by Hazel Lewry
As Labour’s Iain Gray faces an increasingly uphill struggle amidst growing unhappiness with his leadership and Labour policy, the voting public appears to be steadily turning its back on the red rose.
With the most recent polls showing the SNP overtaking Labour and a report in the Mail on Sunday showing that another Lib-Dem candidate has quit the race, the SNP have published further polling evidence showing that the they have the big momentum. Labour’s early lead in the polls has been wiped out, and former Lib-Dem voters are displaying a tendency to switch to the SNP and not to Labour as Labour strategists had hoped.
The Mail on Sunday reports that Eddie McDaid has dropped out of the Central Scotland list for the Lib Dems. Amidst signs that the Lib Dems are in collapse, core data from the ICM poll of 14-15 March gives the first indication that disaffected Lib Dem voters are increasingly deciding to switch their votes to the SNP.
This in spite of the fact Labour entered the campaign with poll leads that could only be described as devastating for the Nationalists. Many in the media were proclaiming that the keys to Bute House were already as good as in London’s hands once again. In some cases the poll gap predicted a Labour leader over the SNP by as many as 15 points. However as the campaign has progressed and issues have clarified the SNP has steadily closed the gap.
Of those who voted Lib Dem at last year’s General Election, only 25% claimed to be sticking with the brand of the yellow rose at the time of polling, although that number may be even lower now. 40% of Lib Dem voters remained undecided. Those who declared an intention to switch to another party split as follows: SNP: 16%, Lab: 9%, Green: 2%, Con: 1%
The SNP’s canvassing information on the ground is understood to back these numbers up. As the Lib-Dem vote is melting away, the SNP is focusing on a number of seats where the party strategists believe gains are possible, such as the two Highlands seats where Jamie Stone and John Farquhar Munro are standing down, and also Midlothian South, Tweeddale & Lauderdale.
Commenting on the progress of the campaign so far, SNP Campaign Director Angus Robertson said: “The SNP have the big momentum in this campaign, and we believe that we can win the trust of voters.”
Certainly the way that the polls are trending so far supports the view that the Nationalists’ positive message is going down well on the doorstep. The SNP is highlighting their record in office with over 80% of manifesto pledges kept despite being a minority administration, their strong and experienced team, and their vision for the future.
An SNP source stated: “Iain Gray’s negative approach has definitely registered with people, and we are finding that former Lib Dem voters who are looking for something better are switching to the SNP rather than Labour by a factor of two to one – which is a very encouraging feature of the early stages of the campaign. We are taking nothing for granted, and will continue to work hard to earn every vote.”
Additionally with the Lib-Dem campaign falling apart Iain Gray also found his own problems building into in a leadership crisis, as Labour MPs criticised his performance in the first televised leaders’ debate on STV.
Commenting on yesterday’s Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said the poll highlighted the key weakness of Labour’s campaign as which he identified as: ” … the lack of a personality capable of reaching out to voters”. He further stated: “Iain Gray is little known and not much liked, even amongst those who actually voted for the party last time.”
The divisions opening so swiftly within the Labour ranks have been precipitated by Iain Gray dismal performance in his first televised debate. An STV survey after the debate found that of the 991 people polled by ScotPulse, STV’s online polling system, 87% thought Alex Salmond won the debate, with only 5% siding with Iain Gray.
This devastating appraisal of the Labour leader’s performance was followed by 74% of respondents saying that their perception of the Labour leader changed negatively after watching the debate. For the SNP the news was positive, 53% of respondents went on record acknowledging that they had a more positive view of Alex Salmond following the debate.
In the days following the televised Labour debacle, the Scotsman reported several Labour MPs have admitted they are “very worried” about the party’s campaign and made reference to Iain Gray’s lacklustre performances. Saturday’s poll, which saw the SNP overtake Labour on the constituency vote, is compounding Grays’ woes.
Labour’s gloom is being magnifed even by the mainstream Scottish media who despite a reputation in some quarters for regurgitating Labour press releases are unable to ignore Labour’s difficulties with policy and performance, specifically in three key areas – Council Tax, tuition fees and funding public projects.
Reflecting the fact Labour increased Council Tax by 60% when they were last in office, in the STV debate Iain Gray said it was likely that Tax would have increased under Labour if they had been in office since 2007.
As the Evening Times of 30th March 2011 reported: “Gray caught out over Council Tax … Labour leader Iain Gray has admitted his party may have put up Council Tax had it been in power …”
Also in the STV debate Gray let slip that free tuition may not be a firm pledge for Labour after all. As Iain Macwhirter wrote in the Herald of 31st March 2011: “Iain Gray added the weasel words ‘if we can find a way’ to his promise to keep higher education fee-free, which allows him a get-out if Labour wins in May. Students take note.”
Interviewed on BBC’s Good Morning Scotland on 29th March Iain Gray said he would scrap the Scottish Futures Trust funding scheme on ‘day one’. The Futures Trust is currently building 43 schools, 3 colleges, 2 major hospitals, 9 major transport projects as well as millions of pounds worth of other investments and working with 12 councils to build affordable homes.
Such an action would at least delay those projects and at worst could see them cancelled if it was taken. Delays would also put at risk the jobs the scheme has created in the construction industry at a time when this sector is struggling to get out of recession.
As the election progresses, the problems inherent in Labour’s strategy since 2007 become more and more apparent. By espousing opposition for opposition’s sake, and allowing itself to be defined in negative terms (if it’s an SNP policy then Labour is obliged to oppose it), the party has left itself without any framework for constructive government. More and more the voting public is seeing Labour as politically hollow, a negative and obstructionist force which cannot be trusted to put Scotland’s interests first as the country faces the savage cuts in public spending imposed by the Westminster Con-Dems. Iain Gray’s manifest shortcomings as leader merely put these problems into sharper relief. And these are Labour problems which the SNP will use to its full advantage.