Winner in 2019 in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale: David Mundell (Conservatives)

IN the run-up to the 2005 General Election, Scotland’s sole Conservative MP at the time Peter Duncan had a career-defining decision to make.

His Galloway and Upper Nithsdale constituency was being abolished and he had to work out whether he could get re-elected in a successor constituency that was bringing in a lot more Labour voters, or whether he’d have a better chance in one of the other new constituencies.

He’ll probably always regret the decision he made because he was defeated by Labour in Dumfries and Galloway, while David Mundell unexpectedly won the neighbouring Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and replaced Duncan as the only Scottish Tory MP.

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Mundell has held the seat continuously for all 19 years since and will be seeking a sixth consecutive term in July.

Duncan’s miscalculation was understandable because even the name Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale didn’t sound particularly promising from a Tory point of view.

The Clydesdale part of the constituency had previously been in a solid Labour seat that for a time was held by Judith Hart, one of the pioneering women in Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s.

And Tweeddale was synonymous with the Liberal Democrats due to having been part of the constituency of the former Liberal Party leader David Steel. It’s likely that a key component of Mundell’s success has been to co-opt centre-right voters who tended to plump for the LibDems in the context of earlier constituency boundaries.

Inevitably, Mundell came very close to being ousted in the post-indyref landslide of 2015, when the SNP took 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland. The fact that he was one of the three Unionist MPs who narrowly held on has sometimes been blamed on the decision of the Scottish Greens to put up a candidate in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.

To an extent that’s an unfair charge, because Mundell’s margin of victory over the SNP was 798 votes, while the Greens took 839 votes. In the absence of a Green candidate, the Green vote would have needed to go almost unanimously to the SNP to defeat Mundell, which even in a 2015 context would have been highly unlikely. He almost certainly would have won regardless of whether the Greens had stood.

But the result highlighted the dilemma for smaller, progressive, pro-independence parties in deciding whether to stand in competitive seats in first-past-the-post elections and risk contributing to a counterproductive outcome.

In this year’s election, the Greens have come down heavily in favour of the notion that the risks are outweighed by the benefits of standing. They’ll be putting up more candidates in Scottish seats than ever before, and Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale will again be one of them. That undoubtedly complicates the SNP’s task in what remains a perfectly realistic target seat. They were just eight percentage points behind Mundell in 2019 and while their national vote share has dropped back since then, that has been offset by a similar drop in national support for the Conservatives.

Recent Scottish polls from Ipsos and Opinium suggest that the SNP’s 20-point Scotland-wide lead over the Conservatives from the 2019 election has either been maintained or has increased slightly.

If those national trends are being replicated locally, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale should still be very competitive, offering the SNP an opportunity to sneak a gain – but only if they can persuade enough of the anti-Tory vote to coalesce behind them. One factor in favour of the SNP’s candidate Kim Marshall is that it’s not just the local pro-independence vote that risks being split this time.

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Mundell was fortunate that the Brexit Party didn’t put up a candidate against him in 2019, but his luck has run out on that score – Reform UK are standing practically across the board this year and are potentially in line for a record-breaking result.

If the Farage bandwagon keeps rolling, Mundell could lose enough of his natural voters to let the SNP in. And given that his constituency was the only one in Scotland held by the Tories between 2005-17, an SNP win there could potentially even herald the first total wipeout for the Scottish Conservatives since 1997.