John McLellan: SNP in poll position

Nicola Sturgeon delivers her closing speech to the SNP Annual National Conference. Pic: Greg Macvean
Nicola Sturgeon delivers her closing speech to the SNP Annual National Conference. Pic: Greg Macvean
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It’s election year and the political bookies who called the referendum correctly are hard at work. Who’d bet against the SNP being the third biggest party at Westminster after May?

Not the researchers at ICM whose poll of Scottish voters for The Guardian newspaper just before Christmas predicted the SNP would win 45 seats, Labour 10, the Lib Dems three and the Tories be still stuck with one.

ICM puts support for the SNP at 43 per cent, with Labour on 26, Conservatives on 13 and the Lib Dems trailing on six, with the differences in seat predictions for the latter two based on regional factors.

This follows another survey by Survation for the Daily Record, which put the SNP on 48 per cent and Labour on 24, which would apparently give the SNP all but five of Scotland’s 59 seats and Labour just four. The other seat would in all probability be Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael’s Orkney & Shetland and so it would be goodbye to lone Tory David Mundell in Dumfriesshire & Tweeddale. On top of this comes a poll commissioned by the SNP from Panelbase which suggests that 60 per cent of all voters think the SNP will secure more powers for the Scottish Parliament beyond the Smith Commission proposals if it holds the balance of power after May.

So with five months to go till polling day it should have been a very happy Christmas in the Sturgeon household, but as she and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, know well, caution cannot be thrown to the electoral wind.

As with the referendum, the political landscape is uncharted and a new factor identified by Scotland’s leading political analyst, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, is the coming together of voting intentions for both Holyrood and Westminster for the first time. Until now, both Labour and SNP strategists accepted that many people vote differently in UK and Scottish elections, but the latest surveys suggest this is no longer the case.

Maybe it’s the aftermath of a referendum in which key pillars of traditional Labour support were kicked away, or perhaps it’s the seeming inability of Labour spinners to make a silk purse out of the pig’s ear that is leader Ed Miliband’s public image, but the groundswell of SNP support which produced the 2011 Holyrood landslide is now being reflected in Westminster voting intentions.

In previous UK elections, the SNP leadership was prepared to accept that a modest return based on a combination of local factors was the most likely outcome of a contest in which the occupancy of Number 10 is the main goal and by definition something which the SNP cannot achieve. But with talk of Alex Salmond being Deputy Prime Minister in a Labour-SNP coalition, that no longer applies.

As Prof Curtice points out, 94 per cent of those expressing an intention will vote the same way for Westminster as Holyrood. The 2011 result which gave the SNP a majority in Holyrood was based primarily on the mass defection of the Lid Dem vote after the Westminster Coalition deal, so they can look forward to claiming the votes of over a quarter million Lib Dem defectors. Activists’ door-step returns confirm this is happening.

Given the core Lib Dem aim of a federal Britain, the prospect of a Westminster bloc of SNP MPs wresting more power for Holyrood and potentially forcing wholesale change across the UK gives another route to Scottish Lib Dem voters who have already snubbed Westminster’s big two.

No poll shows any sort of Lib Dem recovery and only a miracle will push their vote into double figures, so their total Scottish return in May could easily be less than 200,000. The Scottish Lib Dem vote in 2010 was 465,000, so that’s potentially 265,000 new SNP supporters.

Added to this will be the army of Yes voters who previously voted Labour. The latest analysis reveals that of those who voted Labour in 2010, 34 per cent voted Yes and 68 per cent of this group say they will now vote SNP, around 240,000 of them. The only upside for Labour is their 2010 supporters who voted No remain relatively solid at 87 per cent. But that’s still over 80,000 Labour No voters who could vote SNP or not vote at all. So without having to do very much at all, the SNP vote could easily hit a million compared to 491,000 five years ago. It is also fair to assume a higher turnout than 2010’s 64 per cent will favour the SNP.

Only the Conservative position looks similar to 2010, when their 413,000 votes represented a share of around 17 per cent. The same problem faced by Annabel Goldie now faces her successor Ruth Davidson in that the leader’s high personal approval stubbornly refuses to translate into broader party support.

