Can Scotland make a difference to a grim, grinding UK election campaign ?

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Westminster MPs voted against the Assisted Dying Bill for England and Wales today. The Scottish Parliament rejected a similar move last May.

Maurice Smith takes an early New Year look at the UK General Election campaign

Welcome to 2015, where British politics takes a further step into the great unknown with a general election whose outcome nobody seriously wants to predict.

Who will be the biggest party, Conservatives or Labour ? Can the Lib Dems survive the backlash to their 2010 coalition decision ?

Have UKIP peaked too soon ? Do the Greens matter ? And where will the Scottish and Welsh nationalists emerge post-election, never mind the Northern Ireland Unionist lobby ?

Pollster Peter Kellner
Pollster Peter Kellner

So many questions, so little time (well, four months and three days actually, until polling day on May 7).

At the weekend, Channel4 News broadcast an interview with YouGov’s Peter Kellner – the man who called the independence referendum outcome correctly last September 18 – as he predicted the Westminster party standings, based on current polling:

Con 285 Lab 275 LibDem 30 SNP 30 UKIP 6.

This makes interesting reading, and fits with the gut feelings of many Scottish observers. Current polling in Scotland theoretically gives the SNP a ridiculously large number of seats – over 40 in some cases.

An SNP total of 25-30 feels much more realistic, and would be an enormous increase on the current six.

Equally it would be a severe blow to Labour in Scotland, hamstrung as it is by faltering membership and a poor post-referendum leadership campaign.

But there are “issues”. From the SNP perspective, the primary issue is the message to the Scottish electorate. At the moment that appears to be: Vote SNP and we will have a big enough group to negotiate on Scotland’s behalf with a minority government in Westminster. BUT we won’t do a deal with the Tories….

That implies the SNP will deal only with Labour. First the party will take a lot of seats from Labour in Scotland, then it will sit down with Ed Miliband and his team to negotiate a deal.

Would Labour do a Westminster deal with Salmond ?
Would Labour do a Westminster deal with Salmond ?

In that scenario it is safe to assume that many Labour MPs would rather do deals with any party but the SNP. Remember Labour “owned” Scotland until recently. In fact, its disasters at Holyrood in 2007 and 2011 stem from its complacency, its assumption that Scotland would also vote Labour because, well, just because…

Would Labour do a deal with the Lib Dems instead? Probably not with Clegg in charge, but possible with Cable? Or will the Labour /LibDem battle in key English marginals become too bitter to allow for coalition?

An obvious alternative would be for the Tories and Lib Dem to stay together for another term, and possibly to come to arrangements with the DUP and UKIP.

The idea of a Depression-era “National Government” – Labour / Conservative coalition – has even been floated by Ian Birrell, a former speech-writer for David Cameron.

We can only watch in wonder.

These scenarios will not be troubling the party leaders directly as they embark on what seems like the most negative campaign in history. But their strategists will be examining every option, partly because the nature of the campaign may be influenced by calculations about what the post May 8 scenario might be.

In Scotland, we can see how the battle-lines are being drawn:

•    SNP: Labour can’t win, and even if they do they’ll address a London / austerity agenda, more cuts, Trident replacement, etc. etc. Vote SNP for devo max;

•    Labour: SNP vote will let the Tories in / shades of 1979 etc. etc. / oil price slump shows we were right and the Nats were wrong, ha ha;

•    Conservatives: Only we can run the economy, and er, didn’t Ruth have a good referendum ?;

•    Lib Dems: Let’s everybody unite to stop Salmond in Gordon, vote Christine Jardine !

Jardine: The 'Stop Salmond' candidate in Gordon
Jardine: The ‘Stop Salmond’ candidate in Gordon

Labour in Scotland is already showing its campaigning hand under Jim Murphy: attempting to be more “Scottish” than its rivals, making a lot of noise about being the “real” party of social justice, and so on.  Murphy may have enough time to stop the rot before May, but probably not enough to reverse it.

After a vibrant 2014, when politics was debated with all the intensity and passion that led up to the referendum in Scotland, we are set for a campaign that threatens to be negative, simplistic and bordering at times on the puerile.

A century after the Great War, here we have the various legions digging in for a long, dirty, exhausting campaign where the winners remain unclear and the prize remains in doubt. Whoever “wins” in 2015 will be the party or parties who have to keep cutting budgets, raising taxes and spreading misery.

However from a Scottish perspective, there are factors that promise to become more than interesting diversions. UKIP’s rush to become the UK’s biggest single party in the European Parliament last year – a mind-boggling thought still after it actually happened – may have come too soon for Farage and his gang.

But the unprecedented swelling of membership experienced by the SNP threatens – or promises – to change everything, and its timing may well have that effect.

There has been talk of revolution in every TV studio and in the streets and suburbs of the UK. But how will the underlying themes – austerity, immigration, EU membership, the NHS, “hope versus fear” – actually manifest themselves on May 7 ?

For Scotland, the General Election outcome will have a significant influence on the Holyrood election a year later.

Right now, only a fool would predict anything other than an SNP victory, and a big one at that.

Smith: Soon to be forgotten ?
Smith: Soon to be forgotten ?

Buried within the current electioneering is the output of the Smith Commission, surely recognised now as a referendum-inspired gimmick rather than anything of meaningful substance; an incoherent package that delivers little of political or economic substance and which simply provided the various parties with a short term fix to their post-poll exhaustion.

Some sure handling of the SNP’s Westminster position after May, and a big victory a year later would entitle the party to press for “real” constitutional action, and certainly the sort that gives Scotland every power whilst continuing to share defence and foreign affairs with England.

But would it give Nicola Sturgeon a true mandate for a second independence referendum ?

That will depend on what is actually written in the SNP manifesto for 2016. Even after the events of last September and later, a Yes vote is by no means guaranteed.

A commitment to Devo Max, on the other hand….