Five reasons why Labour should seriously fear wipeout in Scotland

‘Fix it Jim, and all the Irn Bru in the world is yours.’ Jane Barlow/PA

With Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in London making a speech about the failures of austerity, her appearances are coming to embody her party’s momentum in the polls. Besides a TNS poll the other day, which conservatively indicated that Labour would only lose half of its Scottish seats, most other recent predictions have been talking annihilation.

One of the major talking points has been Lord Ashcroft’s recent polls of 16 Scottish constituencies, which attracted special attention because unlike the other polling companies it drilled down to constituencies rather than just voting intentions as a whole.

His findings more or less airbrushed the Scottish electoral map the bright yellow of the Scottish National Party (SNP). This both concentrated the minds of incumbents who might have been hoping that their seat might buck the national trend being predicted in the other polls, and raised the prospect that Ed Miliband would be kept out of 10 Downing Street as a result.

Since the publication of the Ashcroft polls, much attention has been paid to two related questions: why is the SNP so far ahead, and will their lead persist until election day on May 7? I’ll deal with each of them in turn.

Why is the SNP so far ahead?

The referendum, right? Yes, but as catalyst more than root cause. The post-referendum polls do not mark new electoral territory for Scotland in terms of Holyrood elections. That yellowed-out map is drastically different from general election 2010 but only a slightly exaggerated version of what happened in the constituency contests in the 2011 Scottish parliament election.

Elections past and future

SNP = yellow, Labour = red, Conservative = blue, LibDem = orange. Rob Johns

In 2011 the SNP took 53 of 73 seats including some erstwhile Labour fortresses in the west of Scotland (and won a similar proportion of the vote to that projected by the polls today). So the question is not “why has the referendum transformed party preferences in Scotland?” but “why has the referendum reactivated the conditions of 2011?”

The answer is that, now as then, the focus is not on independence but on who will battle hardest for Scotland within the union. And this focus is all the clearer because of how close the referendum contest became and the perceived importance of the “Vow” of further devolution in swinging the contest back towards No.

It is generally agreed that, had a “more powers” option been on the referendum ballot all along, it would have won with ease. Scottish political competition now centres on which party is most committed to delivering those extra powers and generally most likely to “stand up for Scotland.”

Whether it is the specifics of further devolution or a general commitment to Scottish interests, the SNP has for some time enjoyed a clear advantage over Labour, with the other Westminster parties trailing even further behind. And this is exactly the configuration in the vote-intention polls.

This makes it easier to explain why, as baffled commentators have often noted, the referendum losers now look like winners and vice versa. The main reason is that the game has changed. The shift to the SNP is the expression not of a mass post-referendum conversion to independence, but of longstanding preferences for self-government within the union.

And, as the graph below from the 2014 Scottish Referendum Study shows, the average Scottish voter favours what might be called an Isle of Man solution: the UK defends the islands from invasion while Holyrood takes responsibility for more or less everything else. This places voters closer to the SNP than to any of its rival parties – and free to vote SNP now that the referendum has removed the risks of full-blown independence.

Scottish Referendum Study

If this line of argument is right, the second batch of Ashcroft polls, to be fielded in constituencies to the north and east that were much more Yes-friendly last September, will offer little solace to Labour or the other unionist parties.

If the SNP outperformed Labour in a given seat in 2011 (which the chances are that it did), it looks highly likely to do so again in 2015. Put another way, the SNP vote has not relocated southwards and westwards over recent years; it has expanded southwards and westwards.

Will this SNP lead last?

Of course, some might say that a more relevant precedent is the most recent Westminster election in 2010. On that occasion, Labour achieved a respectable 42% of the vote share and 41 of the 59 seats. In 2010, Scottish voters seemed to be focused on a straight Westminster fight between Labour and the Conservatives – and much preferred the former. Clearly Labour’s strategy for 2015 is to recreate those conditions as far as possible, with “vote SNP, get Tory” as the central campaigning theme.

It would be an optimistic nationalist (or Conservative) who predicted that this will do nothing at all to erode the SNP’s poll lead. But here are five reasons to suspect that, at most, it will only turn the near wipeout projected by the polls into a 2011-style heavy Labour defeat.

  1. There was not a big swing back to Labour in the run-up to the 2010 contest. They gained a bit and the SNP lost a bit of ground, presumably as some voters refocused from the Scottish arena to the battle at Westminster, but nothing more.

  2. Some such refocusing was natural in 2010 against a backdrop of economic crisis and with most of the macroeconomic levers being operated at the UK level. But it is the referendum, and ensuing arguments about further devolution, that seem set to provide the backdrop to 2015. That means an election fought on SNP rather than Labour territory.

  3. The “vote SNP, get the Tories” message will work only insofar as Scottish voters maintain a strong preference for Labour over Conservative government at Westminster. Troublingly for Scottish Labour, that preference looks weaker this time around. For example, while Scottish voters in 2010 widely preferred Gordon Brown to David Cameron as PM, only 49% of Labour-SNP switchers in the Ashcroft poll would choose Ed Miliband over Cameron.

  4. This is probably why as many as 68% of Labour-SNP switchers told the Ashcroft pollsters that they would definitely not be switching back. If this is to be believed, it severely limits the ground that Labour can retrieve. And since it’s quite normal at this point in the electoral cycle for only around two-thirds of all voters – including the most dyed-in-the-wool party loyalists – to have made up their minds, this 68% is actually a strikingly large proportion.

  5. Even before the Ashcroft polls, forecasts for 2015 typically involved a hung parliament with a much stronger SNP presence. This undermines the “wasted vote” argument that has previously (and sometimes plausibly) been used against SNP voting in general elections. Instead, an SNP vote looks an obvious means of pursuing the agenda for more powers and broader Scottish interests.

This election in Scotland will hinge on what matters more to voters: who governs at Westminster, or how far Scotland can gain autonomy from that government. In a still rather febrile post-referendum climate, it looks like the latter. And if Scotland’s electoral map is indeed a bright yellow on May 8, its constitutional map may well be redrawn before too long as well.

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