2016 in politics: Another year, another referendum

Nicola Sturgeon at the Glasgow count on general election night. Picture: Jane Barlow
Nicola Sturgeon at the Glasgow count on general election night. Picture: Jane Barlow
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In what appears to be becoming an era of constitutional referendums, 2016 could well see the second big vote to be held to determine the future of the United Kingdom.

Should David Cameron’s hint that the referendum on European Union membership could come as early as June next year bear fruit, two massive decisions about our political future will have been made within less than two years of each other.

Before that, however, there is the not inconsiderable matter of the Scottish elections. Thursday 5 May will see the nation go to the polls in what will prove to be a fascinating contest. With Nicola Sturgeon still soaring ahead in the polls, the expectation is that the SNP will repeat its remarkable result of five years ago when its landslide victory made it the first ever party to achieve an outright majority at Holyrood.

A recent TRN poll suggested that support for the SNP was still rising at the expense of Labour.

Such is the SNP’s dominance that any result short of Ms Sturgeon’s goal of securing another majority will be seen as disappointing. Nonetheless, anything other than a big win for the SNP is impossible to contemplate at this stage.

So the SNP looks likely to build on the success of 2011 and last year’s remarkable result that saw the party return all but three of 59 Scotland’s MP in the general election.

Since then the suspension of MPs Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry over alleged property and financial misdemeanours have reduced the SNP cadre at Westminster by two.

The Thomson and McGarry controversies were two setbacks for the SNP last year – rare blows in a political period that has seen the unprecedented growth of the party.

But unless the SNP suffers an unforeseen calamity over the coming months, Ms Sturgeon will cement her place as the dominant figure in Scottish politics and an increasingly influential force on the UK stage.

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour, under the leadership of Kezia Dugdale, will continue to attempt to hold the Scottish Government to account by drawing attention to short-comings in its health, education and justice record. The difficulty for Ms Dugdale is that this approach has so far failed to make any impact on the SNP’s unsurpassed popularity.

Of all the Scottish political leaders, Ms Dugdale appears the one in the least enviable position. At the relatively young age of 34, she faces the herculean task of turning round a demoralised and disorganised party.

With the pollsters predicting a dismal Labour performance in May, Ms Dugdale faces a stiff challenge to emerge from the election with her authority as leader intact.

Prior to her election, Scottish Labour had gone through no fewer than seven leaders since the birth of devolution a decade and a half ago. So the omens for Ms Dugdale are not very promising when one considers the ruthless way that leaders have been dispatched in the past.

In Ms Dugdale’s case, her youthfulness is likely to be to her advantage and it is difficult to see Labour ditching a promising politician having been given so little time to perform her task. So Ms Dugdale is likely to be given a stay of execution no matter how poorly Labour do.

Under the leadership of Willie Rennie, the Liberal Democrats are still suffering from the fall out from being in coalition at Westminster with the Conservatives and any gains are likely to be modest. The Greens go into the election hopeful of benefiting from the second vote for list seats and after years in the doldrums, the Scottish Conservatives are talking up their chances on improving on the 15 MSPs they currently have.

A number of Tories who have been in the parliament since it was established are leaving the political stage, making the way for some newcomers who the party hopes can make a big impression on political life.

Although the polls have shown little in the form of movement towards the Tories, Ruth Davidson is proving an effective and popular leader as the party attempts to shake off years of being regarded as a toxic brand in Scotland.

As David Cameron looks ahead to his second year as the leader of a majority Conservative government, the EU referendum is the major hurdle to be overcome. With the polls suggesting the prospect of Britain leaving the EU is far more likely than most people thought, 2016 will be a key year for the Prime Minister, assuming the vote goes ahead over the next 12 months.

Mr Cameron has to persuade eurosceptic voters that his re-negotiation of the UK’s position in Europe is not simply window dressing but a serious improvement. The In and Out camps are gearing up for intense activity, as are the political parties.

The SNP will be campaigning to stay in Europe, while arguing that if the rest of the UK drags Scotland out of the EU against its will then a Scottish independence referendum could be triggered.

Last year saw Labour undergo a remarkable change. At the beginning of 2015, Ed Miliband was being touted as a potential prime minister. But by the end of the year, the hard-left politician Jeremy Corbyn was installed as leader thanks to astonishing levels of support from the left wing of the party and thousands of activists who were energised by his radical leadership campaign.

But with many within the Parliamentary Labour Party taking issue with his views, Mr Corbyn faces a struggle to unite his party under his leadership. Divisions will be forced into the open when the UK government holds a vote on Trident renewal next year. Once again Mr Corbyn’s stance against nuclear weapons will be at odds with many of his MPs. But within his short time as leader, Mr Corbyn has already survived embarrassing splits on the Trident issue as well as a schism at the top of the party over airstrikes in Syria, when a large number of his MPs refused to support his position against action.

Although there is still an underlying feeling that Mr Corbyn is not a credible prime minister-in-waiting, his leadership is likely to be given a slight boost at the beginning of May. The disappointment of the Scottish elections could be offset if, as expected, Labour’s Sadiq Khan triumphs over the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith in the London mayoral elections.

In the meantime, Mr Corbyn will be doing all he can to defy predictions of an early demise of his leadership.