John McLellan: Election vote just the beginning

Casting your vote will be followed by much horsetrading
Casting your vote will be followed by much horsetrading
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A week today you’ll know the result but not the outcome.

A week today you’ll know the result but not the outcome.

In what feels like the longest election campaign in living memory, the bookies still reckon a Labour minority government is most likely but on one thing all polls, pundits and punters are agreed: next Friday the horse-trading begins and the SNP will be holding the reins.

In Scotland, this campaign effectively stretches back to the Edinburgh Agreement of October 2012 which set up the referendum – a deal between the Conservatives and the SNP so ignore all the stuff about the two not being prepared to negotiate.

But if you’ve got election fatigue now the battle for Holyrood 2016 starts when the last Scottish result is declared next week.

Under normal circumstances this would cause a mass moan across the country, but these are not normal times and the 2016 election is the next staging post on the seemingly relentless SNP journey towards even greater domination of the Scottish political scene.

The SNP might say this election is not about independence, but as the goal which binds the party together, no contest they enter can be uncoupled from that aim, not with around 100,000 new members inspired by that promise.

No-one, especially Labour people, denies something fundamental has changed in Scottish politics in the past year, something which could turn out to be a generational shift in ways experienced by both 
Conservatives and Liberals in the past but never by the Labour Party.

It is all the more staggering when compared to 1997 and the tide of New Labour optimism which swept all before it; scooping up 56 Scottish seats, obliterating the Scottish Westminster Conservatives, and establishing the Scottish Parliament in an overwhelming referendum immediately afterwards.

Given how much credence his views seem to be given now, it is worthwhile recalling the laughable figure kilted Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth cut as he strutted up the High Street behind the Stone of Destiny in a desperate last-ditch bid to save the Scottish Tories from oblivion.

Who would have thought that the Scotland Act would prove to be the saviour of the Scottish Conservatives and now possibly the death warrant for the party which created it?

Because the death of the Scottish Labour Party is now a very real possibility as left-of-centre support regroups in Central Scotland around the SNP; it’s a left-wing revolution with huge implications for all parties, not least the SNP itself.

This phase of political development will probably end after the Scottish elections next year, when the true extent of Labour’s post-referendum implosion will be known.

Focus groups conducted by Lord Ashcroft in Glasgow, Paisley and Edinburgh in recent weeks have backed up what the parties have known for some time; that voters, particularly in old Labour areas, now see a powerful, competent and, crucially, purely Scottish party which speaks their language and promises real change.

From the despair of defeat in the early hours of September 19, the referendum delivered three significant benefits for the SNP.

1. It re-sanitised the SNP for ordinary voters who could once again separate SNP support from an automatic endorsement of independence.

2. It pushed Labour far closer to the Conservatives than they were comfortable with and allowed voters to group them under the Westminster banner.

3. It persuaded Alex Salmond, far less popular with female voters, to make way for the confident, schooled Nicola Sturgeon, giving the SNP a leader who attracts, rather than repels, thousands of voters.

So next week’s story in Scotland is virtually already written and only in one or two marginal seats where local factors trump national polling trends will there be anyone other than an SNP MP looking for a flat near Westminster.

Those seats include Edinburgh South where Labour’s Ian Murray, pictured right, has been handed the biggest gift since the Lithuanian courts unshackled Hearts from Vladimir Romanov.

The exposure of SNP candidate Neil Hay as an extremist who hid behind a pseudonym to brand supporters of the United Kingdom as traitors has given every Unionist in the constituency a reason to rally behind Murray to ensure this man doesn’t represent them.

Impeccable sources tell me SNP management is dismayed he got through the selection procedure but it was too late to dump him.

Hay will have sympathy with the SNP candidate in East Lothian, my old Scotsman colleague George Kerevan, who recently described Westminster as the “enemy camp” but, with no obvious challenger, the former Edinburgh Labour councillor should cruise to victory on the back of solid support in places like Prestonpans and Tranent.

Kerevan has had an uneasy relationship with his local party – he was never placed high enough on the regional list to win a Holyrood seat – and as one of the more independently-minded SNP figures (he’s now in a bit of a pickle about his reasonable views on fracking, for instance), the leadership will keep close tabs on him.

Some observers give Mark Lazarowicz a chance of holding on to Edinburgh North & Leith, again on the back of Tory tactical voting, but with Aschroft putting him 11 points adrift I’d have my money on the SNP’s favourite Australian soap actor, Councillor Deidre Brock.

Elsewhere it’s yellow and black all the way – comedy impresario Tommy Sheppard’s jokes will be on Sheila Gilmore in Edinburgh East; entrepreneur Michelle Thomson will find plenty of custom in Edinburgh West, and advocate Joanna Cherry will have rich pickings in Edinburgh South-West.

