IN THE first of a three-part series looking at the year ahead, Political Editor Tom Peterkin considers lie of the electoral land in 2015.
Given the past 12 months was such an unforgettable year for Scottish politics, one might be forgiven for thinking that 2015 might offer some respite from the drama of 2014.
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But after the turbulent events of 2014, there is no prospect whatsoever of the temperature falling, with a general election on the horizon and a host of political possibilities.
The fall-out from the Scottish independence referendum will continue to dominate the first month of the New Year.
Burns Night on 25 January is a key deadline for the Smith Commission, the body created by David Cameron to deliver the pro-Union parties’ “vow” for more powers offered in the dying days of the campaign.
The first weeks of 2015 will see civil servants working frantically to transform the document produced by Lord Smith and the six negotiators from across the Scottish political spectrum into draft legislation in time for the Bard’s birthday.
While this is happening, the political parties will be gearing up for what has already been described as the most unpredictable general election in modern political history.
The cracks in the UK coalition will widen as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats create policy differences in an attempt to attract votes. This will be a distraction for Mr Cameron, who also has to deal with that perennial Tory problem: what to do about Europe.
Promising an in/out referendum on European Union membership and making promises to recast the UK’s relationship with Europe have been a large part of the Prime Minister’s strategy to deal with his Eurosceptic backbenchers and the rise of Ukip.
It remains to be seen whether this will discourage voters from moving to Nigel Farage’s party. Mr Cameron must hope so. If Ukip manages to produce anything like the shockwave success that marked its performance in the 2014 European election results, the Prime Minister is in for a rough ride.
Only once the votes are counted on 7 May can it be properly judged just how effective a political force Ukip is capable of becoming. But if the momentum of the European elections is kept up, then Britain will have seen a sea-change in the structure of its politics.
If, however, Ukip slides back into relative obscurity, Mr Cameron will breathe a sigh of relief.
Should Mr Farage’s party perform poorly at the general election, those who see Ukip as a party of protest rather than government will be proved correct.
Another party that Downing Street is looking at with a great deal of trepidation is the SNP.
Having spent the last year or so battling against the SNP in the fight for the future of the UK, none of the pro-Union parties can be under any illusions about what a formidable political machine the Nationalists have become.
Many had predicted that a decisive referendum defeat such as the one that was delivered on 18 September would see the demise of the SNP. Therefore it has come as a surprise to many that referendum defeat simply appears to have galvanised its support base. With membership numbers heading towards the 100,000 mark, there is a great deal of SNP optimism.
And with polls predicting a collapse in the Labour vote north of the Border as the SNP surges, much has been made of the possibility of the SNP holding the balance of power in a hung parliament.
With things poised so delicately, the SNP is already talking about potential deals.
Former leader Alex Salmond has refused to rule out working with anyone at Westminster, apart from the Tories. His successor, Nicola Sturgeon, has also drawn the line at the Conservatives. The possibility of a formal deal with Labour has been looked at, but the more likely option would be SNP MPs choosing to back a Labour-led government on an issue-by-issue basis.
If the opinion polls prove correct and the SNP gives Labour a hiding north of the Border, that would be a disastrous result for Jim Murphy, the newly-elected Scottish Labour leader.
It has been suggested by some that such a result would raise fundamental questions about the point of Labour’s existence.
If a dominant left-of-centre SNP proved that it could do business at Westminster by propping up a Labour government on an issue-by-issue basis, Labour’s raison d’etre would be challenged.
Mr Murphy, of course, has no intention of leading Labour down this path. His hope must be that Labour’s fortunes are at their nadir and he can lead a vigorous revival. The next few months will see Mr Murphy defining the general election as a contest between Labour and the Tories while arguing that a SNP vote could let Mr Cameron back into Downing Street via the back door.
Labour will also be hoping that the silent majority, which expressed itself on 18 September to record a 55 per cent No vote, will speak up again in May.
Labour and the Conservatives could be the beneficiaries if No supporters vote tactically to keep the SNP out.
The Lib Dems are hopeful that they benefit from that sort of approach in one seat in particular.
