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Wednesday, June 10, 1998 Published at 08:49 GMT 09:49 UK


UK Politics: Talking Politics

What do the polls suggest?



Nobody really knows what effect devolution will have on the major parties political fortunes, BBC Scotland's Poltical Editor Brian Taylor looks to the future.

Politically, despite the success of the government's devolutionary programme thus far, there is a curious mood of unease abroad in the Scottish Labour party.

A flickering feeling of anxiety with regard to the devolution project: apprehension as to the scale of the project and its possible political consequences.

At one level, this is understandable tension over the sheer magnitude of devolution: the task of drafting a new constitutional settlement, establishing a Parliament, selecting candidates, preparing for elections to this new political entity on May 6 1999.

But there is an additional concern over which party will gain electorally.

Recent opinion polls have suggested that the Scots might favour the Nationalists more in elections to a Scottish Parliament than in elections to Westminster.

Who is to gain?

This differential factor has emerged in polls for The Scotsman and for the Mail on Sunday. But it is perhaps most significant to note its appearance in the monthly poll by System Three for The Herald. The regularity of this poll allows apparent trends to be tracked.

The Herald has published six polls tracing voting intentions for a Scottish Parliament as well as Westminster. They are shown above with Westminster voting intention and the Scottish Parliamentary figures noted separately.

The poll's sample is regularly more than 1,000 with a margin of error of plus or minus 3%.

It is of course too early to draw any precise conclusions. However, key Labour insiders have been privately exercised by the trend towards an increase in the SNP vote under devolution.

Labour jitters

Labour's worries are two-fold.

One, does the Westminster timetable militate against Labour success in those Scottish elections? To be blunt, will the economic and social goodies which a government traditionally times for Westminster elections come too late for elections to a Scottish Parliament in May 1999?

Two, is it possible - as the polls suggest - (see above graphic) that the Scottish electorate will perform a sophisticated exercise in political differentiation: offering support to the SNP in purely Scottish elections while predominantly favouring the continuation of Labour government at Westminster?

Labour's record

With regard to question one, the apprehension in the party in Scotland has been partly related to concern over Labour's early governmental programme.

On March 7 1998, Labour's Scottish conference voted to condemn cuts in lone parent benefit as "economically inept, morally repugnant and spiritually bereft" - despite considerable offstage arm-twisting.

Labour's presumption is that such concern will evaporate as Budget measures and other changes work through. Malcolm Chisholm - who resigned as a Scottish Office junior Minister over the lone parent benefit cut - has since praised the subsequent measures to assist poorly-paid families.

There have been other high-profile initiatives: such as the self-styled New Deal initially aimed at helping the long-term young jobless; cash to cut hospital waiting lists; and action to bolster education.

But some in Labour ranks fret over whether such initiatives are outweighed by economic concern surrounding such issues as the relatively high pound.

Again, they ponder how the government's overall record will be judged within the tight timescale enforced by the elections to the Scottish Parliament.

"Events"

In addition, there have been the relatively minor but irritating controversies which pursue all governments: what Harold Macmillan, in a different context, called "events".

There was the controversy over the siting of the Parliament: where in Edinburgh its permanent home was to be and whether its temporary home might be in Glasgow.


[ image: Sean Connery rubbing shoulders with Donald Dewar in the run up to the referendum]
Sean Connery rubbing shoulders with Donald Dewar in the run up to the referendum
There were allegations that actor Sean Connery was denied a knighthood because of his overt support for Scottish Nationalism.

There has been a continuing row over the handling of the party's inquiries into allegations of misconduct surrounding members of the dominant Labour group on Glasgow city council.

Labour has offered rebuttal to all these controversies. But some have questioned whether the surety of touch has been all it might have.

Donald Dewar has fought back, acknowledging that the party in Scotland has been through what he called "towsy times" - particularly in regard to local government.

He has announced a clampdown on local authority misconduct and has laid out a detailed programme covering the government's actions to date and objectives for the year ahead.

That has been accompanied by plans to sharpen Labour's policy presentation in both government and party.

But it may be question two - the potential for differential voting - which provides the greater challenge to Labour.

'Scotland's Party'

The Nationalists are openly and understandably addressing themselves to this prospect.

They have taken to styling themselves "Scotland's Party" in an effort to catch the mood of Scottish identity among the electorate which I have identified elsewhere in this analysis.

The thinking is that when the Scottish electorate turns its collective mind to the question of electing representatives to a Parliament purely for Scotland, they will seek representatives whom they identify most closely with purely Scottish aspirations.

In the past, the Nationalists have had a range of responses to devolution.

At times, they have supported it as a staging post to independence. At times, they have tended to regard it as a Unionist con-trick - a device to frustrate the aspirations of the Scottish people.

They stayed out of the cross-party Convention, protesting that Labour and the Liberal Democrats were predetermined on a devolutionary settlement and that a multi-option referendum, including independence, was effectively precluded.

Now - to the irritation of their Labour and Lib Dem rivals - the SNP objective is to identify themselves with the Parliamentary project. They want to depict themselves as working with the grain of Scottish self-determination.

Hence they played a prominent role in securing a double Yes vote in the referendum. Hence they have been careful in the Commons deliberations on the devolution Bill to restrict themselves very largely to suggested reforms which are capable of implementation within a maximum devolution settlement rather than independence alone.

They stress repeatedly that they would seek to make the Parliament work: whether they form the administration or are in opposition.

