole?
In the recent UK General Election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a swathe of seats across Scotland, taking 48 out of a possible 59. As Lesley Riddoch and others have pointed out, while this has been taken as a given since the result was announced, in the run-up to polling day it was far from certain that the SNP would win so many seats: indeed, former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said she would “skinny dip in Loch Ness” if the SNP won 50 seats, a feat they almost managed.
In East Dunbartonshire, where Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson lost her seat to the SNP’s Amy Callaghan, the result was far from clear. Although polls suggested the SNP would give Swinson a run for her money, Swinson’s majority of over 5,000 votes meant that any talk of her losing her seat seemed somewhat far-fetched. Indeed, on polling day itself I spoke to an SNP supporter on the doorstep. He’d seen the most recent polling, and had concluded that “it doesn’t look good”. Swinson’s defeat was far from inevitable. So why did it happen, and where did Amy Callaghan’s support come from?
On the first question, you really need to look at both the “air war” (the campaigns’ activity over the broadcast and print media) and the “ground war” (activities of local campaigners in the constituency itself). On the air war, commentators have suggested that Swinson’s media appearances seemed to turn off some voters, with her appearance on Question Time the example usually given. Another, perhaps overlooked, example was her blunt answer to a question that indicated she would readily press the button to launch the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, which went down poorly with some Scottish voters opposed to nuclear weapons. Whether this had an impact in her own constituency, where she has a much broader and deeper base of support than in the UK as a whole, is hard to quantify, but it can’t have helped.
Where the ground war was concerned, I would hazard a guess that the Liberal Democrats outspent any of the other parties in the constituency. Residents of East Dunbartonshire experienced extremely frequent leaflet drops from the Lib Dems, including the more expensive personally addressed letters. The SNP also delivered a lot of leaflets, but certainly fewer than the Lib Dems. However, where the Lib Dems may have lost out to the SNP was their volunteer base. The SNP appeared to be far more active than their Liberal Democrat counterparts. Perhaps most importantly, while Jo Swinson was occupied by the Lib Dem national campaign, Amy Callaghan was a frequent visitor to residents’ doorsteps, and was a popular figure in the community in her own right. In short, the air war diminished rather than improved Swinson’s standing in her own constituency, while the ground war favoured the SNP despite the Lib Dems’ likely superior spending power.
In terms of where the SNP’s vote came from, the data aligns with my own anecdotal evidence. First, rather than exclusively frightening unionists as many commentators assumed, the SNP’s emphasis on another independence referendum galvanised its core support to turnout in this election. Turnout in East Dunbartonshire in 2017 dropped by around 3,000 votes compared to 2015, before returning to similar levels in 2019. 2017 was the election where the SNP downplayed independence, and was also the only election of the three that the SNP didn’t win in East Dunbartonshire. This suggests that independence was a potent issue in rallying SNP support to turn out in greater numbers than they had in 2017.
Second, while it could be assumed that Jeremy Corbyn’s equivocation on independence may have moved Labour voters into the Lib Dem column as the safe Unionist choice, it’s also likely the case that the drop in Labour’s support (down from 7,531 in 2017 to 4,839 in 2019) was to the SNP’s benefit. Voters I spoke to on the doorstep were unhappy with the Scottish Labour leadership and wanted to make a clear statement against Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party, with the SNP seen as the best outlet for that sentiment. The SNP, for their part, made the argument that the Labour and SNP manifestos were similar in many ways in order to appeal to these voters. The drop in Labour support and the complementary increase in SNP support could be a sign that this strategy worked.
Finally, there may be some signs of remain-inclined unionists (assumedly the Liberal Democrats’ ideal constituency when it comes to constitutional questions) putting their European credentials ahead of their British ones and voting for the SNP instead. This is the theory based most on anecdotal evidence: several previous Lib Dem voters I and others spoke to were now voting for the SNP because they disliked Boris Johnson, were sick of Brexit and fed up of the government in Westminster. However, I would not be surprised if this was borne out by subsequent election results: as Johnson now seems hegemonic in British politics and Brexit an inevitability, more and more voters may see independence as the only escape route.
As an interesting aside, the Conservative vote seems to be incredibly robust in the constituency: in both 2017 and 2019 their vote sat at 14%, or around 7,500 votes. Had even 150 of these Tory voters plumbed for the Lib Dems instead, Jo Swinson would have retained her seat. This could give a sense of the size of the Brexit vote in the constituency, and suggests that the Conservative vote will be harder for the Lib Dems and SNP to squeeze than the Labour vote.
The 2019 election result in East Dunbartonshire is an incredibly important one, and not just because the leader of the Liberal Democrats lost her seat. As a microcosm of Scotland as a whole, it provides a fascinating insight, by confirming longer term trends and suggesting new groups of voters and electoral cleavages between them. The decline of Scottish Labour in the constituency (once the main challenger to the Liberal Democrats before 2015) mirrors that of the party elsewhere in the country, for example. Meanwhile, from a purely electoral point of view it is in the SNP’s interest to keep talking about independence as it turns more voters out than it turns them off. In fact, the ascension of Boris Johnson and the Brexit crisis appears to be aiding the flight of Labour and Lib Dem voters into the SNP (and potentially independence) fold. These are the voters that could be crucial to the result of any future referendum.
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Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.