Ian Swanson: You hold their destiny in your hands

The final TV leaders' debate at Hopetoun House. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The final TV leaders' debate at Hopetoun House. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

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THE outcome of the election tomorrow will shape each party’s fortunes – good or bad – for years to come, says Ian Swanson

THE SNP’s soaraway lead in the opinion polls has led some people to label this election boring and lacklustre. But however clear tomorrow night’s winners may be, there is a lot at stake in the results for all the parties.

And the election outcome will help shape their future fortunes.

The Nationalists can be certain of victory – but they are then likely to find themselves under increasing pressure on the question of a second referendum on independence.

Critics say the SNP’s manifesto line – that Holyrood should have the right to call another referendum if there is clear evidence a majority of people now back independence or there is a material change of circumstance – does not amount to a mandate for a fresh vote. But there are plenty Yes campaigners from the 2014 
referendum who cannot wait for another.

Nicola Sturgeon is determined not to be pushed into calling a new vote before she is sure of winning it – as arguably happened when the SNP won its unexpected overall majority in 2011 and had to hold the promised plebiscite. But if the situation does change and independence has majority backing, she will want to seize the moment – and without an unambiguous mandate, there is more chance the UK government will try to block it.

Labour knows it will come out of this election with fewer MSPs than before, but it is desperate to make sure it has more than the Tories. Being pushed into third place by the party of Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax would be humiliating indeed.

Kezia Dugdale is playing a long game, hoping to position the party for recovery if and when the tide finally turns. Her bold policies on raising income tax, replacing the council tax and banning fracking will not bring an election victory this time, but they are potentially popular policies which give Labour a more radical edge than the SNP and could pay real dividends in the future.

The Tories have talked up their chances of overtaking Labour and becoming the main opposition at Holyrood with their largest-ever number of MSPs. If it happens it will be a dramatic result after almost two decades in the doldrums. But it may be the party has over-hyped its prospects. And a poor result tomorrow night will not only disappoint supporters, but also dent Ruth Davidson.

The Greens are also aiming high – they, too, have forecast their biggest ever group of MSPs, with one elected from each region and two from Lothian. Their success will depend largely on how many SNP supporters do the calculation and realise that if the Nationalists take nearly all the constituency seats, list votes for the SNP will simply pile up fruitlessly, but by transferring to the Greens they could help create a bigger pro-independence majority in the parliament.

However, the Greens have had high hopes before and seen them end in disappointment and frustration.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are still trying to recover from the huge setback they suffered thanks to their Westminster coalition with the Tories. Having seen their numbers slashed from 17 to five at the 2011 election, the fresh blow which could be awaiting the Lib Dems is to fall behind the Greens and find themselves as the fifth party at Holyrood.

However it turns out, the votes cast tomorrow across Lothian and the whole of Scotland are not just about confirming opinion poll projections. They are what will decide the all-important balance of power and help determine the parties’ destinies for the next five years.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com