The Nationalists do not deny that their ultimate aim lies in independence but their strategic interest lies in spotlighting their determination to work for the everyday concerns of the electorate: schools, hospitals and jobs.

Labour

In response, Labour will pursue a multi-track strategy: talking up the practical benefits which a Labour administration in Scotland would bring under devolved government; re-establishing and restating the party's Scottish credentials; and depicting the Nationalists as wreckers, intent only on independence.

Senior Labour thinkers say privately it is infantile to deny that devolution might in certain circumstances lead to independence.

The key strategic approach, they say, is to isolate the Nationalists by identifying them with grandiose ambitions such as a separate Scottish army and a worldwide consular system - while identifying the devolved Scottish Parliament with action on everyday issues.

SNP leaders, at the same time, are similarly resolved to stay on populist ground.

It is important to stress that - even if the voting parity suggested by the May 1998 Herald poll were to be borne out - Labour would be likely to be the largest party and the SNP likely to be in opposition.

This is because the Nationalist vote is spread - while Labour's tends to be more concentrated. Even under the reformed voting system for a Scottish Parliament, it is estimated that this tendency would favour Labour.

Labour presently has 56 of Scotland's 72 Westminster seats, the Liberal Democrats 10 and the Nationalists six, with none held by the Tories.

It is important to bear that present dominance in mind - while qualifying it with the considerations that the elections in May 1999 will be for a different Parliament and with a different voting system.

The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats dispute that their standing is as low as the polls suggest. They concede, however, that they face a somewhat ironic challenge.

Proportional voting for a Scottish Parliament - for which the Lib Dems have long agitated - will oblige the party to fight for support in areas such as west central Scotland, which they have tended to neglect while focusing on target seats mainly in rural areas.

Alongside that challenge, however, the party nurtures a dream. Most estimates suggest that the first elections to a Scottish Parliament - under its reformed voting system - will deny an outright majority to any one party, even the previously dominant Labour.

That would prompt coalition or pact negotiations to form the new Scottish administration. The Lib Dems' hope is that, even with a relatively small force in the new Parliament, they might play a pivotal role.

For strategic reasons, they are careful to stress their independence - acknowledging only that they would be willing to work with whatever verdict the electorate produces.

Indeed, some Scottish Lib Dems are notably keen to stress their detachment from Labour as part of their appeal in formerly Conservative areas.

But there are potential caveats to this purity of approach. The party would find it hard to work with the Tories - and argues in any event that the Scottish Conservatives are unlikely to be key players in the new Parliament.

Further, the Lib Dems say that they would not deal with the SNP if the Nationalists insist on a first-term referendum on independence.

Lib Dem leaders say the new Parliament will need time to settle down, that the Scottish people have had their fill of "constitutional navel-gazing".

Since the SNP presently stresses that it would wish such a referendum to be a key part of its programme in any coalition government, that would appear to point the Lib Dems once more in the direction of Labour: the party with whom it worked in the cross-party Convention.

The private Lib Dem dream is that Labour as the largest party will need Lib Dem votes to govern Scotland.

The Tories

The Tories are in the process of reinventing themselves in Scotland.

They presently have no MPs north of the Border, no Euro-MPs, and no councils under their control. They now openly accept that their perceived lack of Scottish identification has been partly to blame.

They were seen by a Scottish electorate as a predominantly English party. The former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind has now convened a review team which will examine every aspect of Scottish Tory policy.

A Scottish Party

Sir Malcolm's proud assertion is that party policy for a Scottish Parliament will be made in Scotland without interference from the south. That may mean, he acknowledges, policy variations.

In addition, the Tories assert that the Scottish party will have full responsibility for candidate selection.

Saviours of the Union?

The Tories' strategy now is to overturn their previous hostility to devolution - and to attempt to depict themselves as the saviours of the Union in a different guise.

They will argue that a strong Tory presence will be required in a Scottish Parliament to bolster the Unionist nature of the settlement.

Sir Malcolm has suggested that cross-party initiatives - such as a think-tank - might be established to bolster the Union. Some interpreted this as a pan-Unionist pact to dish the SNP.

But Sir Malcolm himself was careful to avoid forecasting such an outcome - and other parties have ridiculed the notion of any such electoral accommodation.

So the Tories see a clear task for themselves. But privately some in the party in Scotland remain fearful. They are concerned that the Tories could be consigned to a minor role in the Scottish Parliament - perhaps losing party members as a consequence.

Those who hold this view argue that Tory members are used to being either the government or the government-in-waiting. They are not accustomed to fringe politics.

What future for the Tories?

By contrast, others argue that the party in Scotland has become inured to problems - and will cope with whatever the new electoral system produces: that at the very least the Scottish Tories look like gaining a presence in a Scottish Parliament where they have none at Westminster.

Certainly, the inevitable policy shift on devolution and the move to opposition have had a liberating effect on sections of the Scottish Tory party.

The electoral consequences, of course, have yet to be determined.

For all the parties, there is a further complication. It may not be accurate to project present voting habits on to the Scottish Parliamentary elections.

For those elections, voters in Scotland will have two ballot papers: one for their constituency Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) and one for a party list which will be counted on a regional basis and used to marry the ultimate outcome more closely to overall party support.

In such circumstances, it is of course possible to "split the ticket", to vote for different parties in the two ballots.

Most observers however tend to forecast a Labour administration with support from other quarters, most probably the Liberal Democrats.

But with good reason all the parties state their willingness to leave the matter to the Scottish electorate.



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