Leaders: Tory and Labour fight | Land reform care

LORD Ashcroft has given himself a makeover in recent years.

Lord Ashcroft has manged to salvage his public profile. Picture: PA

A while ago, his public profile was as a Tory party deputy chairman who lent the party millions of pounds and who was given a peerage despite not being domiciled in the UK for tax purposes. But in recent years he has reinvented himself. These days he uses his considerable wealth and influence not to swell the coffers of the Conservative party but to pay for a regular series of opinion polls to enlighten the political debate.

These include a number of “superpolls” with tens of thousands of people involved – far in excess of the polls usually carried out by media organisations such as ourselves, or even political parties. His polls are regarded across the political spectrum as a valued resource providing insights into voting intentions and voter attitudes that would not otherwise be available, and allow a much more nuanced understanding of what the people think – sometimes in direct contradiction to the prevailing orthodoxy among the political establishment. It was one such poll that Ashcroft published yesterday, on the battleground Labour and Tory marginals in England that are likely to determine the outcome of the UK general election next spring.

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It makes interesting reading, and paints a rather different picture of the current state of UK politics than the one suggested by the results of the English local government election last week. The immediate reaction to Thursday’s election was that Labour was in trouble, just two per cent ahead of the Tories and losing votes to Ukip in its former strongholds in the north of England. At this stage in the electoral cycle, it was argued, Ed Miliband’s party should be much further ahead. But Ashcroft’s poll recognises a political truism – that in the current Westminster electoral system, victory is not determined by national share of the vote but by how well each party does in its key marginals. And Ashcroft’s findings suggest that Labour is winning support where it matters most.

The reason for this is not hard to divine. Labour knows it cannot outspend the Tories in next year’s campaign – the Conservatives have richer friends – so it has to make its money work harder.

That is why Labour has paid for full-time organisers on the ground in key marginals with the aim of building and strengthening Labour support over a long lead-in to polling day. It is the technique that helped take Barack Obama to the US presidency in 2008, a campaign masterminded by the strategist Miliband has recently employed as Labour’s election guru, David Axelrod.

Here in Scotland, the identity of the next UK prime minister has an additional import. Our series of ICM polls shows clearly that Scots’ expectation of who will be in Downing Street next spring could have a material effect on how they vote on Scotland’s future in the independence referendum – particularly if they suspect David Cameron will be staying on as prime minister. There are those who disparage such attitudes. Surely, they say, the decision on independence is for the long term and should not be subject to short-term expectations about who will holdoffice in Number 10 for a few short years.

It is a fair point, but no fairer than the view of someone who has decided to see the referendum through exactly such a prism. People are entitled to vote on any basis they see fit – long term or short term; self-interest or common interest; intellectual assessment or gut feeling; policy or identity; personal financial advantage or fellow feeling for others.

All are legitimate. All will play their part. Any one of them could ultimately prove decisive. And that’s what makes this referendum campaign such a fascinating contest as it heads for polling day, now less than four months away.

Tread carefully over land reform

LAND reform has been one of the touchstone issues of the devolution era in Scotland. The first devolved administration, elected in 1999 with Donald Dewar as first minister, had as one of its priorities a range of measures focused on land use, including the dismantling of the feudal system, the right to roam, the entrenchment of crofters’ rights, and new powers for community buy-outs.

Now the current administration wants to move further, with a wide-ranging set of new initiatives, the majority of which are a welcome contribution to this area of debate. And today the Scottish Government gives a practical indication of how it intends to pursue this agenda, with a promise to set up, over the next ten years, a register of who owns what land in Scotland. This is a historic move, and one that is many years overdue.

A cautionary note is necessary, however. Recent experience has shown the SNP majority government has a poor record on pre-legislative consultation. Because its majority allows it to push through its own agenda without first taking into account the views of coalition partners or the opposition, too many of its initiatives have been poorly thought through.

Three egregious examples are the legislation aimed at tackling sectarianism in football; the scrapping of the need for corroboration in Scottish criminal prosecutions; and the requirement for a “named person” to be responsible for every Scottish child. All of these SNP proposals have produced flawed law.

There are a number of controversial proposals in the land reform report – not least the proposed limit on the amount of land any individual can own in Scotland. This needs a great deal of scrutiny – does it depend on the nature of the land and the use to which it is put, for example? And is the value and location of the value of the land taken into account? The last thing we need is for the Scottish Government, true to unfortunate form, to implement a new land reform law without due diligence and scrutiny.

That said, land reform legislation is precisely the kind of political challenge the Scottish Parliament was designed to tackle, and it is good to have it front and centre once more in our political debate. After all, with apologies to Woody Guthrie and his 1940 song, this land is our land.