How to win a marginal seat in Scotland according to those who have managed it

Winning a seat isn’t as easy as being in a popular political party (if there are any)

Winning an election is an impressive achievement for anyone, but for some, it’s even more remarkable.

While many seats across the UK are considered “safe”, with MPs in place for decades, there are many that swing back and forth between the parties, with single digit margins being the difference.

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So how does one win a marginal seat? Speaking to candidates in Scotland, they cite a combination of factors including local factors, building up a base with councillors, and the importance of social media.

Wendy Chamberlain, Amy Callaghan, and Michael ShanksWendy Chamberlain, Amy Callaghan, and Michael Shanks
Wendy Chamberlain, Amy Callaghan, and Michael Shanks

Scottish Labour’s Michael Shanks won in the Rutherglen and Hamilton by-election last year, in a seat that had changed hands at the last four elections.

Helped by the recall petition and local anger following Margaret Ferrier’s Covid trip, Mr Shanks explained the win came about through relentless canvassing, and an renewed focus on social media.He said: “This is an element for all parties, but you’re playing to two different audiences, both national and local. The national message is actually what people pick up, there’s some local issues in every single campaign, but people follow national news and swings are swings.

“We knew in this seat it was about getting out and talking to as many people as possible, for us it was about rebuilding trust with the electorate.

“We knew they left us in 2015, they’d gone off the SNP but hadn’t come round to us yet. We had to speak to them to get that trust back.

“That’s true in every marginal seat, people will say I’m going to vote as you came and spoke to me.

“Just today I spoke to someone who said they'd been talking the night before after watching something about politics, and said they’d just give their vote to whoever came to chat to them.

“During the by-election, we were averaging 4-5000 conversations a week. To get 5000 conversations means probably knocking 15,000 doors. It’s a lot of door knocking, conversations, listening and all that kind of stuff.“Then there’s social media, and you can't overplay how important it is. The social media spend of parties shows how seriously they are taking that seat, then there’s also your materials on the ground, your leaflets and your campaigns, your reach and stuff”.

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Discussing the extent of his canvassing during the by-election, Mr Shanks explained they did three sessions a day, every day.

He continued: “In all of our key battlegrounds, we will have organisers providing that logistic approach, my diary during the by-election was from 8am to 9pm non-stop, so church coffees or lunch where you can meet people. The organisers are key to that”.

Another marginal is North East Fife, a seat the Lib Dems lost by 4,344 in 2015, then just two votes in 2017. Wendy Chamberlain then won it from the SNP in 2019 with a majority of 1,316 in another close battle.

Ms Chamberlain put her success then down to being selected early, and the good work of the former Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie and local councillors in making her seem credible.

She explained: “Generally my top tip is I was selected early, that gives you the opportunity to bed in. In 2017 we lost by only two votes. By the end of that year, it was clear Elizabeth Riches (previous candidate) was not going to stand again so the local party selected me in June 2018.

“That gave me the best part of 18 months to build my profile and get a campaign going.

“I always found it surprising that Pete Wishart came within 21 votes of being unseated by the Tories, but they didn’t select a candidate until Boris Johnson called an election.”

Ms Chamberlain, now running again, explained building a profile was essential to her success, and that of the Lib Dems more generally.

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She said: “The MSP for the vast majority of the seat was a Lib Dem, so that helped build my profile and credibility by being seen with him, Willie Rennie, it being Wendy and Willie as a team, winning together.

“In 2017 the Tories had tried to suggest it was a three way marginal. It meant we knew the squeeze that we had to do, we could identify the voters and speak to them at an early stage.

“One of the key things we did in 2019 was analyse all the data in 2017 that we lost to the Conservatives, and then target those areas.

“It’s about building a team, building your credibility, and then working on that all year round.

"Every time I’ve been out in Leven, Kennoway and Largo, I’m with the councillor Eugene Clarke, and that’s demonstrated that a Lib Dem can win here.”

Now running in Perth and Kinross-shire, he told The Scotsman winning a marginal was a “battle on all fronts”, and expressed shock at just how different things were when campaigning for colleagues in “so-called safe seats”.

He explained: “There’s definitely an element of local council performance and local performance. That’s good for folks when they’ve been in a while to have that local credibility.

“You need to make sure you are really proactive, the status quo is the incumbent remaining, so you have to show you are the number one challenger for voters to rally behind, even if it makes people feel a bit comfortable.“That means meeting people, canvassing, and doing a lot of things others aren't doing. It means being critical, but also coming up with something new to the table. It’s about doing local press, online as well, and meeting with community leaders to show you are engaging and listening as well.

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“Bottom line is hard, hard work. I think I have campaigned in safe seats to help friends or colleagues and it’s a very different experience. When you are fighting a marginal you have to show high resilience.

"In more rural communities, locals want to look you in the eye and know what you’re about, even if they don’t agree with you”.

SNP candidate for Mid Dunbartonshire Amy Callaghan won the seat in 2019, unseating the then Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson. She won with a majority of just 149 votes, or 0.3 per cent.

Ms Callaghan claimed Ms Swinson had taken the seat for granted, and claimed money was not fundamental to winning a marginal.

She said: “I think grassroots campaigns can win, I think you can do anything with a grassroots campaign and a good bit of local knowledge.

"Politicians can get arrogant, leaders can get arrogant, Jo Swinson kind of lost sight of what really mattered. I ran a very good campaign, I understood my area.

“I think she took voters for granted, she wasn’t present, she was barely here at all. I was here working in the area and never saw her in the years leading up to the election.

“We spent nowhere near as much money as the Liberal Democrats, I was just visible. I was just at everything, and had a big social media presence, I went from a couple of hundred to several thousand on Twitter by focusing on the issues that matter. Money is not what matters.

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“It’s quite a different seat to others, we fall out from the national picture, and there’s a lot of issue based voters here. We have the highest voter turnout in the whole of the UK, folk are super engaged in democracy, which I just love.”

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