Lesley Riddoch: May won't get completely free run

Are weekend polls which forecast the election of between eight and 12 Tory MPs in Scotland accurate or wide of the mark?

After several calamitous failures, pollsters might be ready to admit that “results” are essentially snapshots, subject to a host of complicating factors before polling day.

Firstly there’s the small matter of candidates and personalities. The Survation and Panelbase polls sampled support for parties, but the SNP have the benefit of recognisable people – 54 sitting MPs with medium to strong candidate recognition. Every other party is desperately trying to find quality candidates and if the Tories’ trouble with council candidates is anything to go by, they’re struggling. Last week a Fife candidate who called Nicola Sturgeon a “drooling hag” on Twitter had to be “reminded of her responsibilities” by Scottish Conservative party officials.

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Meanwhile Labour is doubtless searching among the ranks of those ousted from Holyrood, but many are council candidates and it’ll be hard for them to jump ship and stand for Westminster in the same local area. The Greens are a wildcard – if they opt not to stand against the SNP in seats where they previously lost deposits, Nicola Sturgeon’s party will receive a vital boost.

Secondly there’s the jolt these poll results will give SNP supporters. Flat out for the council elections, many felt daunted at the prospect of another six weeks of door-knocking, canvassing and leafleting. But the prospect of ten Tory MPs and endless Tory gloating will restore batteries and remove any vestige of complacency.

Thirdly, there’s a question over what message about independence can be drawn from any loss of seats that still leaves the SNP a country mile ahead. Much as it suits Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale to say Nicola Sturgeon talks about nothing but independence, it isn’t true. The SNP have a careful strategy for the run-up to the second vote over the next two years and they won’t be rushed into launching it prematurely. Meanwhile, as Professor John Curtice points out, neither weekend poll found any change in support for independence and a steady 48 per cent of Scots still thinks a second indyref should be held between 2019 and the end of Brexit negotiations. That’s a fairly solid base from which to launch an independence campaign when the time comes. But that isn’t now.

Fourthly, there are the local elections – if the SNP win Glasgow and other west of Scotland councils which have been controlled by Labour for half a century and hang onto former Labour fiefdoms like Dundee, it will provide momentum for the SNP in the Westminster election – just as failure will be a setback. The impact of those results cannot be factored in now.

Fourthly, there’s that great imponderable – the nature of the media election campaign.

I almost sympathise with Theresa May’s aversion to the live TV debate format. Almost – but not quite. Since leadership and articulacy are two essential qualities in a Prime Minister, there is a case for one TV debate – but not many and not at the expense of other more probing programme types.

Since it entered our political culture from the US, live leaders’ debates have made our democracy appear presidential when it is not, created a focus on personality rather than policy and usurped other programme types by becoming cheap to make and as mildly addictive as Gogglebox.

It’s ironic. The media worries viewers are bored with politics because many of them are terminally bored. So they favour dramatic formats that might provoke live punch-ups or at least testosterone-charged confrontations. I’m sure I detected a collective sigh of relief among broadcasters with Brenda from Bristol and her spontaneous cry of election horror. It confirmed their own deep-seated ennui and scepticism about the democratic process.

Actually it’s the broadcasters’ general failure to tackle the nitty-gritty issues of class, elitism, control and authoritarianism that makes elections boring. And live TV debates let them off the hook big-time. TV and radio journalists don’t need to dig deep into claim and counter-claim – all producers need do is find some podiums, hire the studio, invite guests, select the audience, remember the stopwatch, add a presenter with the authority to control the noisiest contributor... and relax. Job done.

During the 2014 independence referendum and 2016 Holyrood election, Scotland was awash with unwieldy live debates involving commentators and politicians. The format was wildly overdone, offering a platform for audience obsessives and former MPs whose entire careers were based on the ability to talk over opponents.

BBC Scotland in particular has relied almost exclusively on this format to provide “balance” – it’s become a very bad habit. But with a new head of the corporation and a whole new channel on STV, Scottish broadcasters could decide to make a clean break and produce a variety of formats during this general election campaign. There could be themed programmes examining each party’s manifesto commitments in key areas like energy, taxation, welfare benefits, human rights, employment, trade and Brexit. Broadcasters could give each Scottish party a film crew and half an hour of TV time to answer the top three questions chosen by viewers. And before anyone complains there isn’t enough time to change gears – haud on.

Broadcast journalists in Scotland urgently need to reacquire the knack of creating high-quality “built” programmes and documentaries as a default, not a one-off. Raising the bar during the general election means journalists will be comfortable with properly probing formats by the time the second independence referendum rolls around.

A vigorous media is particularly important as the London-based press becomes ever more compliant, with a former Tory Chancellor at the helm of the Standard and almost every right-wing paper ignoring the police investigation into Tory election fraud in which up to 20 sitting Conservative MPs (including Scots Secretary David Mundell) are the subject of criminal investigation by 16 police forces. Who but Channel 4 has even mentioned this?

Finally, first past the post is not a fair voting system but it’s the one successive Labour and Tory governments have opted to retain. Which means the winner of the election in Scotland will not be the party with the biggest share of the vote. It’ll be the one with more than half the seats.

And no matter how poll results are spun, there’s little doubt that will be the SNP.