AHEAD of Thursday’s crucial European vote, Political Editor Tom Peterkin examines the choices facing voters in Scotland
FOR the SNP, it was always going to be inevitable that this week’s European elections would be seen through the prism of the independence referendum.
An impressive performance on Thursday would help build momentum towards the big vote on 18 September. The official line from the SNP has been an attempt to manage expectations by insisting the focus is on “winning the election” by emerging as the largest party. There is, however, a real hope that, with a highly-motivated SNP support, Alex Salmond’s party will increase its number of successful candidates from two to three.
That would see Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh join Ian Hudghton and Alyn Smith as the SNP’s MEPs
Hudghton is a former decorator from Forfar who used to lead Angus Council. A veteran servant of the SNP, the married father-of-two is the party president.
Smith is of a younger generation of SNP politicians. Educated at Leeds and Heidelberg universities as well as Nottingham Law School, he has a masters degree in European studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw. Openly gay, he has campaigned strongly for equality.
Ahmed Sheikh is a rising star of the SNP. Often given the soubriquet “Supermum”, the mother-of-four is a former actress and Scottish Asian businesswoman of the year. Active on the Scottish political scene for some time, she has been a Conservative candidate and also a member of the Labour Party.
Last week, the SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon claimed the battle for a third seat had become a straight fight between the SNP and Ukip.
The SNP is hopeful that the wholesome and inclusive image presented by Ahmed Sheikh will help people decide to support its “open and friendly view of Europe” over Nigel Farage’s “anti-European agenda”.
LABOUR goes into Thursday’s election trailing the SNP in the polls. An ICM poll for The Scotsman last month put Labour on 28 per cent of the vote compared with 35 per cent for the SNP.
Under the complex d’Hondt system of proportional representation, which determines how Scotland’s six seats are distributed among the parties, such a result would mean Labour maintains its two MEPs – David Martin and Catherine Stihler.
Martin is Scotland’s longest-serving MEP, having been at Brussels since 1984. His European career has seen him serve as vice-chairman of the Socialist Group (1987-1988), and vice-president of the European Parliament (1989-2004). Latterly, he has been senior vice-president of the European Parliament with special responsibility for relations with national parliaments.
Stihler has been involved in Labour politics since she was a student at St Andrews University. When she was elected as an MEP in 1999, she was the youngest member of the European Parliament. She has campaigned for bolder anti-smoking messages on cigarette packs, alongside promoting Scotland’s anti-smoking legislation as a role-model for the rest of the European Union.
She played a key role in exposing the Scottish Government’s lack of legal advice on an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU.
It was her Freedom of Information request asking what legal advice Salmond’s government had taken on EU membership which led to the revelations that £20,000 of taxpayers’ money had been spent on lawyers fees to keep the information secret.
Later it emerged that the money had been spent, even though the legal advice did not exist.
Labour’s European manifesto makes much of creating jobs, cutting bankers’ bonuses and scrapping zero hour contracts.
THE end of this European parliamentary term sees the retirement of Struan Stevenson, who has been an MEP for the past 15 years and a prominent voice on fisheries issues and a doughty anti-wind farm campaigner.
Stevenson’s replacement as the Tory hopeful is Ian Duncan, a candidate who grew up on a berry farm near Alyth and who has a strong background in European issues.
A former deputy chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, he was head of Holyrood’s office in Brussels for seven years before returning to Scotland to be clerk of the Scottish Parliament’s European committee and EU adviser to the parliament.
The Conservatives are the party most overtly linking Thursday’s election with the referendum, using the phrase “Scottish Conservatives – No to independence” on the ballot paper. It is a tactic designed to boost Tory support. But there is a risk that it backfires. A poor Conservative result would be equated by the SNP with a slump in support for remaining in the Union.
With the Conservatives at Westminster promising to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership, their opponents have denounced them as a Eurosceptic party.
The Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has countered by arguing that Scottish independence is the biggest threat to membership of the EU, citing doubts that have been expressed over SNP claims that an independent Scotland would have automatic EU entry. She has also made comparisons between the SNP and Ukip accusing both parties of being anti-Westminster and peddling in grievance.
