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politics, scotland

Two parliamentary elections in two years and two independence referendums: prepare for voter fatigue in 2016

SCOTLAND’S voters could be forgiven for complaining about election fatigue. They had the nerve-racking excitement of the 2014 independence referendum, which divided Scotland down the middle. Then there was the Tsunami General Election of 2015 when the Unionist parties were swept into political oblivion.

Now Scots are being invited to deliver another landslide to the SNP in the Scottish Parliament election in May. And this could be followed by an in-out referendum on British membership of the European Union, if David Cameron gets his act together. We’ll all be digging out our Yes and No posters from two years ago. Though this time Nationalists will be talking about being “better together” in Europe and No voters will be accusing pro-Europeans of resorting to Project Fear.

Indeed, we could be using those Yes/No stickers for a third time because there is the possibility of another referendum on Scottish independence if the UK as a whole votes to leave Europe while Scotland elects to stay. Nicola Sturgeon has said such an outcome would be one of those “material changes in circumstances” that could trigger a repeat indyref. Though she’d presumably want to leave a decent interval before calling one. Three referendums in two years would be constitutional overload and likely to lead to a revolt by overstressed voters fearing for their sanity.
At any rate, the First Minister hasn’t exactly been ramping up expectation of another independence referendum any time soon. It would distract from her main focus of 2016, which is winning her own personal mandate from the people of Scotland in May. Nicola Sturgeon has been First Minister since 2014 without being elected by anyone – the post was handed to her by a departing Alex Salmond after the referendum defeat. This is her chance, and she is determined not to blow it.

However, the weight of expectation generated by the SNP’s General Election Tsunami means anything less than another landslide will be seen as a setback for Sturgeon. She has made clear that she expects to retain the SNP’s overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, meaning she’ll have more seats than all the other parties combined. This is in many ways unfortunate.

Holyrood wasn’t really designed for majority government, indeed, the electoral system is supposed to prevent it. Many believe the Scottish Parliament works best when the governing party has to work in co-operation with other parties. Alex Salmond argued precisely this back in May 2007 when he hailed the “new politics” of minority and consensus. And it is certainly how the founding fathers and mothers of devolution expected the additional member system to work.

Headstrong prime ministers like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair gave Westminster’s first-past-the-post system a bad reputation. Both received three-figure Commons majorities on the basis of significantly less than 50% of the popular vote. This meant the prime minister of the day could more or less do whatever they wanted. Now, opposition figures in Scotland and journals like the Spectator have been trying to raise the spectre of political monopolism by the SNP. They have a point, but undermine it by claiming Scotland is a “one-party state”, when Scotland has at least five major parties vying for votes in May.

Nicola Sturgeon is on record as saying she thought the Scottish Parliament worked very well when Alex Salmond led a minority government between 2007 and 2011. Though she went on to say that it worked so well, the Scottish voters gave the SNP its first ever landslide. That was in the 2011 Holyrood election. At 69 seats out of 129 this was a bonsai landslide compared with the recent General Election four years later when the SNP won 56 of 59 seats. Such are the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, which allows parties to win 95% of the seats on 50% of the votes cast. In Holyrood it is much more difficult to achieve an absolute majority.

But whether majority governments are good or bad is now academic. Nicola Sturgeon is expected to win landslides whenever she submits herself to an election, and that cannot continue indefinitely. Indeed, it is remarkable that the SNP is so popular after nearly eight years in government. It would be inconceivable in Westminster, where governments invariably succumb to the phenomenon of “mid-term blues” as events pile upon events and mistakes lead to voter disenchantment.

There has been no shortage of events in Scotland, what with Police Scotland going rogue, the Forth Road Bridge cracking up, SNP MPs resigning amid scandal, educational attainment lapsing, the Scottish economy languishing, inequality rising, and A&E waiting times lengthening. There is enough material here for the typical mid-term slump in popularity that affects even the most successful governments – like Margaret Thatcher’s in the 1980s.

But the SNP has not only weathered these storms, it has gained ground. Nicola Sturgeon and her party remain unnaturally popular. In the final three months of 2015, five opinion polls reported on Holyrood voting intentions and in none of them has the SNP’s lead over Labour fallen below 30%. In the latest TNS poll, in December, the SNP are placed at 58%, 37 points ahead of Labour, and set to win 78 of 129 Holyrood seats.

Opposition parties’ frustration is palpable. Some complain that the SNP is a “cult” and that Nicola Sturgeon must have hypnotised Scots with Nationalist mumbo jumbo. How else could Labour, which used to dominate Scottish politics, be left bumping along in the low to mid 20s with the Tories, in some polls, creeping up behind them?

This has led to speculation that the Tories could replace Labour as the main opposition party in 2016. Two autumn opinion polls from You Gov and Mori put the Scottish Tories at 19% and 18% respectively in the constituency vote and only a handful of points behind Labour. The Tories won 14% of the constituency vote in the 2011 Holyrood election.

Conservative websites and newspapers have been talking up a Tory revival in Scotland on the grounds that there “must” be a potential Unionist vote of around two-million based on the numbers who voted No in the independence referendum. Kezia Dugdale has made clear that in any future independence referendums, Labour politicians will be able to campaign for Yes as well as No. The Tories, therefore, are arguably the only “true” Unionist party left in the game, now that the Liberal Democrats have fallen out of contention.

