Labour can only stand by and watch their electoral destruction

The latest glut of Lord Ashcroft polling data is nothing short of horrendous for Scottish Labour.

It’s also terrible for the Liberal Democrats but we don’t have time to deal with their problems right now.

The polling of five Labour-held seats, along with two Lib Dems constituencies and the sole Tory outpost in Scotland, shows Labour losing four to the SNP.

Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock; Dumfries and Galloway; outgoing MP Alistair Darling’s Edinburgh South West; and also departing Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath — all would fall to the Nationalists in swings ranging from 20% to 28.5%.

Amongst those seats in focus, only East Renfrewshire — represented by Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy — would stay red, and by a whisker at that.

One respected number-cruncher extrapolated Lord Ashcroft’s data across Scotland. It would result, he estimated, in the SNP taking 56 out of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats.

This is the second thumping handed out to Scottish Labour by the Tory peer’s polling operation. His first run of Scotland polling in February, rumoured to show Labour in a better position than in most other polls, in fact forecast devastation for the party in its Glasgow and Lanarkshire heartlands.

The two biggest takeaways from the Ashcroft polling are 1) The SNP isn’t going to win the general election in Scotland by a landslide, they’re going to win it by an avalanche, and 2) Seats that were once stone-rigid safe for the incumbent party are now marginals.

The cull looks set to be entirely indiscriminate. Lefties and Blairites, pro-Iraqers and anti-Iraqers, Tory platform-sharers and Better Together shunners.

In one sense, a clear-out would do the party the world of good. Sweep away the deadwood, blow away the cobwebs. Labour would be able to rebuild with fresh faces and new ideas.

But can a party rebuild itself if deprived of all its talent? There are plenty of mediocre Scottish Labour MPs; people like Margaret Curran, Douglas Alexander, and Tom Harris are not amongst them. But they would be brushed aside along with the placeholders and seat-clingers if these swings played out on polling day.

The best and the brightest of the 2010 intake could be kicked out too, people like Gregg McClymont in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and Thomas Docherty in Dunfermline and West Fife. Both have shown signs of real political ability, as has Tom Greatrex. The latter’s position in Rutherglen and Hamilton West is stronger — he took 60% of the vote last time — but no Labour seat can be considered safe anymore.

The defeat of such MPs, seasoned veterans and the promising next generation, would not auger well for Labour’s chances of getting back up on its feet in the near future.

The question every Labour MP is asking is ‘Why?’

After Jim Murphy’s brief time at the helm, he has not managed to turn his party’s fortunes around and with 60 days to go the task is all but insurmountable. It might be tempting for some MPs to lay the blame for the coming catastrophe at his door. They are about to lose what they assumed was a job for life and that can’t be easy.

But Jim Murphy is not the reason Labour faces electoral oblivion. He has failed to win back Yes-voting (ex-)Labour people because they don’t want to be won back. At least not yet, and probably not for a good while.

The electorate isn’t impressed by Murphy’s leftwards tack, the pressure put on Nicola Sturgeon over the “NHS crisis” in Scotland, or the Labour leader’s attempts to reach out to supporters of independence. They don’t want to be impressed.

They’ve decided on the direction of travel and won’t be diverted before May 7. You change if you want to, Labour. The voters are not for turning.

Labour hopes, with more optimism than evidence, that the fear of a Tory government will snap the public out of this fit of rebellion. But, as we saw in polling for the referendum, once people went Yes they didn’t go back. That pattern appears to be repeating here.

If Labour cannot provoke an eleventh-hour bolt by the voters, their sole remaining hope is tactical voting.

If yellow, green and red nationalists can have a “Yes Alliance”, why can’t No voters throw their support behind whichever party would frustrate the SNP in their constituency? After all, this isn’t really a general election. It’s a second independence vote in all but name, albeit with a slightly smaller prize for the Nationalists. A referendum without the risks, if you will.

According to Lord Ashcroft, the SNP is poised to grab Aberdeenshire West & Kincardine from the Liberal Democrats. But if half of the constituency’s Labour voters and half of the Lib Dems lent their vote to the Conservative candidate Alexander Burnett, they could deny the Nationalists the seat.

The peer’s polling has Jim Murphy neck-and-neck with the SNP in leafy, affluent East Renfrewshire. If just a quarter of Tory voters threw their weight behind the moderate Labour MP, the Nationalists’ hopes would be dashed.

In Ross, Skye & Lochaber, the popular left-wing Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy is sitting five points behind the SNP. But if half the seat’s Labour and Conservative voters backed him, he could narrowly see off the challenge.

There have been some, mostly low-level, calls for a No Alliance but the Ashcroft polling makes for uncomfortable reading for anyone pinning their hopes on a coalition of the nose-holders.

Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters show little sign of embracing tactical voting. In East Renfrewshire, now inexplicably a Labour-SNP marginal, 72% of Conservative supporters rule out voting Labour at the same time that only 68% of Labour voters say they would definitely not back the SNP. In Labour-held Dumfries and Galloway, only the Tories can stop the SNP according to Lord Ashcroft but 82% of Labour identifiers refuse to vote Conservative. That is 21% higher than the percentage who refuse to vote for the Nationalists.

No voters may outnumber Yes voters in Scotland but there is a vital difference: Nationalists want independence more than Unionists want to stop the SNP. This makes tactical voting, Labour’s last best hope, no hope at all.

Scottish politics and society are undergoing landmark changes and there is little Labour can do except stand on the sidelines and watch history being made.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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