Lesley Riddoch: Will SNP meet great expectations?

Election support for the SNP is high but it was also 51 per cent a week before the referendum. Picture: Robert Perry
Election support for the SNP is high but it was also 51 per cent a week before the referendum. Picture: Robert Perry
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Nationalists are riding high ahead of general election, but complacency could cause problems, writes Lesley Riddoch

Does the SNP really have an unassailable lead in the general election campaign? The opinion polls are in no doubt, consistently predicting 40-57 Westminster seats for the SNP – a massive rise from its current six.

But is that likely to be the final result? Is an SNP Scotland the “settled will” of the Scottish people?

Or might it be that the much hyped “inevitability of success” is the only thing that can scupper the SNP’s chance on 7 May?

The precedent is fairly recent. When the 51 per cent Yes poll was published a week before the referendum last year, Yes voters were dancing round the room singing hallelujah whilst the SNP leadership privately fretted that the cause had peaked too soon.

So it may be with polls which predict a Scotland-wide wipeout for Labour and the Lib Dems 100 days before the vote.

What could go wrong? Well, the SNP’s extraordinary ascendancy means it could fall prey to problems which once dogged the mighty Labour Party. There is complacency among some supporters who believe they needn’t turn out to fundraise, canvass or even vote; unrealistic expectations which could turn the election of “just” 20-30 MPs into apparent failure and a slight whiff of entitlement over the presumption that all Yes voters will support SNP candidates enthusiastically and without reservation.

There has already been piqued annoyance in some quarters that Green and SSP candidates will stand, splitting the Yes vote and breaking the tacit agreement that SNP candidates would be given a free run as the fittest hounds in the pack.

Mind you, what agreement? Both the SNP and Greens decided not to form a Yes Alliance – so competition was always inevitable. That’s democracy. And it may not be entirely unhelpful.

As one SNP councillor observed: “Greens often attract Lib Dem voters who simply wouldn’t switch to the SNP. So it all evens out.”

An SNP candidate added: “I think this will be a lot more complicated than we think. I have spoken to No voters voting SNP and Yes voters going ‘back to normal’.”

Some remorseful No voters will vote SNP to make up for the referendum vote, while some Yes voters don’t want a landslide for the SNP. Some Scottish Labour voters feel alienated by Ed Miliband, others feel they must support a leader facing a concerted indyref-style attack by big business and right-wing newspapers.

In effect we are still in the wake of a referendum storm which untethered Scottish voters from the solid quaysides of party loyalty and tradition.

Anything could happen!

Take the latest polling study by Richard Rose from the University of Strathclyde which predicts a Conservative victory after Labour lose 30 seats in Scotland, with the SNP replacing the Liberal Democrats as the third largest party in the Commons.

That kind of scenario could rattle some swithering Labour voters. On the other hand, they may be past rattling. Rose found the key election issue is not “which Englishman will become prime minister but which party can do best for Scotland”. That can only help the SNP.

Likewise the Smith Commission proposals. A post-referendum Panelbase poll found 66 per cent of Scots want the Scottish Parliament to run everything except foreign affairs and defence. The Commission’s proposals don’t do that. But has support for Home Rule been hardened or softened by the passage of time, months of Smith Commission posturing, and intervening domestic realities?

Who can be absolutely sure?

So quite a lot depends on the continuing positivity of the SNP’s campaign, its generosity to former Yes campaign election rivals – and the selection of a diverse bunch of SNP candidates.

Since the advent of the Scottish Parliament, parties have tended to matter more than candidates in general elections – save for long-standing incumbents like Sir Menzies Campbell, Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling, all of whom are now standing down. But for the SNP in 2015, personality, gender and political background of candidates really matter because the party must appeal to two big new Yes constituencies – former Labour voters and women, and both are well organised.

Local Yes groups, Common Weal, Women for Independence, National Collective and Radical Independence are more active than ever, attracting huge crowds at meetings, campaigning (like Women for Indy’s successful opposition to a new women’s prison in Greenock), opening businesses (like the Common Space cafés in Leith and Aberdeen) and becoming involved in policy formation (like Radical Indy’s ten-point People’s Vow).

Are these “movement” groups as important to the SNP as unions have been to Labour? Maybe not. But a new party has been formed since the SNP quadrupled in size – and its new face must be more like its new support. It is – roughly a third of all candidates selected so far are relatively youthful women; Natalie McGarry, founder of Women for Independence, will take on Margaret Curran in Glasgow East; Alison Thewliss will challenge Labour’s Anas Sarwar in Glasgow Central; Joanna Cherry QC, a founder of Lawyers for Yes, will contest Edinburgh South West, a seat vacated by Alistair Darling; Margaret Ferrier is standing in Rutherglen; Dr Philippa Whitford in Central Ayrshire; Corri Wilson in Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock; Michelle Thomson in Edinburgh West; Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh in Ochil and South Perthshire; Carol Monaghan in Glasgow North West; and Kirsten Oswald against Jim Murphy (if he decides to stand) in East Renfrewshire.

That’s an impressive start – although not the 40 per cent Nicola Sturgeon seeks on public boards. Working class or non-professional candidates, however, look thin on the ground.

Nonetheless, the SNP’s general election 2015 team look set to be an impressive, relatively diverse and talented bunch – perhaps too talented for the life of lobby cannon-fodder which may await – and they are already getting to work.

By contrast, London Labour officials told Jim Murphy this weekend that he had “no authority” to tell Scottish MPs to abandon Westminster and concentrate on campaigning at home – a downside of incumbency. A week ago such a spat would have helped Murphy’s campaign to prove he’s not London’s lackey. Now endless internal friction simply raises questions about Murphy’s ability to deliver even if Labour wins.

So can the SNP win big-time? It looks increasingly that only the SNP can prevent it.