This week’s general election sees Scots take a starring role - but the result is impossible to predict
WITH the general election just days away, seldom have Scots prepared to go to the polls with less certainty about how their vote will count. This contest is marked by uncertainty upon uncertainty upon uncertainty. In fact, there are no fewer than seven big imponderables about this election that make it almost impossible to predict the outcome – or indeed for a newspaper to recommend a particular course of action. But by exploring these uncertainties we can arrive at the clearest possible picture of what this coming week – or possibly weeks – has in store.
‘Despite SNP insistence, whichever party has the most seats could be crucial’
What is not in doubt is that this election will go down in history as the moment Scottish Nationalism became a force to be reckoned with on the United Kingdom stage. The surge in SNP support has been extraordinary and has gathered pace in recent weeks. Now, around half of all Scottish voters are backing the SNP, a reinvigorated party led with passion, skill and intelligence by Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP’s increase in popularity may be a product more of the structural shifts in Scottish politics since the independence referendum than one of party strategy, but Sturgeon has ridden it with relish. Once seen as sullen – a product of her shyness more than anything else – she has blossomed as a stump politician in the five months since she became SNP leader, and now enjoys a broad appeal that reaches beyond party and constitutional politics. She has brought us to a watershed moment in the life of the nation, with the old assumptions about the split in voting intentions between Holyrood and Westminster elections simply evaporating. Scottish politics has a new rule book, and Nicola Sturgeon wrote it.
But – and this is the first uncertainty – it is by no means clear how this will translate into constituencies actually won. Local factors will play a strong role on Thursday. And here the predictions of 50-plus SNP MPs heading for Westminster may prove wide of the mark. The SNP may do less well than their national average in areas that saw a strong No vote in the independence referendum. Labour candidates with long incumbencies and a proven record on local issues may have an advantage over relatively unknown Nats. Another factor at play may be tactical voting by Scottish Tories: polls show they are more willing than Labour or Lib Dem voters to vote tactically to keep the Nationalists out, and this may save the skin of a Labour MP or two, and perhaps even a Lib Dem. In Scotland on Thursday there will be 59 local elections, not one national election.
The second uncertainty will be played out south of the Border. How will English voters respond to Tory attempts to whip up fear about the arrival of dozens of Nationalist MPs at Westminster? This Tory technique has been unsubtle and reductive, and does the party no favours. It questions the legitimacy of SNP MPs – and, by extension, the voters who put them into power. After an independence referendum that resulted in affirmation of Scotland’s place in the Union, this leaves a bad taste in the mouth. This newspaper asserts that every Nationalist MP has just as much right to exercise power at Westminster as every Unionist MP. To hint otherwise – as the Tories have done – is a despicable tactic, and one that Scots of every stripe will long remember. Sadly, there is evidence it has been successful in attracting some English voters to the Tories. This makes the task facing Ed Miliband to be the largest party all the more difficult.
Despite SNP insistence to the contrary, it is becoming increasingly clear that whichever of the two biggest UK parties, Labour or the Conservatives, has the greater number of seats could prove to be a crucial factor in determining who makes it to Downing Street. The reason was well expressed this weekend by former first minister Jack McConnell when he used the precedent of the 2007 Holyrood election to demonstrate how difficult it would be for the party that came second to ultimately claim legitimacy as the UK government. In 2007, SNP leader Alex Salmond, with one seat more than Labour, claimed “the moral right to govern”, and Labour effectively agreed. McConnell said: “My view was, even people who hadn’t voted for the SNP felt they had won. If we had tried to do anything that went against the grain we would have been in massive trouble.” McConnell could have just as easily used as an example the 2010 general election, when a defeated Gordon Brown made a similar calculation. The third uncertainty, then, and one of the most important, is who has the most seats.
The fourth uncertainty is in how the Lib Dems will respond to overtures from the two big UK rivals for power. The Lib Dems are more important than the SNP at this stage because Sturgeon has said she would only side with Labour. Nationalist votes are therefore not up for grabs by both sides. Nick Clegg has said he is willing to do a deal with Miliband or Cameron, so his party’s votes are in play. Most observers expect Clegg to offer his MPs as support to whichever party has most seats. This seems to be the Lib Dems’ new constitutional role in a hung parliament – to help the largest party bolster its legitimacy and stability by taking it as close to the finishing line as possible, or, if possible, over it. Another reason the Lib Dems would be favoured over the SNP is that any resulting government could claim UK-wide legitimacy, rather than support from just one part of the country.
The fifth imponderable is whether such a move does indeed get to that magic level of 323 seats. If it doesn’t, then the SNP – along with the Democratic Unionists, the Greens, Ukip, the SDLP and lone MPs such as George Galloway and Sylvia Herman – all come into the calculations. But there is little doubt that the party that can win the support of the Lib Dems will have an initial leg-up that could prove vital, and possibly conclusive.
The sixth uncertainty depends on who is in pole position at this stage. If Labour is the biggest party, then with the support of the Lib Dems, the SNP, the SDLP and the lone MPs (both of whom are left-inclined), Miliband can start choosing new curtains for Number 10. If, however, the Tories are the biggest party, and the Lib Dems, DUP and Ukip fail to provide a majority, then the Tories are in trouble. If a Queen’s Speech written by Cameron falls, Miliband then faces a choice. Does he try to govern as head of an amalgamation of losers, with dubious legitimacy and the prospect of financial uncertainty, or does he seek a clearer mandate in a second election? As we report in our news pages today, a second election is the scenario already being prepared for by Labour MPs. Their hope would seem to be that a narrow escape from a second Tory government would concentrate the minds of SNP voters in Scotland.
The seventh uncertainty is whether a second election would produce a different outcome – possibly with one or more new leaders at the helm of the parties.
Uncertainty upon uncertainty upon uncertainty. So how to vote? Perhaps the simplest way to deal with so many variables is just to ignore them, and instead take the direct approach and vote for the party that comes closest to what you believe in. But with so many unintended consequences possible, there is even less of a guarantee than usual that your vote will have its desired effect. Like no other election in living memory, voting on Thursday will be like rolling the dice. We would urge you to vote, and let those dice roll. As for the outcome, at present that is anybody’s guess.