But in a first-past-the-post system vote share does not equal seats, and local factors will throw up winners which buck the national trend. The trick for the SNP will be to avoid banana skins at Holyrood, continue to argue that only they can make sure more power is devolved to Scotland, but not force the independence issue. Two successive Holyrood victories were achieved with independence well down the SNP’s list of priorities and the No victory can work in their favour by setting the issue to one side, so the No voters who previously voted SNP in places like Perthshire can do so again. It is no accident that Nicola Sturgeon has adopted a consistently conciliatory tone since September 18.

For Labour, new leader Jim Murphy is already laying out a strategy to portray Labour as the authentically social democratic Scottish voice which now operates independently of London, while drawing on the strengths of the Union. How he sells that remains to be seen, but I doubt we’ve seen the last of the Irn Bru crate.

For the first time, Labour’s battleground is in its back yard where the majority for Yes in Glasgow and North Lanarkshire can become a swathe of Yellow gains if the new SNP membership persuades the same number of people to vote in May as did in September. If the turnout is around 70 per cent in Greater Glasgow, then the disaster for Labour the polls are currently predicting could become reality.

But if the turnout is similar to previous elections, even the big swings to the SNP the polls predict will not be enough to overcome the massive majorities enjoyed by some effective Labour figures like Ian Davidson.

Even with their brigades of new members, to get the new vote out the SNP needs to continue to promise something different to what has gone before, which is why it is tactically naïve for senior figures like deputy leader Stewart Hosie to discuss coalition with Labour. It gives people in Springburn and Shettleston a reason not to bother.

But in Edinburgh, the new surveys paint a different picture, with the strong No vote providing Labour with a vital bedrock and a very high likelihood that Sheila Gilmore, Mark Lazarowicz and Ian Murray will all be re-elected and the right replacement for Alistair Darling holding Edinburgh South-West.

It’s still all to play for in Edinburgh West’s four-way split, but given the strength of the No vote, it looks more like a fight between the incumbent Lib Dem Mike Crockart and Labour councillor Cammy Day, even if the SNP pick ex-footballer Michael Stewart as their candidate. See what you can get at the bookies for a red blanket over Edinburgh.

For the Lib Dems, despite the predictions of a wipe-out, the strong personal appeal of several sitting MPs means the chances are high of individual results defying national trend. Alistair Carmichael, Charles Kennedy and Danny Alexander should all return, although Michael Moore looks vulnerable in the Borders.

Again, the bookies might give you very good odds on the Lib Dems holding onto six Scottish seats.

So, here is a prediction: Jim Murphy stages something of a recovery for Labour, but still loses 13 seats. The Lib Dems secure less than ten per cent of the vote, but still win six seats. Aided by the Lib Dem collapse and electoral sums, the Tories manage to match the number of pandas in Edinburgh Zoo.

That gives the SNP 23 seats and a triumph by any stretch of the imagination. But if that Lib Dem pattern repeats itself across the South they could still hold around 30 UK constituencies. The key to the UK result could be those 13 lost Labour seats. Without them, can Ed Miliband do enough elsewhere to at least start negotiating a deal to enter Number 10?

Or will David Cameron have done enough to see off UKIP to keep hold of what he’s got? If the economy keeps going in the right direction don’t bet against it. Just don’t imagine the SNP will be unhappy at the prospect of going into the 2016 Holyrood election arguing only they can defend Scotland against “brutal Tory oppression”.

Driven round bend at Waverley

It’s not been a great holiday for rail travellers, with the maintenance shambles at King’s Cross and then the overhead problems in East Lothian causing chaos for main line services in and out of Waverley.

But that’s just the trains. The chaos up on the roads surrounding the station goes on unabated with angry exchanges between black cab drivers, private hire cars and private motorists on Market Street now just part of the Waverley experience.

Add to that the coaches ferrying people from Dunbar and North Berwick this week, and Market Street became a scrap yard in more ways than one.

What has made matters worse is the closure of access from The Mound because of the further expansion of the winter fun fair, meaning that all road access from the south is now funnelled down Jeffrey Street if the bedlam around St Andrew Square and Picardy Place is to be avoided. Making matters worse has been the closure of Calton Road for building work, cutting off access from Abbeyhill. I’ve argued before for better use of the space at the New Street car park, but it is as if the city and Network Rail want to make it as difficult and unpleasant to get in and out of Waverley as possible.

Maybe it’s time for our new Dame, city chief Sue Bruce, to get her head-bashing gear on again.