THERE’S little doubt that next month’s Holyrood election will end in another SNP victory and Nicola Sturgeon being returned to carry on as First Minister for the next five years.
Despite the Nationalists’ insistence that there is no room for complacency and Labour declarations that the party is in it to win, any result other than a clear SNP majority would be a major political upset.
But that doesn’t mean the campaign should be written off as a waste of time. There are four weeks to go and plenty of time for election fatigue to set in, but so far it has been lively enough and focused mostly on real issues where the parties take different views, not least on tax.
Last week’s televised leaders’ debate, which included them cross-examining each other on their policies, produced interesting exchanges and shed new light on several areas.
Of course there was the predictable repetition of familiar soundbites and carefully prepared lines. But all five leaders were articulate and passionate in arguing their case. And the debate was fast-paced and avoided much of the waffle and evasion which seems often to characterise UK leaders’ debates.
With opinion polls showing the SNP on course to win virtually all the first-past-the-post seats, the other parties have little prospect of catching up, but there will be fierce competition among them for the list seats.
And the Ipsos/Mori poll published this week, revealing how much support there is for a range of specific policies, shows significant backing for many of the proposals being put forward by the opposition parties.
Using the Scottish Parliament’s new powers to increase the top rate of tax on those earning over £150,000 from 45p to 50p – which Labour advocates, but the SNP has ruled out for the first year at least – emerged as the most popular tax or welfare measure.
The Tories’ idea that income tax rates in Scotland should be kept the same as in England also had strong support.
And raising all rates of income tax by 1p and spending the money on schools and colleges – Liberal Democrat policy, also close to Labour’s – was not far behind.
A ban on fracking – which will be in the Labour, Green and Lib Dem manifestoes, but which the SNP will not commit to – was popular, too.
Previous polls have shown varying levels of discontent with the SNP’s record in some areas such as health and the police, but the same polls also found people were still planning to vote for the Nationalists in large numbers.
There are, of course, other factors which help people to decide how they vote. It’s not all down to the fine detail of the manifestoes. Party reputations play a big part – the Tories’ Thatcherite inheritance; the Lib Dems’ willingness to join the Tories in coalition; and the feeling Labour took Scotland for granted.
However much the parties might want to change these perceptions, it does not look like happening this time.
If they are to be realistic and yet resilient, the opposition parties may just have to accept the mood of the times is against them. But that does not mean they should give up.
There are still important battles to be won over the list seats, which will determine how much influence each of the opposition parties will have in the new parliament.
And the debates over policies and the stances adopted by the parties now could also be crucial in deciding their fortunes in the future.