Lesley Riddoch: Tactical voting comes in many forms

Nicola Sturgeon speaks as she launches the party's political manifesto in Edinburgh. Picture: AFP/Getty
Nicola Sturgeon speaks as she launches the party's political manifesto in Edinburgh. Picture: AFP/Getty
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The mixed bag of Yes supporters could bring in some interesting results in May’s election, writes Lesley Riddoch

Is dissatisfaction with “Both Votes SNP” a conspiracy by the Unionist press, a foolish piece of wilfulness amongst some Yes voters or evidence that Scottish politics is finally returning to normal?

Weekend papers published academic support for Professor John Curtice’s contention that an SNP list vote in the forthcoming Holyrood elections might well be a wasted one. Prof Curtice observed that unless opinion polls have been dramatically and persistently wrong, the SNP will get so many seats in the first past-the-post “constituency” section, that not much more will come their way in the second “top-up” part of the vote. Of course, the SNP is right to point out nothing’s certain and opinion polls have been wildly wrong in the recent past – though it’s worth noting pollsters’ mistakes in 2015 were largely based on surveys south of the Border – their predictions about voting patterns in Scotland were generally accurate.

Still, SNP supporters are right to say that if voters want to be 100 per cent certain of electing an SNP government with a bigger majority than last time and if no other issue motivates them – both votes SNP is indeed the right way to go.

But in the minds of many Yes voters other things matter too.

Voters who want to maximise Holyrood’s pro-independence contingent have been underwhelmed by the SNP’s heavy-handed insistence that such “voter promiscuity” will cause disaster.

There’s also concern that complacency and arrogance may come to plague an all-controlling SNP as they once plagued Scottish Labour. Many Scots wanted Labour taken down a peg or two and shaken from the torpor that afflicted their upper echelons for a decade. But that job’s largely done. Scottish Labour is now fighting for its electoral life, facing the threat of coming third to the Conservatives. Still the formidable SNP press machine is gunning for Scottish Labour every day. Is that wise for a party with an unprecedented opinion poll lead? Kicking opponents when they’re down doesn’t look pretty and doesn’t feel fair. Yes voters will ignore Labour until its stance on independence changes but the SNP could look like bullies if they keep kicking the living daylights out of a party that’s 34 points behind in the polls. As the late William McIlvanney once said, “Scotland’s motto is not ‘wha’ daur mess wi’ me’, it’s ‘that’s no fair”. The SNP has correctly challenged Westminster and the BBC over fairness. It’s now in danger of being hoist by its own petard.

Secondly there’s a worry that since the SNP has become a mass party – representing everyone from “tartan tories” to socialists – it’s adopted a “don’t rock the boat” strategy in the sphere of domestic policy to avoid losing support. Can the SNP be both gamekeeper and poacher in Scottish politics – government and critic? Indeed, since structural reform in many areas looks more important and urgent than the current plethora of projects, pilot schemes and funding promises, can the SNP alone take Scottish democracy to the next level? The jury is out.

Many voters were prepared to back the party while it undertook two long overdue acts of spring-cleaning. Facing down a hollowed out Labour Party and facing up to an overbearing Westminster government were acts of civic renewal in the eyes of many Scots. Those voters implicitly understood that a muscular party was needed to challenge the Leviathans of Labour and Westminster and since the SNP fitted the bill other priorities were put on hold – for a time. But they didn’t disappear – and now times have changed.

Moments of emergency justify tough rules -- no straying from the party fold and all hands to the same, single tiller. The long-running crisis of class and inequality gave that pole position to Labour for many decades. The fusion of those unresolved issues and the long running crisis over national sovereignty handed it in turn to the SNP. But no electorate in a Western democracy like our own can remain in battle mode forever. Sooner or later, the full spectrum of underlying political preference was bound to re-emerge. Perhaps that’s happening now

Admittedly if the rest of the UK votes for a Brexit whilst Scots do not, we may be back at the constitutional front pretty soon. But if it doesn’t, and since the SNP itself has no plans for a second referendum in the next five years, voters may conclude a focus on improving governance within Scotland is now in order. And on that, opinions about the efficacy of the SNP differ.

Green and socialist voters have bitten their lips and backed the SNP for years – since before the long indyref campaign and during the 2015 general election. But they never have been primarily SNP voters. They are not splitting the vote – they are voting Green or RISE on the List because that’s their first preference and SNP in the constituency section because their preferred small parties currently lack the cash and perhaps the smeddum to stand there too.

Meanwhile the growth of thrawn, independent-mindedness unleashed by the Yes campaign continues apace. Empowered by raising money, staffing stalls, mass canvassing and meeting every month for the past two to three years via non party-political platforms like Common Weal, Women for Indy and RIC, Yes campaigners within the SNP are pushing for more radical policy positions than the leadership has been prepared to accept or even discuss at party conference. The different agenda that’s been developed by empowered local groups probably lies behind the creation of “Maximise Yes” – an unknown group backing an SNP constituency vote and a Green second vote on the Lothian List to guarantee the election of the highly respected land reform campaigner Andy Wightman.

Anyone suggesting this is an “inside job” overlooks the nationwide respect for the author of “Who Owns Scotland” and “The Poor Had No Lawyers” and his decades-long efforts, working on the breadline, to turn the unfashionable subject of land reform into a mainstream issue.

In short, the indyref has created an epidemic of independent-mindedness amongst Yes voters, which has only now found a safe opportunity to express itself. Despite recent voting patterns and the Electoral Reform Society warnings last week about a fondness for predominant parties, Scotland’s default may yet be a Rainbow Parliament.

And that harms neither Scottish governance nor the case for independence.