Ruth Davidson has certainly made her mark. According to Professor John Curtice, the Scottish Tory leader is better known by voters than Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, but then she has been around longer. Davidson drew praise when she rebelled against the UK Government over the abolition of working family tax credits last year, and was vindicated when George Osborne U-turned in his autumn statement.

She has also positioned the Tories as the only party committed to keeping tax at present levels when the Scotland Bill devolves to Holyrood the power to set rates and income tax bands in 2017. She may even pledge to reduce them, though this would require explaining where the public spending cuts would fall. There is certainly a gap in the Scottish political market for a low-tax, right of centre party that could appeal to middle-class voters fearful of Nicola Sturgeon’s left-wing rhetoric and anxious about a future independence referendum. However, it is still not clear that the Scottish Tories are that party.

The General Election showed little sign of a Tory breakthrough – indeed their share of the vote was at its lowest in a century. There is no indication that the Scottish voters have become more favourably disposed to the policies of the UK Conservative Government. It’s all very well departing from the UK Tory line on individual policies like tax credits, but Ruth Davidson is still held collectively responsible for the rest of Conservative UK policy on welfare, Trident, Europe, Syrian bombing, immigration and even the NHS.

Health may be a devolved matter, but the Conservative market reforms south of the Border still influence voter attitudes in Scotland. The UK party’s Eurosceptic tone also jars in Scotland, where support for remaining at the EU appears strong. An Ipsos/Mori poll for STV in November found that support for staying in the EU is at 65% in Scotland against 22% for leaving and 13% undecided. The SNP’s opposition to extending bombing against Isis to Syria was also a reflection of antipathy among Scottish voters to new wars in the Middle East.

However, while the Tory revival may have been over-hyped, the Labour collapse has not been. At this stage before the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, Labour was 10 points ahead of the SNP; now it is 30 points behind. The Scottish party is in dire straights even though it has a credible new leader in Kezia Dugdale. She honoured her promise to make the Scottish Labour Conference a genuine policy-making forum and it responded by passing a resolution against the renewal of Trident, which should appear as part of Labour’s election manifesto for Holyrood in 2016. The fact that Holyrood has no power over defence is beside the point – neither does the Scottish Government. The move is more symbolic of Labour’s determination to follow its own path in Scotland.

Dugdale also committed her party to reversing the Scottish Government’s proposed cut in Air Passenger Duty, and raising the threshold for higher-rate tax to compensate poor families for the loss of tax credits. This was a landmark: the first time any party in Scotland had pledged to use Holyrood’s tax powers to hit middle-class taxpayers. Not increasing the threshold for higher-rate income tax would leave Scottish basic-rate taxpayers paying more than their counterparts in England and Wales. Hitherto, the only tax increases that Labour and the SNP have seemed willing to entertain have been on those earning over £150,000.

Dugdale challenged Sturgeon to put her money where her social democratic mouth was and match this commitment. But the First Minister wisely bided her time, arguing that it was not clear yet that the fight over the UK Tory tax credits cut had been lost. She was vindicated in the autumn statement when George Osborne scrapped the cuts planned for April 2016 (though not the reductions in tax credits that will accompany the introduction of Universal Credit three years later).

It’s not entirely clear where this leaves Kezia Dugdale’s tax increases and they were hardly mentioned during the debates following John Swinney’s Scottish Budget in November. This could mean she wasn’t serious about them and only raised the prospect to embarrass the Scottish Government, or that she is keeping her powder dry for the future. Either way, the Labour fox was shot and Dugdale had lost her key narrative for the Holyrood elections.

The episode showed that the new Labour leader had drive and determination to try new approaches. But it also confirmed that Nicola Sturgeon is a politician with exceptionally sound political judgement. Scotland’s love affair with the First Minister continues and the country seems to give her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to issues like the educational attainment gap between children from well-off postcodes and those from poorer ones. She has staked her reputation on narrowing this gap, and it’s a tall order. But there seems little likelihood that this issue will decide the outcome of May’s Holyrood election.

When the campaign begins in April, the Conservatives will bang on about tax, even though the tax powers do not go live until 2017 at least; the LibDems will complain about big government and Police Scotland; the Scottish Greens, who hope to more than double their representation, will call for tax increases and commitment to missed CO2 targets. Labour will also call for tax increases, at least on those with very high incomes. Kezia Dugdale will also claim that the SNP has failed to honour its promises on education and the NHS and has allowed Scotland’s economy to fall significantly behind the growth rate of the rest of the UK.

The SNP will have just one policy to address all these issues, which can be summed up as: “Trust Nicola.” The party will avoid giving specific pledges on tax and spending on the grounds that it will be some years before the tax powers bed down. The fiscal framework which is supposed to prevent Scotland losing out by the tax reforms pledged in the Scotland Act has yet to be negotiated (indeed, the Scottish Parliament still has to ratify the new legislation and there is a remote chance that it might refuse to do so if the phasing out of the Barnett Formula leaves Scotland worse off).

The SNP are hoping that the race for second place between Labour and the Conservatives will become the story of the 2016 election, and they may be right. This would divert attention from the catalogue of failures, real and imagined, blamed on the Scottish Government. It is hard to see how the SNP can lose in May, and racing certainties make bad news. Politics needs a real contest to come alive and with Nicola Sturgeon so far ahead, there is nothing much more to say.

Indeed, it may well be events in the aftermath of the Holyrood election that provide the real political story of 2016. And that will depend on whether or not David Cameron delivers on his stated aim of a referendum on Europe. If so, all bets will be off.


From Sunday Herald, 3/1/16

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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