Andy Maciver: Local elections may be a wake-up call for some

Recent success of the SNP campaign machine could show other parties how it should be done, writes Andy Maciver

Success breeds success breeds success. We didn’t realise at the time, but use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) at the 2007 local government elections, coupled with a good swing at local and national level, paved the way for the SNP’s Holyrood landslide four years later. 

All over Scotland, STV helped the SNP gain a foothold in constituencies in which they’d historically never featured and, to their immense credit, they made the most of it by taking dozens of them in 2011. Although the party is not known for its local campaigning, the heavily centralised message – largely delivered by intelligent, reasonable and reassuring figures – combined with the a local body on the ground to back it up, worked wonders.

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So success in 2007, and the army of SNP councillors it brought, bred success in 2011 in the form of a 50 per cent increase in MSPs. There are now very few Scottish communities in which the SNP does not have some form of directly elected presence. While the SNP built British politics’ most sophisticated central campaigning team, technological infrastructure and web presence to go with their expanding local backup, the Unionist parties at a central level were napping on the job.

To make matters worse for the Unionists, the gap which has emerged between their capabilities and those of the SNP may be too wide to bridge in the short- or even medium-term. SNP strategists will tell you the formula is fairly basic – once we’re in, you’re going to have to be better than us to get us back out again.

Will the two previous successes breed another one on 3 May? The signs look good for the SNP. The prospect of a referendum has their supporters mobilised and, therefore, it is unlikely that a reduction in turnout as a result of the disaggregation of the local authority and Scottish Parliament elections will have a negative effect on the SNP. Furthermore, a YouGov poll earlier this week (albeit with a small sample size) had the SNP on 46 per cent, up on their 2011 landslide and crucially based on Westminster voting intentions, which usually produces a much lower SNP number. It would be brave to bet against another very good night for the SNP two weeks from today.

So where does that leave the others? All three have new leaders facing their first electoral test. All have faced varying degrees of criticism from the media or their own party. Johann Lamont, of Labour, appeared to concede that more SNP councillors will be returned. When one considers the SNP is mid-term, that Ms Lamont is still in her honeymoon period and that at a UK-level Labour is polling up to 13 points higher than at the last general election, this is a remarkable situation. There may be an element of expectation management or reverse psychology in her comments, but if Labour’s own polling is delivering this news then the party could be in for a long night, especially if it is punctuated by the hitherto fantastical loss of Glasgow.

The other new girl on the block, Ruth Davidson of the Tories, may suffer less. On the face of it, things look bleak, with polling numbers very low (the aforementioned YouGov poll predicting 11 per cent) and lingering doubts in the media and in the party about Ms Davidson’s performance. But other factors may flatter the Conservative result. First, the party’s voters tend to turn out more diligently than some others and may be more persuaded to do so as an act of loyalty to the new leader, so the fact that the election is likely to suffer a fairly low turnout due to its disaggregation from the Holyrood poll may have relatively little impact on the Conservative vote. Secondly, STV makes it difficult for a relatively small party to suffer large losses of seats; that needs a very substantial downturn in support. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the Conservative voter is undoubtedly the most “Ultra Unionist” of all, and during this time of constitutional uncertainty will need little encouragement to vote.

Although it is likely to be lost in the inevitable stories about Glasgow and the performances of the two large parties, one of the most interesting outcomes of the election will be the result for the Lib Dems under Willie Rennie, the best performing of the three new leaders so far. The calamitous result in 2011 was, for the most part, clearly down to forces outwith the Scottish party’s control. It seems highly improbable that the party will be able to match its 2007 performance, but it will be fairer to judge Mr Rennie using the comparator of the 2011 result.

The unionist parties might not be so concerned about the outcome on 3 May if it was not for its knock-on effect. It is no coincidence that Alex Salmond will launch the “Yes” campaign after the local government elections. His party’s sophisticated campaign software is probably telling him that he is going to have a good election night. For the SNP it’s all about momentum, and if there is any kind of local government landslide to go with last year’s Holyrood version then the stage is set for the launch of what might start to look like a winning campaign.

The Unionists’ understanding of the fact that the “Yes” camp has a very realistic chance of winning the referendum is recent and remains underdeveloped. Perhaps a big SNP win in two weeks will wake them from their slumber and make them understand the truism of 21st-century Scottish politics – people will vote for the party closest to their vision of a Scotland with more powers.

• Andy Maciver is director of Message Matters, a strategic communications consultancy and former Scottish Conservative head of communications