Peter Duncan is founder director of Message Matters, and is a former MP and Chairman of the Scottish Conservatives.
The old rules of politics used to be very straightforward, particularly when it came down to winning and losing. Usually, the loser would make some well-intentioned, and rather shakily delivered speech congratulating the winner, the returning officer, the police and their family before returning to obscurity for a few years of contemplation and internally divisive debate about future strategy. All that – while the winners won, took office, looked like incumbents and controlled the dialogue with the electorate.
Not in Scotland, and not in 2014.
The referendum on Scottish independence seems like a lifetime ago, when a late surge took Better Together to victory by ten clear points and hopes were high that the “Scottish problem” had been sorted, at least for a generation. Downing Street were happy that they had avoided the ignominy of being the administration to lose some of the UK’s territory.
Some of the less informed spoke of having “won the argument convincingly”, whilst quietly looking forward to business as usual.
Scottish Labour had a different problem – one with existential consequences for a party which had established for 50 years an unquestioned loyalty from the mainstream of Scottish opinion. Questions were now being asked about their ability to maintain that grip. Glasgow voted Yes, Scots under 55 had voted Yes and, damningly for Labour, C2, D and E voters had rejected their party’s advice and voted to leave the Union. That connection between Labour and its key voter groups was now shaky at best, and Scottish Labour knew it.
So whilst the celebration drinks were being shared at Better Together’s Glasgow HQ, those partaking knew the constitutional issue was still alive and that the nationalists’ first objective for the Campaign had been achieved: the prospect of future success was not fanciful. Had it been so, perhaps with a Yes vote share of less than 30 per cent, that existential threat would have loomed above the heads of the SNP, with nationalist companions looking at each other to find little in common once the prospect of independence had been removed.
Instead, senior nationalists, whilst initially devastated in defeat, quickly realised that their future was bright, having polled far in excess of their long term support. For them, the prospect of independence was no longer a matter of “if”, but of “when”. A very empowering assessment, and their count-night depression was short-lived.
Not for the first time in Scottish politics, an initially perplexing move has proved to be inspirational, as David Cameron’s Downing Street declaration on devolution was rendered of marginal media interest when Alex Salmond announced his intention to resign. Instead of the Sunday papers being full of “whither now for the Nats”, they bulged with an assessment of the bright new dawn for nationalism under a new First Minister. The news agenda was seized, and has not been relinquished since.
The mood music for the autumn period was set, and shows no sign of changing soon. Whilst the old guard of Scottish Labour has talked about its future to itself in thinly attended CLP meetings across the country, Nicola Sturgeon has spoken about a bright horizon for nationalist thinking – seizing the social justice agenda in a sequence of events in front of thousands of supporters. The contrast has been striking and has had consequences.
Pollsters now find themselves in demand for Scottish general election data for the first time in years. Now a slumbering Westminster set has been shocked into contemplating a situation in which the SNP may form the largest number of Scottish MPs, with all that implies for likely post election negotiations. Suddenly, Scotland might matter and there is a craving for data to fill a huge gap in knowledge about a fast-changing electoral map of Scotland.
So let’s identify five things we do know about how the next six months will pan out for those new followers of every twist and turn of politics north of the border, now that it seems possible that the outcome of the next period might be an SNP group from Scotland making up the third biggest party in the Commons
Firstly, Labour have no right to believe that their support has a natural floor. Scottish Conservatives have believed that for 40 years, and have found that confidence misplaced. Labour’s new leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, is an able and talented performer – someone who has the ability to rile nationalists for a reason. He is used to turning round huge electoral deficits, as he has done in East Renfrewshire, replacing a five figure Conservative majority with a very, very healthy Labour lead.
He will know that Labour has no God-given right to hold onto the majority of seats in Scotland – and will be damning in his assessment of the readiness of a large number of Labour MPs for the battle ahead. His first task will be to ensure that some kind of campaign is fought in seats where Labour majorities were guaranteed and in which zero campaigning capacity presently exists. In some of those, there will be muttering complaints about “doing too much”, and “putting off our own supporters” as well as earnest discussion about it being impossible for Labour to lose more than 15 seats. They are wrong, Murphy knows it, and Ed Miliband fears it too.
That prospect of significant Labour losses is made all the more likely the second factor – the SNP having access to a small army of campaigners – the scale of which was demonstrated by an insider telling me that their card holders in a seat where they polled less than 5,000 votes now number over 1,000. They have an extraordinary level of membership participation, since nationally they now have almost 100,000 nationalist enthusiasts holding membership cards. These members will be used to campaign in SNP target seats 15 to 30, potentially leading to individual David v Goliath contests – in the very seats where Labour CLP meetings are most complacent, most disengaged.
Thirdly, we know Alex Salmond, after winning his chosen Parliamentary seat of Gordon, and will have a long list of demands with which to seek a deal with Miliband, unless David Cameron delivers that elusive, and apparently unlikely, overall majority in May. Those demands will have real repercussions for the rest of the UK – the cancellation of Trident 2; ending austerity, an oil and gas rescue plan. These will be demands that will ruffle feathers, but will be in tune enough with Labour’s grass roots to be difficult for their negotiating team to reject.
Fourth, we know Scotland is likely to vote in significantly higher numbers numbers than the rest of the UK. Pollsters are now expecting a 10-15 per cent higher turnout north of the border. SNP strategists will be inspired by that differential: after all, that scale of engagement is not being fired by Scottish Labour being back on song, at least not yet. And, sad to say, it certainly is not being fed by a new and growing cohort of the Scottish electorate determined to battle to the polling stations to vote Conservative in Scotland.
Finally, we know that on the constitution, the unionist parties have done it again – they now plan to deliver just enough devolution to buy off an immediate threat, rather than delivering what’s right. Once more, they have underestimated the mood of the Scottish people.
During the run up to May, Salmond will portray the forthcoming Scotland Bill as being nothing more than further tinkering around the edges, when radicalism was expected and federalism was promised. Sadly, he will have a willing audience.
So, when contemplating 2015, observers can anticipate that Scotland will play as much a part in writing the headlines as it has in 2014. Labour on the back foot, whilst their new Scottish Leader lays some better foundations for the future. The SNP on the front foot, plotting to hold the Westminster parties’ feet to the fire on Scotland’s constitutional future.
If you thought Scottish politics was uncertain this year, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Peter is a former Conservative MP, and Chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party. He is now founder director of Message Matters, strategic communications consultants.