Scottish nationalists head for poll lead

A resurgent Scottish Nat­ional party is poised to give Labour a drubbing in next month's voting for the devolved parliament in Edinburgh as voters punish Labour for issues far beyond its domain, such as the Iraq war and the decision to renew the Trident nuclear missile system.

In one of the bigger political earthquakes of recent times, the SNP is forecast to become the largest single party at Holyrood, increasing its representation from 25 seats to about 44.

The Nationalists have held a 4 or 5 percentage point lead over Labour in most opinion polls conducted since the start of the year – a margin that Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University describes as “solid, but not spectacular”.

The polls predict Labour, which had 50 seats at Holyrood in the last parliament, may end up with fewer than 40. So the party, which has ruled the first two four-year terms of the Holyrood parliament in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, could be facing its first taste of opposition since devolution began in 1999.

Jack McConnell, Labour's embattled first minister, has acknowledged that his party may have to struggle against a “time for a change” mentality among the electorate given a decade of Labour dominance at both Westminster and Holyrood.

However, there is also real disgruntlement with how devolution has worked in practice. The executive’s budget has nearly doubled to £30bn since 1999, but progress on reducing NHS waiting lists and school class sizes has been patchy.

There are doubts over the financial sustainability of some of Holyrood's most distinctive policies, such as free care for the elderly and abolition of student tuition fees. Voters remain unimpressed by the general quality of MSPs – although struck by the ability of many to use their expenses to play Edinburgh’s booming property market.

Proportional representation means no single party can achieve a majority of the 129-seat parliament. The Nationalists would therefore have to find coalition partners to deliver their most controversial commitment: to hold a referendum on independence within four years – probably in 2010.

In spite of being part of the political establishment, having shared office with Labour, the Liberal Democrats look on course to raise their number of seats from 17 to about 24 – a position that could make them “kingmakers” in determining which party formed a coalition. The Lib Dems have said they would not back the SNP’s plan to hold a referendum on devolution, but they have suggested the whole constitutional issue could be handed over to a cross-party convention, a compromise that might allow both parties to form a coalition.

One peculiarity of the political scene is the failure of Scottish Conservatives to benefit from David Cameron’s leadership, which appears to have boosted the party’s fortunes nationally. They have been consistently polling in fourth place behind the SNP, Labour and Lib Dems, so could see a reduction in their already modest 17 seats.

One of the most interesting constituency battles will take place in Gordon, where Alex Salmond, the SNP leader who quit Holyrood in 2003, is staking his political future on taking the seat from the sitting Lib Dem MSP, Nora Radcliffe, whose majority is more than 4,000.

There will also be a close fight in Edinburgh South, where Donald Anderson, the highly regarded Labour former leader of the city council, is standing against the sitting Lib Dem member, Mike Pringle.

Although Holyrood has hogged most of the headlines, the vote with greatest significance for Scotland’s long-term political culture may yet turn out to be the simultaneous elections to Scotland’s 32 unified local councils, to be held for the first time under the single transferable vote system.

Introduced by Labour under pressure from their Lib Dem coalition partners, proportional voting is expected to lead to a Labour loss of up to 150 seats from the 1,222 contested. The SNP could gain 170 seats, while the Lib Dems and Tories are expected to see their seat allocation even out across the country, without making spectacular gains.

The main effect of this change is expected to be a break in Labour’s domination of central Scotland’s councils, a tradition of one-party rule that has often led to corruption and cronyism.

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