The Scottish polls and a tale of two coalitions

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Labour's proximity to the Tories within Better Together may have damned it forever

By Philip Johnstone

The recent polls returned by Lord Ashcroft show a Scotland painted yellow with SNP colours.

Of course it covered only 16 seats and the results in May most likely won’t be as catastrophic for Labour as this and other polls suggest, but the results can’t be ignored. The SNP will most likely be the third biggest party in the UK and completely dominate the Scottish political landscape.

The situation we are in now baffles many from outside Scotland. We had a referendum a mere six months ago resulting in a vote against independence by 10 per cent. Now Scotland is on the cusp of voting overwhelmingly for a party which wants independence.  How can this be?

Of course the voting habits of Scots have evolved with devolution, leading to wildly different results in Scotland and Westminster for the SNP and Labour.  By the time of the 2016 Holyrood election the SNP will have been in power for 9 years, including the emphatic 2011 victory.  The rise of the SNP to power has converged with public disillusionment with UK Labour policies notably the Iraq War, the free rein given to bankers and the vow to continue austerity economics.

2003 Iraq War ProtestDuring the SNP’s time in power Labour and the Conservative have governed at the UK level. Indeed it was the last Labour Government that introduced so many of the policies which damaged the party in Scotland and the Tories remain as unelectable as ever in Scotland. Nevertheless Scotland returned 41 Labour MPs in 2010 with the SNP coming a distant third with 6. It would seem that the old message that “only a Labour vote can stop the Tories” still had the desired effect despite being demonstrably untrue.  But if Lord Ashcroft’s polls are anything to go by, this situation will not be repeated.

While the motivations behind voting intentions are complex, some primary factors can be identified.  The effect of coalition Government on the public should not be underestimated. This is clearly demonstrated that voters needn’t be corralled into voting for one the “main” parties merely through fear of the other getting into power.

The Tory – Lib Dem coalition illustrated the mechanism by which voting for a smaller party isn’t a wasted vote, whereas before 2010 coalition Government had been an abstraction not seen in peacetime. The way the Lib Dems, a party supposedly on the left, adopted the Tories’ catastrophic austerity economics hasn’t destroyed public trust in coalition governments, just in the Lib Dems.

The referendum has been the biggest political catalyst Scotland has seen in living memory, maybe ever. Grassroots campaigners and groups such as National Collective, RIC, Common Weal and Women for Independence made the Yes side so vibrant and engaging.

The Better Together campaign was largely devoid of such grassroots campaigning and consisted of the unification of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dems in a coalition to fight independence. The absence of any grassroots involvement and the sight of the supposedly diametrically-opposed Labour and Tory parties gleefully campaigning together convinced many that the daily theatrics in the House of Commons are a poor imitation of democracy.

These two coalitions could provide an answer as to why so many No voters are willing to vote SNP in May. The first showed that smaller parties can make a difference to the composition of the government.  The second coalition between all main Westminster parties during the referendum hurt Labour the most and may prove fatal for the party in Scotland, especially with signs of a new party of the left emanating from the Scottish Left Project.

Caught up in its desperate attempts to save the union, Labour aligned itself so closely with the Tories they were indistinguishable and like one of the magic eye posters that were popular with children, once the image jumps out at you wonder how you ever missed it.

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