General Election: Is there a Tory/Labour ‘pact’ in Scotland?

Labour's Ian Murray
Labour's Ian Murray
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The accusation that Scotland’s main Unionist parties have been working in cahoots has been prevalent since the immediate aftermath of the referendum on Scottish independence.

Claims of a ‘Better Together reunion’ and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties being simply Tories of a different hue have flown from the lowest SNP activist to the highest SNP minister.

That charge was seemingly given fresh credence yesterday by a story on the STV News website that the Unionist parties were ‘working against the SNP in a number of seats’.

Quoting a senior Tory source, the story says that in a number of high-profile seats, the party that isn’t the main challenger to the SNP was fielding a ‘paper candidate’.

This prompted predictable outrage from Nicola Sturgeon’s party, and the accusations that the Tories and Labour were hand in glove came thick and fast.

We look at how workable such a pact is, whether the accusation is fair, and just what a ‘paper candidate’ looks like.

A fact of life or a pact of strife?

Firstly, it is important to note what the STV article does, and indeed doesn’t say.

The source says that nothing in the arrangement is formal, and that it is simply the reality of the situation in terms of money and activists.

In truth, even an unofficial non-aggression pact would cause difficulties, especially if local activists feel they are having an arrangement imposed upon them by party HQ.

One only has to look at the reaction to arrangements between Tory and Labour Councillors in two of Scotland’s town halls to see the potential problems of a pact.

In Aberdeen City Council, a number of councillors have been suspended from the Labour party after going into coalition with the Tories.

In West Lothian, there has been anger among local party stalwarts at the informal arrangement with the Conservatives that allowed Labour to take power.

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Being Sensible

When a Conservative says that it is the reality that the campaigns will help one another, they are not necessarily endorsing that help, but merely stating it as a fact.

There is no discernible benefit in, for example, the Labour Party pouring resources into a seat like Perth and North Perthshire, where they haven’t a chance.

If it is generally accepted that voters are developing election fatigue, think how jaded party operators feel, and indeed party’s financial backers.

In a snap general election, resources tend to be more scarce, and it is natural that some seats will see a noticeable decline in the amount of contact they have had from candidates of a certain persuasion.

Kezia Dugdale has already batted off claims of any kind of anti-Indyref2 pact, telling The Scotsman this week that she wants Labour voters to vote Labour all over the country.

With the customary nuance of Scottish politics on the internet, Ms Dugdale was criticised on Twitter for saying that Labour was best placed to beat the SNP in countless seats across the country.

Those comments didn’t mean that she didn’t want a Labour supporter in, for example, Moray to avoid voting for her party, merely that they weren’t best placed to beat the SNP.

With Labour 20,000 votes behind, claiming they were would be rightly ridiculed.

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Paper candidates

One of the standout phrases from the claims of a Tory-Labour agreement to stop the SNP was that of ‘paper candidates’, not a new feature at elections.

Whether it was the Islands Tory candidate at the local elections who insisted he didn’t want to appear on the ballot, or merely someone who is realistic about their chances of elections, no two paper candidates are the same.

Standing in a safe seat for anyone other than the winning party is often a thankless task, either foisted on experienced activists or taken on as a suicide mission by up-and-comers as an apprenticeship of sorts before they are found a suitable route into elected politics.

Voters from constituency to constituency will no doubt see a difference depending on what kind of candidate has been selected to ‘fight’ their seat.

In truth, there is so much enmity in Scottish politics that seeing any of our leading politicians work together seems unlikely.

As for the ‘pact’ – it is less of a grand unionist conspiracy and more a matter of simple and unavoidable electoral arithmetic.