The National:

Winner in 2016: Daniel Johnson (Labour)

SCOTLAND may not have become an independent country back in 2014, but it did mark the point at which the southern part of Edinburgh declared its independence from voting trends in the rest of Scotland.

While the bulk of the country was swinging decisively against Labour and towards the SNP, this affluent corner of the capital suddenly decided that it really, truly loved Labour as never before. Not only was the Westminster constituency of Edinburgh South the only Scottish seat Labour retained in the 2015 and 2019 General Elections, it also mind-bogglingly gave Labour a bigger vote share in 2019 than it had even in the first Blair landslide of 1997.

At the time of the indyref, the equivalent Holyrood constituency of Edinburgh Southern was actually held by the SNP’s Jim Eadie, who is hoping to become an Alba Party list MSP this year. In line with the pattern seen at Westminster elections, Labour took the seat in 2016, totally against the national trend. The weirdness of that result can’t be overstated: everywhere else, Labour were losing constituencies or in a couple of cases clinging on by their fingernails. But in Edinburgh Southern they somehow made a gain.

The reality, of course, is that Labour’s run of success has not been a vote of confidence in the party or its leaders. This is a constituency that by rights should be held by the Conservatives at the moment. The Westminster seat was consistently Tory-held until 1987, in spite of the fact that the Labour candidate in 1979 was the future prime minister Gordon Brown. And in 2016, the Tories topped the Holyrood list vote in Edinburgh Southern, even as they were finishing third in the constituency ballot. What appears to have happened is that the natural Tory support has mutated into a hardline anti-SNP vote, and because the SNP and Labour were the area’s two most popular parties in the immediate aftermath of the indyref, Labour has been identified as the party most likely to keep the SNP out.

The other important factor is the substantial support the Liberal Democrats used to enjoy locally, and which has now largely vanished. In both 2005 and 2010, the Westminster seat was a Labour-LibDem marginal, with Labour holding on by wafer-thin margins of 0.9% and 0.7% respectively. At Holyrood level, the LibDems went one better and actually won the seat in 2003 and 2007, assisted by a student backlash against Labour in the aftermath of the Iraq War.

When the national LibDem vote collapsed, it was the SNP and later the Tories who were the main beneficiaries elsewhere in Scotland, but it’s possible that some ex-LibDem voters in southern Edinburgh instead drifted to Labour after the indyref for anti-SNP tactical reasons.

It must be stressed, though, that Daniel Johnson’s triumph for Labour in the Holyrood seat five years ago was nowhere near as dominant as Ian Murray’s wins in the Westminster seat in 2017 and 2019. Johnson’s margin of victory over the SNP was less than three percentage points. That can perhaps be explained by the fact that Labour were not the incumbents, and it was not as clear to budding tactical voters as it was in the Westminster seat that Labour were better placed than the Tories to challenge the SNP.

The SNP candidate this year is Catriona MacDonald, fresh from her respectable result in the Westminster seat 18 months ago. On paper she looks like one of the SNP’s top prospects for a constituency gain. In practice, however, there must be a danger that voters who backed the Tories last time will have noted the demonstration that Labour can win, and will move across this year to ensure MacDonald’s defeat. If so, it’s possible Edinburgh Southern could go the way of its Westminster equivalent and become an eccentric-looking Labour stronghold in a country that has otherwise moved on from Labour.