Scottish election: Boundary changes add to uncertainty

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Scottish Parliament chamber
Image caption,
The changes have resulted in the first major Holyrood boundary shake-up since devolution

Elections are always unpredictable. No matter what the polls suggest or the academics claim.

But regardless of what happens in May, Scotland's electoral landscape is still changing significantly, courtesy of a re-drawing of the Holyrood boundaries.

If you are a Scottish voter, there is a high chance you now live in a new constituency.

The layout of the Scottish parliamentary constituencies has remained the same since devolution - so why the need to change them now?

In short, Scots seem to be developing a taste for US-style suburban living, with a shift in Scotland's population base, from the cities to outlying areas over the last decade.

So, this time around, nearly all first-past-the-post constituencies are changing to even out seat sizes, added to which is the decision to change some of their names.

There are also smaller changes to the top-up regional seats as a result of constituencies being moved to different regions.

It's estimated that one in six electors in Scotland will now be in a different seat as a result of the recommendations of the Boundary Commission, which have been ratified by the Secretary of state for Scotland. (Remember that Scottish parliamentary elections are reserved to Westminster.)

The exercise has provided a fascinating insight into changes in the way people live in Scotland in recent years - but has any of that enthralled the political parties?

Well, not really.

They're much more interested in working out whether the changes will give them an advantage - or disadvantage - at the polls.

On paper, Labour starts the election campaign one seat down, as Glasgow Ballieston disappears (although its last MSP Margaret Curran won a Westminster seat in 2010).

The party could also be in trouble in the re-drawn seat of Eastwood, which, having lost the party's Barrhead voter base, could be vulnerable to a Tory offensive.

Taking into account a number of other changes, Labour is planning a big push in the list vote, which the party has never really had to rely on before (save for the Highlands and Islands) to win past Scottish elections.

The SNP reckons it could make a couple of gains, including Glasgow Southside, (nee Govan), the seat held by the deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon in the last parliament - but Labour will push hard here.

The Nationalists also think they're looking good for the redrawn seat of Edinburgh Eastern, won by justice secretary Kenny MacAskill in 2007.

The Conservatives are reasonably happy with the changes, while the Liberal Democrats aren't too keen with the boundary shift around the South of Scotland seat previously held by Jeremy Purvis, which becomes Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale, and brings a possible Tory challenge.

But some things never change.

The number of MSPs elected to Holyrood remains unchanged, at 129.

And the number of constituencies also stays the same, at 73, with eight regions under which MSPs are elected with the additional member system of PR voting.

Of course, the warning that these predictions could be nothing other than academic have been laid bare in the main in-depth study done on the possible outcomes.

Professor David Denver, of Lancaster University, suggests the new Holyrood battleground could provide a boost to the Conservatives.

He argues that, had the new constituencies been in place at the 2007 elections, the Tories might have won three extra seats - although the SNP would have remained the largest party.

Image caption,
The changes are not supposed to give any party an electoral advantage, but not all leaders are happy

Prof Denver, an acknowledged expert in his field, says that under this formula the Tories might have taken 20 seats, rather than 17 and that the Liberal Democrats would have been up one, on 17.

He also suggested Labour would have won 44, rather than 46, seats.

And while the SNP would have been one seat down, on a total of 46 seats, they would still have won the election, with the implication of an improved net lead over Labour.

But, as always, these come with significant health warnings - the most pertinent of which being that voter incumbency may override factors arising from boundary changes.

Academic study

The list vote potentially means that a party which may have lost a constituency as a result of boundary changes could still retain a decent vote region-wide.

Prof Denver also delivers a warning on his own study, saying constituencies are now built from larger, more diverse council wards, making projections difficult.

Also, his research is not a forecast on May's elections, which will be influenced by the kind of political developments that statistical studies such as these are unable to take into account.

And, of course, there's the strongest caveat of the lot - no boundary change, poll, or academic study decides the outcome of any election.

That decision is purely in the hands of the voter.