Election Comment: Terry Murden
Scottish politics must re-align to survive SNP stampede
On Friday morning Scotland may make history by having only one party representing it at Westminster. The SNP steamroller is crushing all who stand in its way and the first past the post electoral system will ensure that minorities have no voice.
The result will have profound implications for the re-shaping of the UK. The horse-trading that delayed the formation of a coalition in 2010 will be nothing compared to what is to come.
But what will it mean for Scotland’s political system? Is the country heading towards being a one-party state?
Campaigning for Westminster will end on Thursday night, but it will begin again almost immediately as battle commences for the 2016 Scottish General Election. Apart from sorting out the seating arrangements in the House of Commons, the big question on Friday morning will be around who will be up for the fight for Holyrood.
Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, looks to be dependent on tactical voting in order to hold on to his East Renfrewshire seat. The latest survey by Lord Ashcroft found that Mr Murphy has closed the gap on the nationalists, but only because of Tory voters switching allegiance to keep out the SNP.
Even if he holds on, will he have the appetite for a year-long re-match with the nationalists? Twelve months out, and against the usual rules of political unpredictability, his nemesis Nicola Sturgeon looks impossible to unseat. Would Mr Murphy be prepared to lose badly, not once, but twice?
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has enjoyed a good general election campaign without the slightest chance of being rewarded for her efforts. She will survive even though her party looks like being finally put out of its misery in Scotland.
Ms Davidson gave a good account of the Tories’ case, particularly on the economy, but she was pushing water uphill. The nationalist majority has determined that the ‘nasty party’ has to go.
Her own future may rest elsewhere. Her performances, particularly in the televised leaders’ debates, have drawn the attention of Central Office and she has been talked about as a senior player on the Tories Westminster front bench. If Jim Murphy faces a tough test in the forthcoming Holyrood campaign, Ms Davidson may decide it just isn’t worth the trouble. Her attention may turn to finding a Westminster seat in England.
Lib-Dem leader Willie Rennie is more of a conundrum. He is kidding himself if he really believes his party can make progress in Scotland. He is facing an inevitable backlash from voters disappointed by the party’s record in the coalition. With few rivals waiting in the wings and no obvious alternative political career awaiting him he looks likely to stick around for the fight in the hope that his dreams, however misplaced, will come true.
A more intriguing scenario is that the opposition parties come together in Scotland in some form of alliance to challenge the dominant nationalists.
Proportional representation ensures there is a fairer representation of seats than in Westminster, but each of the anti-nationalist parties are facing a meltdown of sorts that may prove irrecoverable.
None is as susceptible as the Labour party which has lost its grip on the traditional heartlands. The Tories must finally accept that despite the best efforts of high profile friends in the public relations industry they are a spent force. The Lib Dems could well be following them into the dustbin of Scottish politics.
One solution may be a realignment of the parties around shared goals, if they can be found. The Tories and Labour cannot agree on Europe, personal taxation, VAT or public spending. That is a long list of policy differences.
But where there is a will there is a way and these differences are not irreconcilable, especially in Scotland. For instance, Ed Miliband and David Cameron may squabble over the merits of a 50p top rate of tax, but in Scotland it is meaningless. Only 14,000 people earn more than £150,000 a year. Raising the tax threshold by 5p would raise only £700,000.
A question from Mr Miliband in the Commons about the Tories’ policy on VAT prompted a famous pledge from Mr Cameron that he would not raise it. In Scotland it doesn’t matter as Holyrood does not have full powers over VAT.
Europe is an issue for the Tories in England because of the threat from UKIP which demands withdrawal from the European Union. But UKIP is not a force in Scotland and membership of the EU is not an issue for the Scottish Tories.
All this paves the way for creating a new political force, and if the Tories and the Labour party can settle their mutual and historic differences, it would surely not take much to bring the Lib Dems on board. Realignment is not new. It happened in the 1980s when the ‘gang of four’ – Labour’s David Owen and Shirley Williams together with the Liberals Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers – formed the SDLP, precursor of the LibDems.
New splits and divisions are already happening. In England it concerns Tory defections to UKIP. In Scotland the SNP is attracting disaffected members of Labour’s left wing.
Could we see the right-wing of the Labour party join the Tories and the Lib-Dems in a new Scottish Centre Party?
Tactical voting may be a one-day only offer, but it might also point to something deeper. As many as a quarter of Tory voters in East Renfrewshire say they may vote for Jim Murphy, evidence that there are issues that unite them – the biggest being their opposition to the nationalists.
Despite their delaying tactics, the SNP will revive plans for another referendum. It simply has no choice as it is the reason the party exists and without a commitment from the leadership it too faces division.
One way or another, a victory for the SNP on Thursday could mean more than even Ms Sturgeon has bargained for. It could spell big changes north of the border and set up a stronger opposition to her party in the battle for control of Holyrood.