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Winner in 2016: Fulton MacGregor (SNP)

"ON these poll numbers even Coatbridge would fall,” wrote a southern Labour blogger in the run-up to the SNP’s landslide in the 2015 UK General Election.

“Coatbridge!” he repeated, with implied incredulity, although I had my doubts as to whether he or many of his readers could have pinpointed Coatbridge on a map, or identified it as a particularly rock-solid Labour constituency without having first consulted a ranked list of SNP targets.

As it turned out, past history of Labour strength in any given area wasn’t a particularly good guide to what would happen in 2015, because the SNP romped home by miles in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, just as they did practically everywhere else. Since then, however, it has transpired that the Labour tradition in Coatbridge does count for something after all.

In 2017, Labour took the seat back against all the odds, overcoming a deficit of almost 23 percentage points. The swing from SNP to Labour was a little over 13%, significantly exceeding the national swing of 8%. That suggested the “bonus swing” the SNP had enjoyed to bring the constituency into line with the rest of the central belt two years earlier had been neatly reversed.

Coatbridge had “gone home”, albeit temporarily, and although the SNP regained the seat with a bit to spare in 2019, it remained clear that they can’t take victory for granted here in a way that they probably can in most former Labour heartland seats.

That truth is reinforced by the history of results in the Scottish Parliament seat of Coatbridge and Chryston, which for a long time seemed practically the personal possession of veteran Labour left-winger Elaine Smith.

When the SNP first took power in 2007, her position wasn’t remotely threatened – she maintained a huge 17.5% margin over her SNP challenger. Even in 2011, when most Labour constituencies tumbled as the SNP secured an overall majority, she held on with relative ease.

It took the further Labour collapse in 2016 to oust her, although that made little difference to her personally, because she remained an MSP thanks to the back-up option of the Central Scotland regional list.

This year the SNP incumbent Fulton MacGregor will be defending a lead of 13%, which is healthy but far from unassailable.

If Labour are going to mount a serious comeback nationally, Coatbridge and Chryston is exactly the sort of place you’d be expecting to see a breakthrough.

There’s no sign in the opinion polls that it’s likely to happen, though. At the moment, Labour are mostly polling at a touch below their 2016 vote share, while the SNP are if anything slightly outperforming their own 2016 result.

That suggests the SNP’s majority in the constituency may actually increase – but even if things start moving in the opposite direction, it seems probable that Labour have left themselves too much to do.