In politics you reap what you sow. This week the results of Lord Ashcroft’s polling told us that Labour remains in trouble with the Scottish electorate. In short, Ed Miliband is reaping what Labour has sown over the last thirty-five or more years.
Although formerly a big noise in the Tory Party, Lord Ashcroft is beholden to no-one and publishes the results of polls he runs across the UK irrespective of his findings.
His polls are far more detailed than most of those run by newspapers and he uses massive samples – sometimes twenty thousand people at a time – to try and ensure greater accuracy and a smaller margin of error. (Most other pollsters use only 500 or a 1000 people!). He’s been running these polls for a number of years and rather than just take snapshots of the whole of the UK he often targets particular groups so we can learn what might happen in elections or referenda.
In the past he has revealed how some Liberal Democrat seats might be held by the party against expectations of a complete collapse – while others (often those where the sitting Lib Dem MP is retiring) could be won by Conservative or Labour candidates. This week he published a poll conducted in January in Scotland that looked at the question of how well the SNP might do against Labour in this year’s general election.
It was very, very bad news for Labour.
It was bad because it suggested that Labour could find itself losing fourteen of the fifteen constituencies polled, including that of Douglas Alexander, the Party’s general election strategist. The polling was conducted in only those Labour constituencies that had voted Yes in last year’s referendum – but the swing was so great that it suggests many other Labour seats where the No vote triumphed could also be lost.
What on earth is going on?
From where I am standing there are two things at play. Although the No voters have generally returned to vote for their respective Unionist parties – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and UKIP – many of the Labour voters who voted Yes, possibly most of them, have decided to switch to the SNP. Meanwhile the SNP vote – which usually falls away during a Westminster general election – has actually hardened. The combination of these two factors gives the SNP a huge lead.
The polling does not mean Labour is finished, far from it, polling is only a snapshot and so there is much that could change. For one thing it has at least woken up to its problems and recognises it has a real fight on its hands rather than remain in denial, like it did in the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections.
It is also interesting that Ashcroft found that one third of those Labour voters that have switched would be minded to go back to Labour – that would be enough to help Labour retain many of those seats that are threatened (although losing the other two thirds must be a long-term worry!)
There is also the possibility that as the general election nears and the public begins to focus more on what is at stake and who has the most credible messages between the two largest parties that past Labour supporters go back to the party. That’s what Labour hopes, and it is not an unreasonable strategy now that it has elected Jim Murphy as Scottish leader and he is banging the party drum very loudly to concentrate minds.
But there is another problem, and it is called Ed Miliband, for Ashcroft found that the Labour leader is less popular in those Labour-held seats than Tory Prime Minister David Cameron. This backs up a previous Ashcroft poll before the referendum that also found Cameron more popular across Scotland than Milliband. It doesn’t mean people will vote Tory, but it does mean they are less likely to turn out to vote, or vote Labour.
Neither the swing from Labour to SNP or the unpopularity of Miliband surprises me, for Labour is now reaping what it has sown since the eighties and more recently in the referendum campaign. Labour has always sought to demonise the Conservatives as anti-Scottish, even though the Tories have an older Scottish bloodline than any other party and have had their fair share of Scottish electoral successes. Since 2010 it has repeated this strategy and in the referendum refused to conduct a positive campaign about the UK – as that could suggest the coalition government was doing some good things.
All this has done is stoked the flames of nationalism since the eighties so that when Labour looks like it cannot win an election voters then consider staying at home or turning to support the SNP – instead of switching to other unionist parties like the Tories. With Miliband as leader many Labour supporters think he will lose and they might as well vote SNP.
Labour needs to rule out any coalition with the SNP so that voting nationalist becomes too risky – as it could allow a Conservative victory. It’s a mess of Labour’s own making – and having sown the seeds of nationalist support all these years only it can sort it out.