One of the big stories of 2015 will be whether Mr Salmond succeeds in taking the Gordon constituency from the Lib Dems. His desire to go back to London saw him announce his intention to stand for the House of Commons.
With the Lib Dem veteran Sir Malcolm Bruce standing down, the former first minister has spotted a chance to write a new chapter in his political story. Sir Malcolm’s replacement as the Lib Dem candidate is Christine Jardine, a former journalist who will be defending a majority of almost 7,000. But with the SNP membership soaring towards the 100,000 mark and the party in buoyant mood despite referendum defeat, Mr Salmond is extremely confident that he will emerged victorious.
Ms Jardine’s earnest hope must be that No voters coalesce behind her in their desire to defeat Mr Salmond.
For the Lib Dems at large, 2015 will be particularly challenging. Having dismayed many of the their supporters and members by going into coalition with the Tories, Nick Clegg’s party is going to struggle at the polls. And having been part of a government that has run an unpopular programme, Mr Clegg can expect to be punished on 7 May.
In Scotland, 2015 will also be the year of new leadership. Ms Sturgeon has stepped into the substantial shoes of Mr Salmond. She has set out a stall which has made much of her commitment to gender equality, by appointing a Cabinet with an equal balance of men and women.
An apparent willingness to try and come to consensus on political issues is bound to be seriously challenged in the knock-about of general election campaigning.
From a strategic point of view, one of the main things to look out for is how she treats the constitutional issue. Before the referendum, the SNP line was that an independence vote would be a “once in a generation” opportunity. But with a highly vocal and motivated Yes support demanding action, the question of how to deal with the constitution has to be dealt with.
The SNP’s 2015 general election manifesto will not contain a commitment for another referendum. The party has accepted that the appropriate way to call another is to achieve a majority at Holyrood for an independence poll.
Therefore, the big issue awaiting Ms Sturgeon is whether she includes a referendum commitment in the SNP’s manifesto for the 2016 elections.
Ms Sturgeon has said she intends to take that decision at the tail end of 2015.
For Mr Murphy, 2015 looks even more challenging. Unlike Ms Sturgeon, he does not have a buoyant party with soaring membership.
With Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray and most recently Johann Lamont all having had a bash at the job without succeeding in toppling the SNP, Mr Murphy has a battle on his hands.
Party morale has to be restored, its internal management has to be overhauled. Most importantly, his team must put up a decent fight at the general election.
With polls suggesting that the SNP could decimate Labour in Scotland, the Nationalists are confident that they will emerge in May as the largest party north of the Border – and the possibility of the SNP becoming the third largest party in the UK is a real one.
There is, however, some hope for Labour. Past elections have shown that the Scottish electorate tends to treat Westminster elections as a straightforward choice between a Labour and Tory government.
Mr Murphy has said he hopes that Labour will hang on to the 41 seats it currently holds of the 59 that are available in Scotland.
That prediction is likely to prove to be very much on the optimistic side.
For Mr Murphy, there is also a challenge of a more personal nature. As the sitting MP for East Renfrewshire, one of the questions that needs answered is whether he will chose to stand again in the former Tory stronghold he has held since 1997.
As an MP, Mr Murphy is ineligible to take on Ms Sturgeon at Holyrood’s First Minister’s Questions, so he is under pressure to find himself a Holyrood seat.
As long as he remains an MP, rather than an MSP, he will be criticised by the SNP for leading a supposedly Scottish party from Westminster.
There are a few options open to Mr Murphy – but none of them without risk.
Labour could force a Holyrood by-election, a scenario that would see the SNP throw everything at the constituency in question in an attempt to humiliate Mr Murphy by defeating him.
But engineering the by-election to coincide with the general election would offer Mr Murphy more cover as the SNP concentrates on a nationwide campaign.
Mr Murphy himself has said that his aim is to be at Holyrood by the 2016 Scottish election at the latest, so that he is in a position to be first minister – should Labour achieve the challenging turnaround required to win that contest.
He has also said that if the opportunity arises to enter Holyrood before that, he will take it. Mr Murphy has said he will flesh out his Scottish Parliament plans in the New Year.
So that will be one of the first things to look out for in what promises to be an intriguing 2015.
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