Beyond the City Bypass, former Salmond aide Hannah Bardell in Livingston and Midlothian Council leader Owen Thompson are both virtual shoo-ins.

It’s only when you get to the Borders that the picture changes and one of the minor shocks of the night could yet be that there is more than one Conservative MP in Scotland.

David Mundell has a fight on his hands against ex-nurse Emma Harper in Dumfriesshire but could still squeeze in. But the Ashcroft polls had sitting Tory MSP John Lamont creeping ahead of Calum Kerr in Berwick, Roxburgh & Selkirk, although the Lib Dems’ Michael Moore isn’t giving up.

One way or another it will still be a stunning morning at the EICC next Friday. And 
everywhere else.

UPDATE: A new batch of Ashcroft constituency polls over the weekend point to a victory for the SNP in Dumfriessshire & Clydesdale where the only Scottish Conservative MP, David Mundell, is reckoned now to be 11 points adrift, well beyond the margin for error. The polling evidence suggests Labour voters here are refusing to vote tactically, unlike East Renfrewshire Conservative supporters who are riding to Jim Murphy’s rescue. So it looks like Murphy will hang on and Mundell is a goner.

All parties will face hard decisions as the fallout from Thursday settles

SO WHAT does the immediate future hold? Having predicted at the turn of the year that Labour could hang on in Edinburgh, my political crystal ball is not necessarily the best but I’d look out for these six developments:

1: The resignation of Jim Murphy as Scottish Labour leader. Even if he holds East Renfrewshire, the man who did so much to rubbish Johann Lamont and proved powerless to change Labour’s fortunes can’t possible stay on when action moves to Holyrood.

2: Neil Findlay MSP launches a new leadership bid but Kez Dugdale sees him off. The embarrassment of Ed Balls’ slap-down of Murphy will not have been forgotten and Scottish Labour establishes greater autonomy from London.

3: Even if there are no Conservative MPs, Ruth Davidson will not be forced to quit. But the simmering campaign to break away from London will be reignited, fuelled by the late London Conservative campaign which ignored the Scottish perspective. A way will be found to give her the power she needs without her being seen to wash away what was left of her “line in the sand” but one way or another she will have big decisions to take next year.

4: The SNP finds party management more difficult as it seeks to balance a new intake of motivated left-leaning MPs with the consensual approach of the previous administration. A more independent Scottish Conservative party will see opportunities everywhere in the north and midlands the more left of centre the SNP becomes.

5: The next year will be spent on more constitutional wrangling as the implications of next week’s results are played out, and this suits the SNP. They will strengthen their majority at Holyrood next May although not by much, as the system will maintain Labour representation as it did for the Conservatives in 1999.

6: Willie Rennie stays on as Lib Dem leader but quits in 2016.

Another referendum?

Will there be another referendum? There are too many ‘ifs’ to be certain and in order they are:

1. If the Conservatives are able to form a government.

2. If the SNP them puts another referendum high in next year’s manifesto

3. If the Conservatives are unsuccessful in renegotiating Britain’s EU obligations.

4. If they have enough desire and support to get an EU referendum through.

5. If the UK votes to leave the EU and Scotland votes overwhelmingly to stay in.

6. If other circumstances force the issue

What are the answers likely to be? First of all, politicians are all about power and having tasted bitter defeat, all be it briefly last September, the SNP is in no mood to taste it again when the game just now is the consolidation and enhancement of power.

So to question 1, who knows, but the more seats the SNP win in Scotland the more likely it is. At the moment the bookies have a Labour minority as by far the most probable.

Q2: It will be there, but with caveats and so not binding.

Q3: All the signs are there will be a renegotiation no matter who is in power because domestic tensions are not going away. The EU needs trade with Britain, hence the new, softer approach by Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

Q4: Having renegotiated, but bound by their manifesto pledge, the Conservatives will campaign heavily for Yes to Europe. A Labour government will not stage a vote.

Q5: Backed by big business, the UK will vote to stay in Europe.

Q6: More powers for the Scottish Parliament is the key and the devil will be in the detail. We are now seeing a power grab before more powers actually arrive and normal voter judgement begins to kick in. Think about your attitude to your local services and your council tax – that’s the relationship you will have with Holyrood.

The SNP deny the deficit black hole on the campaign trail but privately they know it’s a massive problem and while they will push for as much tax power as possible they will stop short of full fiscal autonomy. They’ve already stopped calling it that.

That’s not how it will be sold, but there are enough pragmatists in the SNP who will not wish to create a financial crisis for the sake of the principle. But, as the man said, the dream will never die.

So do I think there will be another referendum? No. But then again, four months ago I thought Labour could hold on in Edinburgh.