While they are ostensibly part of the same election for seats in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, Scotland’s four main parties are actually fighting two very different campaigns.
There’s the one between Labour and SNP, in which both are vying for the keys to the First Minister’s official residence at Bute House; and then there’s the battle between the Conservatives and Lib Dems to avoid being the fall guy for the Westminster coalition’s unpopularity north of the border.
In the first campaign the SNP has adopted an unashamedly ‘presidential’ focus on their leader, Alex Salmond. As Ian MacWhirter says: ‘Alex Salmond remains by far the most popular party leader in Scotland with an approval rating greater than all the other main party leaders combined’. Little wonder therefore that the SNP is presenting the campaign as a battle for who the public prefers to be First Minister. Such is the party’s faith in its leader’s appeal, ballot papers will have alongside the SNP logo the words ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’.
Despite Salmond’s popularity, Weber Shandwick’s poll of polls shows Labour in the lead. The reason? One might be the SNP’s raison d’être, namely independence. In a recent poll for the BBC, voters placed a referendum on independence – a key SNP policy – close to the bottom of their priorities. Furthermore, many voters are looking to the Holyrood elections to give David Cameron and Nick Clegg a kicking – and voting Labour seems the best way to do that.
This suits Labour, whose campaign is mostly being fought on Westminster issues. Wary of its leader, Iain Gray’s image problem, the party is seeking to turn May’s vote into a referendum on the government in London. Thus, Scottish Labour’s policies are centred around the need to set out an alternative course to that being taken by the Westminster coalition. If this seems to go against the spirit of devolved politics, it seems to have the SNP scared.
Having won just one seat in the 2010 general election, Scottish Conservatives have spent much of the past year navel gazing. What does it have to do to overcome the hostility Scots still have towards the party? Her failure to come up with any convincing answers has meant that leader Annabel Goldie has been the subject of much hostile secret briefing.
Despite this Goldie is popular with voters. David Cameron even dubbed her his favourite ‘Scottish auntie’ after Goldie came second in voters’ preference for First Minister in a poll following the first leader’s debate. Her no nonsense appeal seems to go down well with some; but predictions of significant gains are probably wide of the mark.
The Conservatives are however likely to come out of May’s elections in much better shape than the Lib Dems.
The Lib Dems are, to put it bluntly, in the fight for their lives. With the poll of polls suggesting the party could lose two-thirds of its seats at Holyrood, for leader Tavish Scott, the mission (impossible?) has been to distance himself from Nick Clegg. Having admitted that the Westminster coalition poses ‘challenges’ for him, Scott used a recent interview to emphasise as best he could his differences with the man who rather inconveniently leads the party in the United Kingdom.
Given Scotland’s somewhat convoluted voting system, the Lib Dems are also seeking to do all they can to position themselves as a viable coalition partner for either Labour or the SNP. For it is likely neither will get a majority of seats. This explains Tavish Scott’s recent assertion that he would have preferred a Labour/Lib Dem government in London, whilst simultaneously refusing to rule out the possibility of the SNP-favoured referendum on independence.
It remains to be seen whether Scott has managed to detoxify the Lib Dem brand. What is clear however is that it is the Lib Dems, not the Conservatives, who are bearing the brunt of the Westminster coalition’s unpopularity. As Martin Kettle has concluded:
In 2007, one Scottish voter in three voted for either the Tories or the Lib Dems. Eleven months after the formation of the Cameron-Clegg coalition, that is down to one voter in six. The Tories are defending their position reasonably well. But the Lib Dems are not. Unless they can turn things round, which no one to whom I have spoken believes they can, they are facing a disastrous 5 May and possibly even long-term oblivion.