Thursday, 28 January 2016

After the earthquakes, now for the aftershocks

Long-term footsoldiers in the SNP have learned not to worry too much about the received political wisdom of the day. Personalities, policies, pitfalls and pratfalls all come and go, as do newspaper headlines and columns. What really matters for the SNP is Independence and how we are positioned to progress towards it - not whatever the ephemera of the day, week or month happens to be.

That’s a healthy state to be in. In party political terms, voter allegiances take a long time to build up. They also take a long time to wear down, although when they do, the effects as seen at elections can be sudden and brutal as Labour and the Lib Dems found in 2011 and 2015, or slow and gradual yet no less decisive, as the Scottish Tories found in the post-war era.

The anguish – and I don't use the word lightly – which some Scots feel about the present dominant position of the SNP, really is something to behold. Tempting as it is to mock how Labour, Tory and Lib Dem alike used to pour scorn on the SNP in years past, it's surely better to reflect on how hard won that public trust has been; and how far we still need to go if we're to be more than merely Scotland's latest 'natural' party of government for the next few decades.

Scottish Labour’s fall from grace is as well documented as it was long overdue. However, with the next Holyrood elections now fewer than 100 days away, the opinion polls are beginning to look interesting - not for what they suggest about the likely SNP result, but for the emerging battle for second place.

That Labour is no longer Scotland's leading party has been a bitter pill for many of the party's adherents to swallow, so the idea that they might be about to be overtaken by the Tories is almost unthinkable. However, with Labour support languishing in the low twenties for several months now, just how unthinkable is it that this could be the outcome in May? For Scotland's blethering classes bored with a narrative of SNP success after 8 years, it’s a story which has just about everything.

Firstly, it feeds right into the general idea of Labour uselessness right now at Holyrood, but particularly at Westminster. Secondly, there's the fact that our talking heads really quite like Ruth Davidson and seem inclined to give her a more than fair crack of the whip. Thirdly, and finally for now, given Labour’s alleged softening of its stance on Independence in a bid to win back former support, it pleases many unionist ‘ultras’ to blow some air into the argument that there needs to be a coalescing of an anti-Independence vote in order to stop the SNP ever getting the chance to hold another referendum, on any timescale.

The existence of that Ruth Davidson fan club amongst Scotland’s journalists is tough if you are Kezia Dugdale, already struggling to rebuild a shattered party. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that Ms Davidson looks and sounds far more like someone you’d see in the supermarket queue than most Scottish Tory parliamentarians. You don’t have to like her public persona to recognise that she’s sparky, has an instinct for the low verbal blow and most importantly of all, unlike Ms Dugdale, is improving in her parliamentary performances.

It must be particularly galling for Ms Dugdale, having seen her party gutted by its collaboration with the Tories during the referendum, to now find the Tories making an overt pitch to the rump of her party which remains, on the grounds that they can no longer trust her to oppose Independence with sufficient vigour.

Although the gap between the parties is closing, that has more to do with Labour support sliding than with any significant or sustained rise in Tory voting intentions. Nevertheless, there’s a definite cachet which comes from being Scotland’s second party, not least in terms of how it helps gather the tactical votes opposed to leading party. With much of Labour’s working class support having switched to the SNP, making a direct pitch to the white collar middle class unionists who still vote Labour in large numbers is probably as good a way as any for the Tories to try and bridge the remaining gap.

They might not like the Tories, but if they are seen as the best way to stick it to the SNP, then that might be enough for some. There’s large parts of Scotland - east, west, north, south, urban and rural, which used to return Tory MPs but turned Labour in the 80’s and 90’s, where you could see a move back in the opposite direction.

Even so, it’s a ploy which even if successful, still wouldn’t leave the Tories on a much higher share of the vote than the nadir of their 1997 Westminster wipeout. And once so ensconced, having marked themselves once again as the ‘no change’ party on the constitution, where is the room to further expand their support?

If you’re a Scottish Tory used to getting hammered at election after election, you might just be happy seizing a chance to overhaul Labour and to worry about the finer details afterwards. Nevertheless, there’s a nice irony in the supposedly constitutionally-obsessed SNP managing to reach out beyond its natural base by talking about policies, while Scotland’s two largest opposition parties argue over which of them can be the most unionist.