By Mark Stuart
The last four general elections in Scotland have been dull affairs. Very few seats have changed hands, and Labour dominance has been preserved. All that looks set to change if Lord Ashcroft’s recent constituency-based poll of 8,000 Scottish voters is to be believed. He predicts that the SNP could win an astonishing 56 of the 59 Scottish constituencies, with Jim Murphy, Labour’s Scottish leader left clinging onto his East Renfrewshire bastion. Meanwhile, the Conservatives may need to cut cards to determine if they retain their only seat in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale. The Liberal Democrats would be wiped off the mainland of Scotland (including the likeable Charles Kennedy in Ross, Skye and Lochaber) and left only with Orkney and Shetland, the former seat of Jo Grimond.
Were an SNP landslide to occur in May, it would confound everything we academics currently know about the voting behaviour of the Scots. Since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, there has been a marked difference between the electoral performances of the SNP at Holyrood elections compared with Westminster general elections. Scots have increasingly seen the SNP as the best party to defend their interests in a Scottish Parliament, while Labour is seen as having the best chance of winning at Westminster. But now that Scots have figured out that there is a very strong likelihood of a hung parliament in London, and that if they elect a strong SNP contingent, they will be in a better position to argue for a much larger slice of the spending pie (and we know how much Scots love pies).
David Cameron might have been hoping that the ‘No’ vote in the Scottish referendum in September last year might have seen off the nationalists for a generation. In fact, the opposite has happened. There is an old saying that there is nothing like a Scotsman with a grievance. In a nation used to heroic failures, the pain of defeat has galvanised the losing side. SNP membership has quadrupled to 92,000, making it the third largest party in the United Kingdom.
In other words, the Scottish independence referendum re-politicised and reengaged the Scottish voter. The last two years has been spent discussing the constitutional future of Scotland. To use academic parlance, it became the salient issue in Scottish politics. As John Curtice at the University of Strathclyde is fond of pointing out, the challenge for Scottish Labour in the next two months is to turn the general election into a debate about who governs Britain, not Scotland.
There are other crumbs of comfort for Labour. For starters, the largest ever Westminster contingent of SNP MPs was in February 1974 when they won 11 seats. And there have been many false SNP dawns since then. Let’s take the SNP’s 2010 Westminster general election campaign. Alex Salmond called on his countrymen and women to ‘Elect a Local Champion’ in order to make Westminster ‘dance to the Scottish jig’. The SNP targeted 20 seats but only held onto the six it had won in 2005. The eventual result called for not so much a jig as a lament.
With Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck in England, the scale of the SNP surge will determine whether or not Ed Miliband makes it into Downing Street. A relatively small swing back from SNP to Labour before polling day will have a big effect on the number of seats that Labour can cling onto. As Lord Ashcroft points out in his new polling commentary, if the SNP swing from Labour was 10 percent, only two seats would change hands. If the swing were 15 percent, Labour would lose 19 seats. But if the swing to the SNP reached 22 per cent across the board, Labour would lose 36 seats.
One final scenario is worth considering. Let’s assume David Cameron’s Conservatives have a great general election campaign and look likely to win a small majority in England. Such is the anti-Conservative sentiment in Scotland, the more likely it appears Cameron will win in England, the greater likelihood of the Scots switching from SNP back to Labour as polling day nears.
And yet as I caution against predicting an SNP landslide at Westminster, my mind is cast back to the months before the 1997 General Election when no-one could quite believe that New Labour would win a landslide, despite poll after poll presaging it. After all, the polls had been famously wrong in 1992. But myself and Professor Philip Cowley summoned up the nerve each to place a small £5 bet on a spread of an overall Labour majority of 161-180 at odds of 12-1. A tense night followed because if anything Labour pushed to the upper end of our forecasts. Labour ended with an overall majority of 179, and I reinvested my winnings in a copy of The Times Guide to the House of Commons.
In 2015, it should be slowly sinking in that the SNP may be about to win a landslide. Perhaps Gordon Brown needs to come out of requirement to save the day.
Mark Stuart is an Assistant Professor in British Politics at the University of Nottingham. He has worked as the main researcher on the Nuffield study into the 2010 general election.
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