There is still much to play for in May poll
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.