It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The widely held assumption that it would be the SNP who would see their support ebb away in the aftermath of the rejection of independence has thus far proven to be way, way off the mark. Today’s Lord Ashcroft constituency polls are only the latest indicator of that.
One of the first national voting intention polls in Scotland after the referendum was accompanied by a projected electoral map of Scotland which was almost entirely bright SNP yellow, with just a few little red spots dotted across the central belt. A striking image, but surely fanciful, we thought.
There was a temptation to dismiss those early post-September 18th polls as the result of voters still in referendum mode, caught up in all the excitement of the Yes bandwagon. Many expected that when the reality of a General Election kicked in, people would revert to Labour to boot out the Tories. These assumptions, which were already losing traction, are today firmly thrown out the window.
Of the 14 Labour held seats polled by Lord Ashcroft, 13 are projected to fall to the SNP. These are not ‘marginal’ Labour-SNP seats – there was barely any such thing in 2010 – they are seats in which Labour enjoyed an average margin of victory over the SNP last time round of 37.3%. They are in some of Labour’s most traditionally rock-solid heartlands, and some are represented by very ‘well-kent faces’, including the Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander and the Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran.
That average Labour lead of over 37% has vanished in these polls to be replaced by an average SNP lead of almost 12% – a swing in the order of 25%. If borne out on May 7th these would represent some of the most staggering turnarounds in Westminster electoral history – we’re talking about a whole series of ‘Michael Portillo moments’ here, and then some. (Labour’s Stephen Twigg achieved a swing of 17.4% against Portillo in Enfield in 1997 – a mere trifle!)
The impact of losses on such a scale on Labour’s hopes of forming the next government is massive. While most current projections continue to show Labour most likely to emerge as the largest party, the margins are so small that every single seat matters. Labour is expected to make significant gains in their top target seats in England. They simply cannot afford for these gains to be cancelled out by the loss of so many previously safe Scottish seats. While these are not Labour losses that directly benefit the Conservatives, David Cameron will be reading the Ashcroft numbers today with relish.
So, is there any consolation to be had for Labour today? On the face of it, it seems difficult to imagine that there could be, but let’s see what we can do…
Firstly, many of the 13 seats are not totally beyond saving. Dundee West, where the SNP have opened up a 34 point lead is too far gone; so too may be Cumbernauld, where the deficit is projected at 18 points. But with those two seats stripped out, the average SNP lead is reduced from 12% to 9%. This would require an average swing back to Labour of a comparatively modest 4.5% – not entirely beyond the realms of possibility.
A further crumb – and it is little more than that – of comfort comes from Ashcroft’s findings is that in the Labour-held seats he polled, 73% of those saying they planned to vote SNP said they would definitely not vote for Labour, leaving 27% who might – just might – be tempted back to the Labour fold. In addition, 69% of those voting SNP in Labour held seats would favour a Labour-SNP coalition as the outcome of the election, with 5% actually preferring a Labour majority. At least some of these voters with a preference for a Labour or Labour-led government may be susceptible to Labour’s messaging that only a vote for Labour can keep the Conservatives out.
My final note of consolation for Labour is that Lord Ashcroft has acknowledged that most of the Labour held seats he polled overlap with those areas where Yes performed best in the referendum – Glasgow, Dundee, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire. There is at least the possibility then that the picture may not be quite so bleak elsewhere. Though that is by no means guaranteed, and we shall have to wait and see what the next round of Scottish constituency polling suggests.
What is absolutely clear is that Labour has a monumental task ahead to avoid near annihilation in Scotland. Time is running out for them to turn it around, though it is still possible to do so. They will need to treat every single one of their Scottish seats as a marginal and mobilise every activist they can muster. The ground operation will be critical and the surge in SNP membership gives them a clear advantage in this regard. It is likely that Labour will be giving serious consideration to transferring resources from safer seats elsewhere in the country to try to shore up the Scottish base.
The national picture is important too of course. These polls pre-dated Jim Murphy and Gordon Brown’s ‘Vow Plus’ intervention this week – it remains to be seen whether such moves can have any impact. Expect all leading Scottish Labour figures to continue to relentlessly beat their ‘only we can get the Tories out’ drum in the hope that this message will finally get through.
If it does not, the keys to Number 10 may remain just out of reach for Ed Miliband.