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Winner in 2016: Kenny Gibson (SNP)

THE Ayrshire seat of Cunninghame North can pride itself on having provided the single most important – and certainly the single most dramatic – constituency election in the short history of the Scottish Parliament.

In 2007, Labour had taken a clean sweep of the other seats in the West of Scotland electoral region, meaning there weren’t going to be enough list seats available to keep the SNP in contention to become the largest Holyrood party unless they gained Cunninghame North.

It didn’t seem intuitively likely that they would, because they faced a specific local problem in the shape of Campbell Martin, who had been elected as an SNP MSP in 2003, but was standing against his former party in the constituency as an independent.

And his campaign didn’t fall flat – he ended up taking a very respectable 15% of the vote.

Curiously, though, the SNP weren’t disproportionately harmed by Martin’s intervention. There was still a swing from Labour to the SNP of around 6%, which was roughly in line with the national average, and was just enough for the SNP’s Kenny Gibson to claim victory by fewer than 50 votes. That result alone swung the balance between

Labour being the largest party in the Parliament and the SNP being the largest party, and it may well have also swung the balance between a Labour minority government and an SNP minority government.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the SNP might never have got into power if a few dozen voters had made a different decision in Cunninghame North, and that we might now be living in a very different Scotland as a result.

We all have a tendency to expect the future to resemble the past, and there were predictions in 2011 that the constituency could once again provide a tight result, and that it would again help determine an equally tight national election.

But that’s not how it worked out at all – the SNP romped home across Scotland with an absolute majority, and the result in Cunninghame North reflected that, with Kenny Gibson’s majority exploding to more than 6000 votes.

Similarly, in 2016 the outcome closely resembled national trends – the SNP vote held steady at an exceptionally high level, and the real action was in second and third place as the Conservatives overtook Labour on a huge swing.

There’s no real danger of the Tories using that second place as a springboard to threaten the SNP ascendancy this time around. They would require a monster swing of almost 14% to take the seat, which simply isn’t going to happen.

It still seems highly likely that if the SNP lose the seat in the future, it will be to Labour rather than the Tories, so the real question in May could be whether Labour are able to claw their way back into second place and give themselves a platform for a very distant future tilt at victory.

Indeed, a cynic might almost say that the genuine election for the MSP for Cunninghame North took place at the SNP’s internal selection last year, because the winner of that was always going to take the seat.

The long-term incumbent, Kenny Gibson, held off potentially tricky challenges from Osama Bhutta and Corri Wilson, the former MP for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock – although Wilson may yet make it into the Scottish Parliament, because she’s since defected to the new Alba Party and will be standing on the list.

A further sub-plot is that the Labour candidate is Katy Clark, who was MP for the equivalent Westminster constituency for 10 years, but is now one of Ruth Davidson’s fellow baronesses. She has no chance of becoming the constituency MSP, but she’s also trying her luck on the list.

If successful, she’s promised to step down from the Lords, although that may not really be necessary.

No-one would ever dream of accusing Labour of hypocrisy on the subject of “dual mandates”, because she doesn’t actually have a mandate from the electorate to be in Westminster’s upper chamber in the first place.