They think it’s all over. Chattering Scotland has already held the Holyrood election in its head, and Alex Salmond has won. The bookies have slashed the odds on an SNP victory. Labour are already fighting amongst themselves about whom to blame. Unionists are vainly hoping that the royal wedding might somehow upset the Nationalist bandwagon. Perhaps an outbreak of Britishness will waken Scots from their slumbers, and remind them that Alex Salmond wants to tear the British national family apart. Some hope. It will take more than a few street parties and commemorative mugs to halt this nationalist advance. Momentum is everything and Salmond has got it all right now.
That old cliché about a week being a long time in politics has never been truer than in this Scottish election campaign. This time last week, the poll of polls still indicated that Iain Gray was on course for Bute House. Commentators were picking holes in the SNP’s election manifesto, with its fantasy forecasts for green energy. Now, suddenly, Super Soaraway Salmond is a slam dunk for First Minister. The Sun is already saying it’s them wot won it. Changed days for the tabloid that, on polling day in May 2007, ran a hangman’s noose on its front page as a warning to Scots about the consequences of voting SNP.
But nothing succeeds like success and now everyone wants to be friends with Alex Salmond. Even the Conservative leader, David Cameron is saying that he can work with the SNP, leading to Labour suspicion that there is an ‘understanding’ between the Tories and the Nationalists. There isn’t – but Cameron won’t exactly be heartbroken to see Labour defeated. The other opposition parties are are accusing Alex Salmond of taking the voters for granted and doing premature victory laps. But there’s been remarkably little triumphalism from the SNP leader, who’s adopted the demeanour of the sober statesman preparing for challenges ahead. As well he might. Ministers are only too aware of how much more difficult it’ll be to retain voter affection when the full force of the UK government’s deficit reduction campaign hits home over the next two years.
We saw a portent this week of things to come in the collapse in high street sales in Scotland – even as retail sales bounced back in the UK. Deep cuts in spending, a falling housing market, unemployment and unsustainable personal indebtedness is strangling the Scottish economy. And there is very little, given the Scottish parliament’s lack of economic powers, that any Holyrood government can do about it. Moreover, as Glasgow University’s Centre for Public Policy in the Regions underlined this week, the SNP have made a lot of costly manifesto promises without obvious means of paying for them. If there is a criticism of the SNP’s election campaign, which has gone like clockwork so far, it’s that the manifesto has landed them with a lot of unnecessary hostages to fortune.
But there’s no doubt that the SNP have used this extended election campaign to maximum advantage. The latest Ipsos/Mori poll yesterday, showed the Nationalists with a ten point lead over Labour in both the constituency and list votes. That may be only one poll, but it follows the YouGov survey at the weekend which showed the SNP pulling ahead on the crucial constituency vote. More importantly, it chimes with an unmistakable mood in the constituencies. The ballot may be a fortnight away, but many candidates have almost completed their canvassing, and the returns seem very favourable to the SNP. I keep being told to expect some pretty extraordinary results on May 6th – including defeat for Iain Gray in his own East Lothian constituency. That’s most unlikely – but there’s no mistaking the momentum behind the SNP campaign right now. You can almost feel it. If this lasts until polling day, the SNP will have pulled off an impressive feat. For most of the last 18 months, Labour had a stable five to ten point lead over the Nationalists. Polls tend to narrow during an election, but it is rare for such an established electoral trend to be reversed during a campaign, let alone in seven days.
It is a bitter blow for Labour, and not just in Scotland. The UK Labour leader, Ed Miliband, was looking to a victory in Holyrood to relaunch his own faltering leadership in Westminster. He now faces a double rebuff, in the AV referendum and in the Scottish Parliament, leaving the ‘wrong’ Miliband looking like a two times loser. The post-mortem on Labour’s Scottish campaign has already begun, but I don’t think all the blame is necessarily going to rest on the shoulders of Iain Gray, despite the ‘meatball marinara’ incident last week when he was chased by anti-cuts protesters into a sandwich bar in Central Glasgow. Serious questions have to be raised about the content of the Labour campaign as well as the leadership. Adopting key planks of the SNP policy on the eve of the campaign, on tuition fees, council tax etc. was counterproductive. It looked like cynical opportunism; and frankly it was cynical opportunism. It was treating the voters with contempt, expecting them to believe that Iain Gray had had a blinding flash of revelation about the need for free higher education that just happened to occur on the eve of the election campaign. These U-turns may have made strategic sense, but you need to take time to review and alter key policy positions, otherwise voters think you’re just making it up as you go along. The Labour manifesto also strained the credulity of the voters by promising to “abolish” youth unemployment and create 250,000 jobs.
Labour have also relied too much on the essentially fallacious claim that “Tories are back”. They aren’t back in Holyrood and Scottish voters aren’t so stupid that they can’t see this. Labour also failed to throw a spotlight on the SNP’s main weaknesses. Alex Salmond has been allowed to get away Scot free over the financial crisis and the banking disaster; the ‘arc of insolvency’ and the collapse of Celtic neo-liberalism in Ireland. The SNP ‘s lead policy, independence, is unpopular in Scotland, but no one seems to take it seriously any more. The Megrahi affair was a non starter for Labour, and the SNP brushed off claims that its energy policy was a lot of pious greenwash. Local Income Tax threatened to become a serious issue, especially when Alex Salmond used the courts to block publication of ministerial advice on the impact of the council tax replacement. But the SNP neutralised the issue by shelving the tax until 2016.
Of course there’s still two weeks to go, and anything could happen. Iain Gray might finally locate his mojo. Perhaps the royal wedding will provoke an outbreak of sentimental unionism, or Alex Salmond will condemn the UN bombing in Libya. But the lights are fading in the Labour camp. They tried to fight a 1980s campaign in 2011, and they are nearly out of time.