Great expectations (1 May 2007)
There has been so much interest in the Scottish parliament elections because so much is at stake, writes Lewis Baston
The Scottish parliament elections have dominated the thoughts of commentators on Thursday’s poll because the stakes for Labour and the SNP are so high, and the powers of the parliament so strong.
The SNP is trying once again to break into Labour’s strongholds in the central belt of Scotland, where most of the population lives and which has never yet succumbed to the nationalists’ charms.
There are a number of seats where the SNP has a sizeable vote and a local government base and where they should expect to win constituencies from Labour.
Among these seats are Cumbernauld & Kilsyth, Kilmarnock & Loudoun, Dundee West and Linlithgow, and the next line of defence for Labour in East Kilbride, Fife Central, Livingston and Glasgow Govan.
The last of these has repeatedly been denied to the SNP deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon; could this at last be her year?
The Labour majorities in many other seats in 2003 were so mountainous that it is nearly impossible to imagine them falling, which would be necessary if the SNP are to achieve the high end (50 or more seats) of their projected tally of seats.
The final balance between Labour and SNP will be affected by the cross-traffic between the big two and the smaller parties.
The Conservatives are of pretty marginal significance, but just as the SNP will hope that the Tories can knock out Labour in Dumfries, Labour will be hoping the Conservative MSP in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, Alex Fergusson, will hold his highly marginal seat.
The PR system should mean that the number of seats achieved by both the Conservatives and Lib Dems should not alter greatly (17-20 each) as long as their shares of the regional list vote are not squeezed.
The Socialists, who did well in 2003 but have since split, are expected to fall back from their 6 seats to 2 at best, and possibly none at all.
Expectations about the Greens vary. Early poll-based predictions of them being similarly cut back were probably unrealistic. The party should absorb some of the anti-Labour vote that does not feel committed to the SNP, and get something between 4 and 8 seats.
So, barring a late swing in opinion (for which Labour devoutly hopes) the outcome should be something like SNP 45, Labour 40, Lib Dem 18, Conservative 17, Green 6 and others 3; not as catastrophic for Labour as it might be, but still abject enough.
Things have got to the stage that the smallest of Labour leads would count as some sort of moral victory.
In the coalition formation game, the Conservatives have counted themselves out, leaving the Liberal Democrats in the position of kingmaker between the SNP and Labour.
While there should be absolutely no presumption that the largest party is somehow “entitled” to the position of first minister, it seems the most likely outcome.
Even so, there is a reasonable chance that even with the support of the Lib Dems, the largest party will not have a majority in the Scottish parliament and an arrangement with the Greens may be necessary. Lib Dem plus SNP, in one form or another, seems probable.
The implications of such a result and such a government emerging are potentially huge, leaving aside the temporary but intense humiliation of Labour being beaten in Scotland for the first time since 1955.
While the Lib Dems would insist on various safeguards on the core SNP demand of an independence referendum, any SNP-led government would be an exercise in building support for independence.
The relationship with the Westminster government would be confrontational and prickly on every issue.
Further constitutional wrangling would be likely to alienate English electors and fuel demands for measures such as English-only votes for some issues at Westminster.
Within a couple of years, Scottish independence could be more popular south of the border than north of it.
The unity of the Liberal Democrats would be under severe strain if they end up in the curious position of joining forces with Labour at Westminster after the next election while sustaining the SNP in Holyrood.
It would be like betting on both contenders in a dog fight.
With all this excitement over the devolved bodies, it should not be forgotten that Scotland’s 32 local authorities are also up for election and, thanks to the Scottish parliament, the electoral system has changed to the single transferable vote (STV) which will relate votes and seats more closely in council elections and abolish single-party fiefdoms.
The immediate partisan effect of the change is to give the SNP a foothold in many councils where it has previously polled a respectable vote that did not translate into seats; there is a net transfer of something like 115 seats from Labour to SNP from this source alone.
The effects of STV in this election, and the working of councils after the dust settles, may prove an example for future developments in England and Wales.