Tom Peterkin: All to play for for second place at Holyrood

WHEN IT comes to predicting the SNP's opposition, Labour and the Tories are too close to call, writes Tom Peterkin

Tory leader Ruth Davidson, left, and Labours Kezia Dugdale are hoping that if their party doesnt win today they will at least come second. Picture: Getty Images

For those used to political and class stereotypes, there would appear to be something topsy turvy about the state of Scottish politics at the moment. Yesterday Tory candidate Annie Wells revealed that she was the daughter of a cleaner who used to tidy the house of a sheet metal worker and trade unionist who was to become a very well-known Labour MP.

As a single mum from the East End of Glasgow who works for Marks & Spencer, Ms Wells would not perhaps be everyone’s idea of a traditional Conservative politician. But her energy and her ability has marked her out as one of the ones to watch amongst the Conservatives hoping to make their way to Holyrood for the first time.

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Yesterday, she introduced Ruth Davidson when the Conservative leader addressed supporters at an eve of election “rally” at Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. In her preamble, Ms Wells told the gathering her mother used to work for Michael Martin, the former House of Commons speaker now known as Baron Martin of Springburn.

“My mum completely confused the former speaker Michael Martin,” Ms Wells told her fellow activists. “She used to be his cleaner and she bumped into him in the shops the other day and she told him: ‘I’m voting Tory on Thursday’.”

It was an anecdote that went down with the Conservative faithful, who for so long have struggled to shake-off a remote, uncaring and aristocratic image.

She may not come from conventional Tory stock, but Ms Wells is just the kind of person Ms Davidson needs at her right hand if she is to succeed in her attempt to make the Conservatives the party of the blue collar as well as the white collar workers. Over the last few weeks, the Conservatives have presented themselves as the party of the workers as she has attempted to usurp Labour as the main party of opposition in Scotland.

During this rather lacklustre campaign, the question of who will come second to Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP has become by far its most compelling question.

Can the Conservatives do what would have been unthinkable a few years ago and overtake Labour? Judging by the mood at the Botanic Gardens yesterday, the Conservative hard corps are very hopeful indeed. It is an optimism based on recent opinion polling that suggests there is barely a cigarette paper between the two parties.

Indeed, this week’s Survation poll put the Conservatives slightly ahead of Labour. According to Survation, the Tories will end up with 24 seats compared with 23 for Labour.

At this late stage in proceedings it would take a brave political analyst to predict the winner of the contest for second place. “It is absolutely nip and tuck,” said one Conservative strategist yesterday.

According to the strategist, the Conservative tactic of putting Ms Davidson at the forefront of the party’s campaign and the idea that only the Tories are capable of acting as an effective opposition to the SNP has worked. In the constituency vote the Conservatives are confident of holding on to Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, where John Lamont has been assiduously building local support for many years. The Conservatives are also hopeful that pro-Union support will be attracted by Ms Davidson’s refusal to countenance a second referendum and will swing in behind them in a couple of other first-past-the post seats.

The real battle, however, will take place for the list seats, which are determined by the second vote. According to the Conservative strategist, this is where Labour has missed a trick. Labour has spent too much time trying to make inroads in the constituencies, even though the SNP could potentially sweep the board in the first-past the post contest. With the SNP in the ascendancy, the battle to become main opposition party will be won or lost on the regional lists.

It is there that the Conservatives believe their ballot paper slogan of “Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition” will play better than Labour’s message of “Kids not Cuts”.

The Conservatives also believe that their vote is more reliable in terms of turnout and are confident their local machines can get the vote out. They are encouraged by the fact that they got 434,000 votes at last year’s General Election – even though it was only enough to deliver a single Westminster seat.

Conservative strategists detect that their vote is more solid than their opponents’ – given the drift towards independence that was evident during the referendum in Labour’s heartlands.

Labour, needless-to-say, views things somewhat differently. Despite their travails in recent years and more recent controversies such as the allegations of anti-semitism, Labour’s backroom number crunchers are confident that they will see off the Tory challenge.

“All our internal polling puts us comfortably ahead,” said one Labour member of staff. “Our messaging of no more cuts is working and we are the only party that is looking forward rather than wanting a re-run of the referendum.

“On the doorsteps we are also finding that although people may like Ruth, there is still a big psychological barrier in the way of voting Tory.”

There are only a few more hours to wait before we find out whether the likes of Annie Wells have made it to Holyrood – an outcome that would surely show that the anti-Tory psychological barrier had at least been partially breached.