Winner in 2017: Luke Graham (Conservatives)

HAVING been won by three different parties over its 14-year history, Ochil and South Perthshire has earned its reputation as one of Scotland’s most enigmatic seats.

Of the 12 seats gained by the Tories from the SNP in 2017, it was certainly one of the biggest shocks, because the Tories had never managed to do better than third. If anything, the SNP ought to have been more worried about losing the seat to Labour, because if Scotland-wide trends had been replicated, Labour would have been almost level-pegging with the SNP locally. Instead, Labour slumped to third and the Tories surged by 21 points – well above the national average.

That was enough for a record to tumble. Since the Second World War, there has never been a bigger swing from Labour to the Conservatives in any UK constituency – an extraordinary statistic that wouldn’t be expected to crop up where the two parties in question were starting from second place and third place.

The explanation for such an electoral earthquake is likely to lie in the hybrid nature of the constituency, which was cobbled together in 2005 from parts of the old Perth seat and the lion’s share of the old Ochil seat. Perth had traditionally been an SNP-Tory battleground, albeit in the Blair years Labour had moved into third place. Ochil, by contrast, had been a Labour-SNP “sub-marginal” – in other words, Labour repeatedly came out on top with a bit to spare, but with the SNP putting up a stronger challenge than in most similar seats. Conservative candidates were generally also-rans. The SNP’s local strength was in part a legacy of their purple patch in the 1970s, when George Reid was their MP for the predecessor seat of Clackmannanshire and Eastern Stirlingshire. In 2003, Reid’s last participation in electoral politics saw him recapture former glories by narrowly gaining the Holyrood seat of Ochil from Labour – quite an achievement when his party was going backwards nationally.

The fusion of two such dissimilar areas, in which the SNP were competitive against two different opponents, might have been expected to produce an ideal “divide and rule” scenario in which the SNP could come out on top against a split Unionist vote. Instead, traditional Westminster voting patterns in the Ochil portion of the new seat proved decisive in 2005 and helped Labour to a narrow victory. The Tory strength in the Perthshire part of the constituency effectively fell dormant, with the Conservatives finishing third without looking like serious contenders. That remained the case when the SNP dramatically gained the seat in the 2015 landslide.

In 2017, that the dormant zone suddenly reasserted itself. In line with other similar parts of rural Scotland, there was a big swing against the SNP in South Perthshire and Tory voters – old and new – were highly motivated to turn out. To counteract the huge swell of Conservative support in one part of the constituency, the SNP needed to turn out supporters in the Clackmannanshire towns and villages, but that simply didn’t happen in sufficient numbers. Ochil and South Perthshire wasn’t the only constituency where the SNP suffered from a high abstention rate amongst their own natural support, but it was one of the seats where they paid the heaviest price for it.

There are two obvious ways in which the SNP might hope to reverse their defeat this time – firstly by more effective get-out-the vote efforts, and secondly by persuading parts of the rump Labour vote to jump on board to stop the Tories and Brexit. That ought to be a promising tactic in a constituency that is estimated to have voted Remain by a margin of 61% to 39%. But the rapid Tory recovery in Scotland-wide opinion polls over recent weeks has inevitably dented optimism a touch. This one really could go either way.