The dramatic rout of Scottish Labour continues. Polls suggest the SNP will take 55 out of 59 seats and of the 14 constituencies surveyed by Lord Ashcroft, only Glasgow North East is set to remain in Labour hands. Such political collapses are rare in UK politics – so what’s going on?
Prior to 2011, the dividing line of Scottish politics was ‘to be or not to be’ Labour. This was a huge advantage to a party which, faced with split opposition, managed to win 69% of Scottish seats in 2010 with just 42% of the vote. The singular success of Alex Salmond was, first, to turn the SNP into the clearest and most credible opposition to a tired Labour Party – and then, following his landslide 2011 win, to change the raison d’être of Scots’ political identity to one of ‘Yes or No’ to independence.
Then comes the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, especially in the Highland and North Eastern seats where the SNP are their direct challengers and in urban Labour seats with a significant rump Lib Dem vote. This has left the Nationalists able to woo a vote which has long defined itself against the Labour Party.
Comparing the last Holyrood election with the referendum last autumn, the traditionally Nationalist ‘Tartan Tories’ in places like Aberdeenshire and Perthshire supported independence in smaller numbers than the SNP vote share might imply. To this we can add tens of thousands of voters in places like Glasgow – who may have backed Labour in 2011 – converted to the Salmond/Sturgeon cause by the ‘Yes’ campaign last year.
The Nationalists advantage is greatly enhance by a first-past-the-post Westminster vote: they could take almost all of the seats on barely half of the vote. In the seats where they are picking up the most new support – Glasgow and the Central Belt – it takes a vast number of votes in order to win. In these previously solid Labour fiefdoms, you need to be coming close to 50% of the vote to win a seat. In seats where ‘Yes’ was comparatively weaker however, such as in Edinburgh, the ‘No’ vote is split across parties, meaning that fewer votes are required for the SNP to win the seat. Edinburgh Southern, for instance, was won by the Nationalist Jim Eadie with 29% of the vote, while they gained 45% in Glasgow Pollok, but narrowly missed out on a win. In short, if the Nationalists win the 39% garnered by the ‘Yes’ campaign in Edinburgh, while taking the 53% they won in Glasgow, they could narrowly win every single seat in each. So Scottish geography is working to the SNP’s advantage, and as a result they are doing even better than had been feared.
Mark Gettleson is an elections and polling analyst and Director of Portobello Communications