There is still much to play for in May poll

The Herald - - OPINION -

AN­OTHER year, an­other elec­tion. The tread­mill never ends. Af­ter three elec­tions and two ref­er­en­dums since June 2014, Scot­land’s po­lit­i­cal par­ties are gear­ing up for yet an­other cam­paign; or per­haps psych­ing them­selves up would be a bet­ter de­scrip­tion for the first party to make its pitch for the coun­cil elec­tions.

Scot­tish Labour has much to dread as it holds a na­tional cam­paign day to­day. She wasn’t at the launch of her party’s “vi­sion” for lo­cal gov­ern­ment last week – del­e­gat­ing that to her deputy Alex Row­ley – but the re­sult in May will be all about Kezia Dug­dale.

She is en­ter­ing the ‘Swin­ney Zone’. Rev­er­sals in the 2003 Scot­tish and coun­cil polls, fol­lowed by an­other stinker in the 2004 Euro­pean elec­tion when the SNP al­most fell to third place be­hind the Tories caused John Swin­ney to re­sign as his party’s leader.

Ms Dug­dale al­ready has two dire re­sults to her name. As deputy leader in the 2015 Gen­eral Elec­tion she was next to Jim Mur­phy when Scot­tish Labour lost 40 of its 41 seats. The fol­low­ing year, af­ter say­ing she would win the Holy­rood elec­tion, she led the party to its worst re­sult since de­vo­lu­tion, fall­ing to third place be­hind Ruth David­son’s Con­ser­va­tives.

This year could bring the tre­ble, with polls sug­gest­ing Labour may again come third be­hind the Tories across Scot­land’s 32 lo­cal au­thor­i­ties.

Those close to Ms Dug­dale say she is un­der no il­lu­sion about Labour’s prob­lems but add that there is also no ap­petite from MSPs or mem­bers for a re­place­ment. Ms Dug­dale, like Ms David­son, looks on the re­vival of her party as a 10-year project and is in for the long-haul. But, as Mr Swin­ney learned, plans are of­ten no match for events.

The num­bers are hor­ri­ble. In the 2012 lo­cal elec­tions, Labour was just be­hind the SNP, with 31 per cent of first pref­er­ence votes. But that was be­fore the in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum.

It is now polling be­low 20 per cent. Even in its for­mer Glasgow heart­land, where it had 47 per cent of the vote in 2012, it fell to 24 per cent last year. It seems Ms Dug­dale might ful­fil her am­bi­tion of writ­ing crime fic­tion sooner than she hoped.

All is not quite lost. The SNP is ahead in what po­lit­i­cal strate­gists call the “air war”,

‘‘ Not that Labour is cocky. With last year’s elec­tion as its base­line, there’s a hard-nosed re­al­ism about what is pos­si­ble

get­ting its mes­sages across in the me­dia. But there is also the “ground war”, the hard slog of stalls, leaflets, and door knocks, and in 2012 Labour was bet­ter at this than the SNP. In some places, its voter man­age­ment strat­egy – field­ing the op­ti­mum num­ber of can­di­dates in multi-mem­ber wards and max­imis­ing the vote – was near pitch per­fect.

The dan­ger un­der the STV elec­toral sys­tem is run­ning too many can­di­dates, as it can spread the vote too thinly. In Glasgow in 2012, an over-con­fi­dent SNP stood 43 can­di­dates and got 27 elected.

Labour stood 45 and got 44 elected. The Na­tion­al­ists learned that les­son the hard way. But the SNP is swamped with new peo­ple want­ing to be coun­cil­lors. It will re­quire a lot of dis­ci­pline to say “no” to them.

Labour has also se­lected most of its can­di­dates. The SNP is still vet­ting ap­pli­cants. A re­cent up­date from the As­so­ci­a­tion of Na­tion­al­ist Coun­cil­lors said can­di­dates should “hope­fully” be in place by mid-Fe­bru­ary for un­con­tested selections, but longer where there was a scram­ble for places.

In the mean­time, Labour is fundrais­ing for lo­cal cam­paigns and can­di­dates are in­tro­duc­ing them­selves to the elec­torate. “We’re be­hind the curve,” one SNP hope­ful told me this week. “Labour have se­lected their can­di­dates and we haven’t se­lected any­body. It’s not ideal to put it mildly.”

Not that Labour is cocky. With last year’s elec­tion as its base­line, there’s a hard-nosed re­al­ism about what is pos­si­ble.

“No one thinks we can re­tain what we have,” said one source. But nor is their de­spon­dency. There’s also the curve ball of new bound­aries to con­sider –Glasgow is gain­ing two wards and six coun­cil­lors, for in­stance – which makes the out­come harder to pre­dict.

That SNP up­date also noted a trend in re­cent by-elec­tions for SNP can­di­dates to do very well on first pref­er­ence votes, but lose af­ter se­cond, third and fourth pref­er­ences were re­dis­tributed, as a Union­ist vote grad­u­ally co­a­lesced around some­one else.

It hap­pened in Irvine and stopped Ni­cola Stur­geon’s fa­ther be­ing elected. “Get­ting the vote out has ar­guably never been more im­por­tant,” said the doc­u­ment. “Get­ting these vot­ers to give all their top pref­er­ence votes to SNP can­di­dates could be cru­cial.”

It doesn’t mean the SNP will have a bad night, or that Ms Dug­dale isn’t in jeop­ardy, but May’s re­sult could be a lot more in­ter­est­ing and sur­pris­ing than ex­pected.

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