A novel way of solving the West Lothian Question would be for Scotland to send only SNP MPs – who do not vote on matters only affecting England and Wales anyway – to Westminster.
If recent polling is to be believed, this isn’t as fantastical a notion as it first appears.
Ipsos Mori’s latest Westminster voting intention poll for Scotland found the SNP on 52%, 29 points ahead of Labour and heading for 54 out of 59 Scottish seats based on a uniform swing. Corroboration for this poll came from YouGov, who found the SNP on 43%, 16 points ahead of Labour and well on course to make significant gains in 2015.
With the party about to gather in Perth for their annual Autumn conference, at which Nicola Sturgeon will officially succeed Alex Salmond as leader, what are their chances of converting this poll lead into a long awaited Westminster breakthrough, and could they really be on the verge of becoming the third largest party in the House of Commons?
The SNP’s previous best performance in a UK General Election came in October 1974, when they picked up 30.4% of the vote and 11 seats. At this moment, the party looks well on track to surpass this record on both vote and seat counts.
However nobody should be under any illusions as to the scale of the challenge the Nationalists face in doing so, and those predicting the near wipeout of Labour in Scotland may be in for a surprise. Here we outline six potential obstacles standing in Nicola Sturgeon’s party’s way as they seek to turn the Scottish electoral map SNP yellow next year.
1. Labour’s commanding leads
In 2010, Gordon Brown’s Labour picked up 41 out of 59 Scottish seats. In all but 7 of these seats, Labour enjoyed a lead of over 10,000 votes over the SNP and in none of them were the Nationalists within 5,000 votes of Labour. The average Labour lead over the SNP in these 41 constituencies in 2010 was 13,234 votes.
In short, there is very little ‘low hanging fruit’ for the SNP to pick off as they seek to eat into Labour’s Westminster dominance in Scotland. They need big swings to win these, and while the national polls suggest it is possible, it certainly won’t be easy.
Falkirk (Eric Joyce, outgoing), Dundee West (Jim McGovern), Aberdeen North (Frank Dorran) and Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) are among the lower Labour leads over the SNP and will be firmly in the SNP’s sights.
2. Stubborn Lib Dems
In the 11 seats the Lib Dems won in 2010, the picture is strikingly similar to Labour seats as regards leads over the SNP. In 7 out of 11 seats, the Lib Dems will be defending leads of over 10,000, with leads between 5,000 and 10,000 in the other 4 seats. In only two Lib Dem held constituencies were the Nationalists in second place last time round.
Given that the Lib Dems are polling at around 4% – 6% nationally in Scotland, it would be easy to write them off entirely. But they have shown their ability to dig in in seats where they have the incumbency advantage and will put particular effort into preserving some of their high profile Scottish MPs.
Argyll and Bute (Alan Reid) and Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) where the SNP deficits are only around the 6,000 mark represent two of the SNP’s best opportunities to gain from the Lib Dems. Rumour has it that Alex Salmond himself fancies a crack at toppling Chief Secretary Danny Alexander in Inverness, though he’d have to overtake both Labour and the Liberals to do so. But if anyone can, it’s Salmond, and we may hear more about this in Perth.
As alluded to above, local incumbency is a key factor at General Elections, but is often overlooked by national opinion polls. Starting from a base of just 6 MPs, the SNP have a lot of incumbents to unseat if they are to make a sizable breakthrough in 2015.
The Lib Dems, facing the consequences of coalition with the Tories, will hope that the personal vote for sitting MPs with big majorities and a high public profile such as Charles Kennedy, Michael Moore and Alistair Carmichael, will guard against wipeout. Similarly, Labour will hope that their MPs’ records locally will shore up their position, and will be encouraging all sitting MPs to do as much as possible to reinforce their credentials as effective local champions in the final six months before election day.
At greater risk here may be newer MPs, or those who have not enjoyed the added coverage that comes from being a frontbencher (such as Sheila Gilmore for Labour or Mike Crockart for the Lib Dems), as well as those constituencies where long-serving MPs are standing down (Ming Campbell and Malcolm Bruce for the Lib Dems, and Alistair Darling for Labour being prime examples).
4. Media squeeze
The recent dispute over who should be included in the 2015 televised leaders’ debates (should they go ahead) reminded us of the difficulty for smaller parties – particularly those standing in a particular region or country – to have their voices heard in the mainstream media during the short campaign.
The main news bulletins and UK-wide press coverage invariably portray the campaign as a contest between competing potential Prime Ministers and it will be difficult for the SNP to avoid being squeezed out of the picture, however effective their grassroots and social media campaigning may be. This will present a significant challenge to the party as it seeks to make a breakthrough at Westminster. Their best way round this may be to kick up sufficient fuss at their possible exclusion from debates as to offset the exposure they may otherwise lose.
5. Labour recovery
It is worth remembering that the recent polls showing Labour facing potential annihilation came in the wake of an extremely difficult week for Labour in Scotland following the departure of their leader Johann Lamont in highly acrimonious circumstances, at the same time as the SNP managed a seamless transition to a new leader in Nicola Sturgeon. The party will hope that the 29 point polling deficit recorded by Ipsos Mori represented a nadir from which under a new leader, in the words of the party’s unofficial ‘90s anthem, things can only get better.
6. Mind the back door
As they go on the attack in pursuit of seats from Labour and the Lib Dems, the SNP will need to be mindful of the fact that each of the areas where they currently have Westminster representation voted No in the referendum. If they are to make a significant step forward in Westminster representation, they cannot take their existing seats for granted as they were accused of in the independence campaign. These mostly rural areas are vulnerable to a possible upturn in Conservative fortunes north of the border under the impressive Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, especially if Nicola Sturgeon moves her party further to the left in order to satisfy the rapidly growing and increasingly radical SNP membership base. However it is worth noting that none of the other parties feel sufficiently confident to have placed the SNP seats on their top target lists.
Taken together, these six factors demonstrate the scale of the challenge facing the Scottish National Party come May next year.
With Scottish Labour in the doldrums and the SNP membership base growing by the day, it would be a brave soul who bet against the Nationalists significantly increasing their presence in the House of Commons.
But it would be an even more courageous gambler who staked his lot on seeing an all yellow electoral map of Scotland in 2015.
Photo credit: Hockadilly