Politicians always like to say that elections are the most important ever, but in the present case it is certainly true that there is a huge amount at stake and hanging on the outcome of the next few days.
It has been the strangest of election campaigns. With limited opportunity to speak directly to voters one-to-one, with no street stalls, and hustings only taking place online, it has been difficult for politicians of all parties to get a proper feel for what the public are thinking. In many towns and villages across the country, there is little sign of the normal buzz of activity that we are used to at election time.
The pollsters suggest that the SNP are on course for a comfortable victory, with the only issue to be determined whether the Nationalists will have an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament. But, with concerns about turnout being depressed due to Covid restrictions, and a lack of active campaigning, it would be foolish to bet the house on any particular outcome.
The stakes are certainly high. The SNP have made it clear that should they get an overall majority, they will treat that as a mandate to press for another independence referendum.
As the UK government has stated “now is not the time” for another referendum to be held, we could see an informal or “wildcat” referendum being held, or a potential legal challenge. Either way, we face five years of constitutional debate and instability, at precisely the time when the focus needs to be on rebuilding our economy and public services in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
There are clearly those with an interest in destabilising the United Kingdom. According to a report published on Monday by the Henry Jackson Society think tank, Iran is using social media disinformation to influence the election in favour of pro-independence parties. The hostile regime is utilising fake accounts to pose as Scottish residents sympathetic to independence, and share online material promoting parties backing separation.
None of this will come as much surprise to any regular users of social media, who will easily spot pro-independence accounts with few or any followers, which exist simply to promote propaganda, and troll those on the other side of the debate. The fact that we now know that this is being organised by a hostile foreign regime should alarm all of us, and not just supporters of pro-Union political parties.
Against this backdrop, and these threats, how should voters who want to see a focus on economic recovery and rebuilding our public services, rather than more constitutional division, respond?
The answer is a simple one: use votes wisely, and vote tactically, to maximise the pro-UK presence at Holyrood after Thursday. We know that both Alba and the Greens are seeking to game the system by winning list votes from SNP backers, and pro-UK supporters must learn to be as sophisticated in their approach.
There is little sign of the Liberal Democrats breaking through in the polls, and they will do well to hold the seats that they currently have. As for Labour, despite Anas Sarwar’s best efforts, they are predicted to have their worst-ever result at Holyrood, with the leading psephologist Professor Sir John Curtice saying that they could fall to just 20 seats.
In this election, it is the party list vote – on the peach ballot paper – which will determine the final make-up of Holyrood, and it is therefore more important than ever before. And, in every region of Scotland, a vote for the Scottish Conservatives on the peach ballot paper is the best way to maximise the pro-UK presence at Holyrood.
We now know that smaller anti-independence parties like George Galloway’s vanity project “All for Unity” are nowhere close to the level where they will gain any seats, so every vote for them helps elect more SNP, Green or Alba MSPs.
Conversely, the Scottish Conservatives are now polling more strongly for the party list than for the constituency vote, according to some pollsters, meaning that the most effective pro-Union tactical vote is to back the Tories.
That message seems to be getting through even to Labour supporters. According to Curtice’s reading of the latest polling, some 15 per cent – one in seven – of those voting Labour for the constituencies are lending their party list vote to the Scottish Conservatives.
Referring to the Labour vote, Curtice says: “Only two-thirds of the party’s constituency supporters are backing it on the list. All the other parties are benefiting to some degree from this movement – but the biggest beneficiaries by far are the Conservatives.”
The message for tomorrow seems to be getting through. Do we want to spend years ahead focused on recovery from Covid, rebuilding the economy and getting education and the NHS back on track, or do we want to be dragged into another divisive and damaging independence referendum?
If, like me, you believe that the priority is 100 per cent focus on recovery and nothing else, it is absolutely vital that you use your peach party list vote to back the Scottish Conservatives. In every region of Scotland, that is the best way to stop an SNP majority.
As the results come in this weekend, we will see the course of Scottish politics set for the next five years. For all those who believe that now is not the time for another referendum, then using the party list vote for the Scottish Conservatives is the only choice to make.
Murdo Fraser is the Scottish Conservative candidate for Perthshire North