Weber Shandwick Managing Director, Moray Macdonald offers his perspective of how the rest of the campaign will pan out.
The 2016 Scottish Parliament election is only a few weeks away, and it hasn’t yet reached the excitement of the independence referendum or even last year’s UK General Election.
The political journalists are having to work hard to create stories, and the party leaders are having to go to extreme lengths to gain attention. So far we have had Ruth Davidson in rugby kit, Willie Rennie on a zip wire and Nicola Sturgeon holding a public meeting onboard a NorthLink ferry in the middle of the North Sea. Kezia Dugdale for Labour has been more restrained and stuck to central-belt cafes and making chapati.
Have we reached “peak election” – the point where we have all just had enough of listening to politicians and being forced out to vote every single year? Or is it just that we are all pretty sure that the SNP will have another landslide so can’t see the point in engaging? It will be a real shame if it is the latter as that will likely mean that we will see voting levels drop back after the amazing participation rates we saw at the referendum.
Polls have now consistently shown the SNP to be ahead at 50% or over and their nearest rival, Labour, clinging on to just over 20%. That is quite a lead. Barring a disaster the SNP look set to maintain a majority when we vote on 5th May.
The only excitement to be found in the campaign is the battle for second place. As we all know in elections you’ve usually lost if you come second. However that is where the battle is. Coming second isn’t great, you aren’t in power, but you do form the main opposition and gain a more prominent place in Parliament for the whole of the next term.
The Scottish Conservatives are “snapping at Labour’s heels” for second place in May’s election, leader Ruth Davidson has said. Until recently I would have said that it was highly unlikely for the Tories to be able to beat Labour in to second place. Here is why.
To overtake Labour as the second largest party the Tories need to be above about 17% in the regional vote. Their highest share of vote was 15.3% in 2003. The average of their share of the vote in polls so far in 2016 is 16.2%. Last year’s General Election result was the worst share of the vote the Tories ever recorded in Scotland – have they really improved that much since then?
For the Tories to come second they need to beat their share of vote in any election since 1997, but it also requires Labour to perform even worse than last May. They got 24% of the popular vote last year and would need to fall to at least 20%, and perhaps further, to win less seats than the Tories in the Scottish Parliament.
However, recent events have begun to change my mind about the potential for Ruth Davidson to be the main opposition leader.
Firstly, it does indeed look as though Labour is in terminal decline. At every election since 1997 their share has gone down – until last year by about 3% per per election. At the last UK election they fell by 18 points. Labour’s Holyrood vote has always been lower than what they achieve at a UK level – suggesting, based on past trends, the opinion polls for them at 18 – 20% may not be ridiculous.
Secondly, the Tories are beginning to show signs of rising to near 18% in the regional polls. It isn’t a huge rise, but just a few percent can make a huge difference. In addition the Tories message of “Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition” is beginning to gain traction in the media narrative. They have even added that as their party descriptor on the ballot paper, just as a wee reminder when you go to cast your vote. Another recent poll showed that Scots think that Ruth Davidson would be the best leader of the opposition at Holyrood, but it will be a challenge to convert that to actual votes.
A number of local factors could scupper the Tories march to becoming the main opposition party. For example there are interesting seats like Glasgow Kelvin. Labour lost this seat in 2011 by just 882 votes. In this election this is one of the few seats where the Greens are standing, indeed it is their leader Patrick Harvie. His national profile, pro-independence views and the fact it is one of the seats most likely to vote Green could remove quite a few votes from the SNP. That might allow Labour’s amiable Michael Shanks to sneak in. In addition most opinion polls don’t measure UKIP – they could put a dent in the Tory vote.
What’s my prediction? Well without wanting to sit on the fence too much I’d suggest that the Tories could come second in the election, but it is probably more likely that Labour will cling on by a few seats. I’ll bravely predict though that Nicola Sturgeon will be our First Minister until at least 2021.