Scotland poised to hold UK’s future in its hands once again

“You campaign in poetry,” said the late Mario Cuomo. “You govern in prose.”

The SNP campaigns with a baseball bat, relentlessly pummeling the Labour Party, now bloodied and on the floor.

Wednesday’s Ipsos-MORI poll for STV saunters over to the battered party and gives it another kick in the ribs. The telephone survey, conducted amongst 1001 over-18s between January 12 and 19, gives the Nationalists a 28% lead over Labour. The SNP’s lead alone is bigger than the share of people planning to vote Labour, which sits at 24%. The Conservatives are on 12%, and the Greens and Liberal Democrats on four percent apiece. My colleague Cara Sulieman has more details here.

If these numbers were replicated in a Scotland-wide swing on May 7, the SNP would win 55 seats, Labour four, and the Tories and Lib Dems would be wiped out. Willie Bain (Glasgow North East), Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West), Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston, and Bellshill), and whomever Labour selects to replace Gordon Brown in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath would be the only Labour MPs in Scotland.

Anyone who suggested such an outcome six months ago would have been sectioned or strongly advised to lay off the booze. But we now have a series of polls showing the same trend. So, on the face of it, this research doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know before. The SNP is going to make huge gains in May, at the expense of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It would be more illuminating to find out why these new voters have flocked to the SNP, what they expect of it, and what are the red lines the Nationalists must heed to retain their support.

Part of that support no doubt comes from the personal popularity of the party’s leader. Nicola Sturgeon continues to enjoy poll ratings comparable to the Soviet-era chair of an east European communist party. Sixty-nine percent of voters approve of her performance as First Minister and her net satisfaction rate is +49. This is despite the oil crisis and strengthens my theory that Ms Sturgeon could get caught on camera throttling a three-legged puppy called Mr Snuffles and still be cheered through the streets by an adoring public.

But that alone does not do justice to public opinion. Importantly, the SNP is viewed as a safe pair of hands in government and has carefully crafted a reputation as a moderate party that won’t rock the boat on anything save independence. In this endeavour, it has been generously assisted by the paucity of talent and ambition within Scottish Labour and by that party’s seeming lack of anything to say to the voters.

The SNP may be wearisomely populist at times. It may be New Labour with softer edges. But even its staunchest critics cannot dispute that it has earned its popularity with the voters through canny calculation, iron-tight discipline, and old-fashioned hard work — all the while out-flanking, out-strategising, and out-classing a hapless opposition.

Can you tell there’s a ‘but’ coming?

But… the party is not home and dry and cannot recline in complacency between now and May. Despite highly encouraging poll numbers, Nationalists have a mighty challenge ahead of them in smashing Labour’s stonking majorities in the west and central belt.

Today’s poll, like those before it, fails to capture this reality. One of the seats that would supposedly go in the yellow wave forecast by Ipsos-MORI is Jim Murphy’s own constituency. For anyone who has never visited East Renfrewshire — it’s really the only reason to leave Glasgow — there is more chance of Murdo Fraser getting gay married to Abu Hamza in a Las Vegas Elvis chapel than there is of the leafy suburbs of Giffnock, Newton Mearns, and Whitecraigs electing a Nationalist MP.

So the SNP has a tricky balancing act to perform. It must play up these polls to excite its grassroots and convince SNP-leaners that now is the time to break with Labour but it also has to caveat predictions of 55 seats with reminders of Labour’s huge majorities. If voters send, say, 25 Nationalist MPs to Westminster, that would be a remarkable victory but set against public expectations of twice that number, it would look like a modest achievement at best.

And what of Scottish Labour (which still exists at time of writing)?

Voters appear cool on its new leader. Thirty-four percent are satisfied with the job Jim Murphy is doing while 38% are dissatisfied. Twenty-eight percent didn’t have an opinion, which should really be a barrier to participation in an opinion poll. Forty-eight percent say his election as Scottish Labour leader makes no difference to their voting intention in May, while 28% say it makes them less inclined to back Labour and another 20% more inclined.

He’s only five minutes in the door so the value of these numbers is questionable. Nonetheless, the general election is less than four months away. He needs to start making more of an impact.

Mr Murphy’s job, however, lies beyond 2015; his task is to prise away enough Holyrood seats from the SNP in 2016 to prove that Scottish Labour is still a viable party. Labour’s UK leader, and the man the electorate will be voting on in May, is Ed Miliband and that fact should worry Scottish Labour supporters more than anything else.

Because the real story of the new poll is not the headline figures. It’s the confirmation that Ed Miliband continues to be less popular in Scotland than David Cameron. Lesspopular. Than David Cameron. In Scotland. Twenty-seven percent of Scots are satisfied with the job Cameron is doing — not a bad show in a country that romanticises itself as an outpost of socialist egalitarianism — but the UK Labour leader can manage only 21%. Two-thirds of Scots have a negative view of the Doncaster North MP. Rose West has better polling numbers than that.

Voters like strong leaders, which is why Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon have done so well. Ed Miliband does not look like a leader. He looks like a policy wonk and he still talks like one. And while he may very well emerge with the greatest number of seats in the Commons, it is still impossible to picture him standing outside Number 10 looking solemn and prime ministerial. Go on. Try it. I dare you not to laugh.

The poll also brings bad news for the Tories in the form of another Scottish wipeout, which would be devastating for a party that was hoping to pick up a second seat this time around. If it does happen — and I doubt it — leader Ruth Davidson might have to call Mr Fraser back early from his Las Vegas honeymoon to revive his idea of founding a new centre-right party in Scotland.

As for the Liberal Democrats, it would be improper to intrude on private grief. (Given these numbers, very private indeed.)

What does all this mean for the overall outcome of the general election in that small part of the UK called Not Scotland?

The SNP, as Bernard Ponsonby notes, could very well hold the balance of power in the next Parliament. It would hope to use this leverage to extract more powers for the Scottish Parliament and the scrapping of Trident in exchange for confidence and supply for a minority Labour government.

Truth be told, the possibility seems remote at this time. Even under the left-leaning Mr Miliband, the Labour Party is unlikely to adopt a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. It would immediately end Labour’s credibility as a party of the centre and downgrade the UK to the status of a charming but strategically irrelevant tourist destination. Nor are English voters likely to stomach a minority Miliband administration foisted upon them by Scottish Nationalists, the party having U-turned on its self-denying ordinance against voting on English-only matters.

This could be a blessing in disguise. The SNP prospers as a populist party and the price of any pact at Westminster would include compromising cherished beliefs. Nicola Sturgeon would have to trade-off, cut deals, and make alliances, all in the constant glare of 24-hour news and an intensive media scrutiny to which her party is unaccustomed. The revelation that it is but flesh would put a significant dent in the SNP’s popularity and at a time when the country could be heading to a second general election.

Nonetheless, this is all so much supposition. Neither you nor I knows what will happen in the coming months. However, we do know this: Scotland 2015 will be the hardest-fought, closest-run, and most exciting general election of most of our lifetimes. For the second time in nine months, the fate of the UK could be in the hands of Scotland.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Jonathan Riddell by Creative Commons 2.0.

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