Reading the Political Map (April 15 2010)
Westminster voting intention polls in Scotland show that remarkably little has changed since 2005, particularly in the gap between Labour and Conservative where there seems to be a swing of between 0 and 2 per cent. The principal difference seems to be a fairly strong swing from Lib Dem to SNP. What appears to be happening (although the reality is that movements in public opinion are always complex and flow in many directions between any two points) is that there is a floating centre-left vote in Scotland that has chosen differently in different elections. In 2005 the SNP was at a low ebb and the Lib Dems performed strongly with voters critical of Labour on Iraq and the apparent centre-right drift of UK Labour policy. In 2007 the SNP benefited, but in 2010 Labour seem to have rallied some of it and the SNP has also picked up.
In terms of seats, projecting the trends across Scotland shows only one seat changing hands since 2005 (other than Glasgow North East going from Speaker to Labour). This would be an SNP gain from Labour in the highly marginal Ochil & South Perthshire constituency.
However, swing is unlikely to be uniform and there may be changes during the election campaign. In particular, assuming that a drop from 23 per cent to 14 per cent for the Lib Dems in the Scotland polls will lead to a 9-point drop in their support everywhere will give wrong results. The Lib Dems tend to gain support during campaigns, and are also good at playing the First Past the Post electoral system to target the seats they need to win. It would be foolish to count them out in the marginals despite their apparently poor poll showing. One seat where they stand a very good chance is Dunfermline & West Fife, where they won the by-election in 2006; they are also strong contenders in Edinburgh South and not to be dismissed in a few others such as Edinburgh North & Leith, Aberdeen South and maybe Glasgow North (although they may have maxed out their appeal there in 2005). On the other hand, they risk losing a couple, such as the Berwickshire seat and Argyll & Bute, which went to the Tories and SNP respectively in 2007.
Scotland would contribute no Tory gains at all on a uniform swing, even if the UK polls are correct and the Conservatives end up on the cusp of an overall majority. This would naturally have significant implications for Scotland’s place in a Tory Britain. At least, thanks to devolution, the Tories would not need to staff a full Scottish Office.
The Conservatives can hold out the hope that their Scottish MPs could fit into a taxi rather than a phone box, but the target of 11 Tory seats in Scotland is extremely wishful thinking. They have one highly realistic target (Dumfries & Galloway, although even there they face a canny local politician in Russell Brown) and a couple of seats where there is a Tory vote to be mobilised but where they start a long way behind or face other competition – Edinburgh South, after all, has Morningside and Fairmilehead within its boundaries, and there is also Stirling which sent Michael Forsyth to Parliament in 1983-97. They have some hope of ‘decapitation’ of two leading Scottish Labour figures, Jim Murphy in Renfrewshire East and Alistair Darling in Edinburgh South West, but neither looks likely at present. As well as Lib Dem Berwickshire, they might also try to sneak a win in an SNP seat such as Perth & North Perthshire.
The puzzle of the Westminster election is perhaps why the SNP are so poorly rewarded for a significant increase in their support since 2005. The problem for them is that their vote is fairly evenly spread in urban Scotland, so the main result is becoming a slightly better second to Labour across the Central Belt. They start from miles behind even in some seats where they performed well in the 2007 election, such as Falkirk and North Ayrshire. Other than Ochil, Dundee West and perhaps Kilmarnock & Loudoun, they need monster swings to get anywhere. They achieved such a swing in the by-election in Glasgow East in 2008, but the SNP has never before held a Westminster by-election gain from Labour and it would be surprising if Glasgow East did not revert to its usual Labour colours.
The election in Scotland is therefore highly likely to confirm Labour’s dominance in Westminster representation, and see the Lib Dems, Tories and SNP chip away a marginal seat or two each on the basis of local factors. It may set up a rather awkward situation for Scotland, in which a UK Conservative government and a Scottish government run by the SNP have to work together, despite neither party having many MPs at Westminster.