While most pundits reckon the Tories will keep their European seat in Scotland, there will be some anxious glances over Conservative shoulders at Ukip. Although Farage’s party has not yet made a Scottish breakthrough, last month’s ICM poll suggested there may be just about enough Eurosceptic Scots prepared to vote Ukip for it to win a seat at the expense of the Tories.
THE Liberal Democrats have made strenuous efforts to portray themselves as the party of “in” – that is, Lib Dems standing for “in” the UK and “in” Europe.
But with Lib Dem support failing as a result of their Westminster coalition with the Conservatives, there is real doubt over whether the party of “in” will actually make it into the European Parliament from Scotland.
Standing again is George Lyon, a former MSP and one-time head of the National Farmers Union Scotland. Coming from a long line of tenant farmers on the Isle of Bute, Lyon is strong on rural issues. He also served as a deputy finance minister in a Labour/Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood.
Lyon has been working hard to ram home the Lib Dems message that his party offers a far more European-friendly prospectus than his Ukip and Tory rivals.
The real question, however, for Lyon is whether or not he retains his seat. And the answer to that is very likely to be no.
Polls suggest support for the Lib Dems has fallen to around 7 per cent, a result which would see their only MEP leave the institution he entered in 2009 with 11.5 per cent of the vote.
ONE party hoping to profit from the demise of the Lib Dems is the Greens. They are taking hope from the absence of a socialist candidate this time round, leaving them as the most desirable option for those who reject mainstream parties. The Green candidate, Maggie Chapman, has also been boosted by the support of the two rebellious MSPs who resigned from the SNP over the party’s decision to seek Nato membership – John Finnie and Jean Urquhart.
Chapman is well-known in Edinburgh politics and was prominent on the protest rally which greeted Farage on his most recent visit to the Scottish capital.
She is the Scottish Green Party co-convener as well as a councillor for the Leith Walk ward in Edinburgh, having been elected in May 2007.
A teacher of geography and environmental ethics at Edinburgh University, she is described by her party as an “active anti-cuts campaigner and peace activist”.
Her chances of breaking through on Thursday look remote, according to the opinion polls.
FARAGE’S party is the wild card in this election. With strong suggestions that Ukip’s anti-EU stance and its tough message on immigration will appeal to voters south of the Border, its performance in Scotland is being closely monitored by the mainstream parties.
The SNP has already identified the right-wingers as its main challengers for its third seat.
Farage’s visits to Scotland have become something of an event – attracting hordes of protesters and on one memorable occasion last year resulting in Farage having to be locked inside a pub on the Royal Mile. “We can frankly do without Ukip,” was Salmond’s response to the unseemly scenes last year.
Should Ukip win a seat in Scotland – not an impossible scenario – the SNP’s narrative that Scotland holds different political values from elsewhere in the UK would be damaged. As would the notion that Scotland and England are drifting further apart.
The man attempting to take a seat for Ukip is David Coburn, a candidate who was drafted into Scotland in somewhat controversial circumstances.
Formerly, the chairman of Ukip in London, Coburn emerged at the top of the party’s candidate list after six of the party’s nine Scottish candidates quit including Ukip Scotland leader Lord Monckton. Coburn, Glasgow-born, was parachuted back up to Scotland. He has been in his leader’s shadow, but last week he showed that he also has the knack of being controversial.
On the BBC Radio Scotland’s Blether With Brian political discussion show, he did little to dispel Ukip’s reputation for using inappropriate language when he referred to the SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh as “love” and “my dear”. On the same show, eyebrows were raised further when he described the SNP as a “bunch of fascists”.
Time will tell whether Coburn can successfully hitch a lift on the Farage bandwagon and poll the 12 per cent or so required to make it to Brussels. The SNP is acutely aware that Farage’s voice will be all over the airwaves this week and Salmond will be doing his best to ensure that his message to “end Ukip’s politics of intolerance” is broadcast at full volume.