When is a disaster also a miracle? When it allows Scottish Labour to simultaneously endure its worst result since 1931 and live to fight another day, that’s when.
Yesterday’s ComRes/ITV poll is the best news Labour has enjoyed in months. That’s how grim it has been for Labour lately. A poll of voters in 40 Labour constituencies which puts them six points behind the SNP may not be much of a lifeline but it’s the only lifeline available to the erstwhile people’s party. It will have to do.
Sure, this poll suggests the SNP could take as many as 28 Labour seats meaning that the nationalists would, probably, win something like 44 of the 59 Scottish constituencies. This is not exactly a good result for Labour; it’s still a better result than those indicated by previous polls. (It suggests a national share of 30 percent which is, gosh, an improvement.)
There is still, despite everything, a way back for Labour. Not a way back to their past dominance but a path back to some kind of quasi-respectability. Suppose, just for a moment, that the election ends up leaving us with a result something like SNP 28, Labour 27 , Conservatives 2, Lib Dems 2. That’s a terrible result for Labour and some kind of miraculous recovery.
I don’t pretend that will be the result. The odds remain against it being so. I say only that it’s not impossible to imagine that kind of outcome. The fight for Labour’s heartlands goes on and this poll gives Labour some reason for hope. The SNP have not won yet, you know.
And, actually, this chimes with what I heard at the SNP’s conference last weekend. No senior person I spoke to – MPs, MSPs, back-room fixers and plotters alike – believes the SNP will take 50 or more seats. (At least they’re not prepared to say so, even on an off-the-record basis).
For the first time in a long, long, time the SNP are in the business of quietly lowering expectations. That’s what happens when you’re the front-runner, of course, but we’re a long way distant from 2010 when Alex Salmond challenged the party to win 20 Westminster seats (they won six).
Twelve nationalist MPs would be their best ever result – but also a dreadful let down. Even 20 SNP MPs would now be reckoned a grievous disappointment. But, far from getting carried away, senior SNP types stress caution. They have no desire to “put a number” on a “successful” outcome. Instead they want a result that leaves them “relevant”. In that scenario, 30 SNP MPs holding the balance of power is a better result than returning 45 nationalists who do not hold that balance.
As for Labour, well, they know that if they can haul themselves up to 35 percent of the Scottish vote they have at least a chance of remaining the largest party in Scotland (in terms of seats, not votes). That’s still a long way off, for sure, and if they can’t yet glimpse the mountain top they at least know it’s there. Somewhere.
Moreover, the SNP are acutely aware that there is a chance – no more than that, at present – their vote will be squeezed in the final week of the campaign. That’s when the Cameron or Miliband choice will loom largest; that’s when the SNP’s relevance to this election – the quality they prize most – will be most threatened.
It is also the case – and again, party insiders acknowledge this – that though the SNP will receive vastly more coverage this year than ever before they will still not be covered as extensively as the other major parties. This too might have some impact on the eventual outcome.
Sure, if ifs and ands were pots and pans there’d be no need for tinkers and all of that but, you know, a point here and a point there and soon the game looks rather different. You’d obviously still much prefer to be in the SNP’s position than in Labour’s but a six point deficit in Labour’s heartlands is, by recent standards, moderately encouraging news for Labour. Remember 33 percent support for Labour could be enough to win 25 seats. Not great by any means but not a wipeout either.
As matters stand, that might be the best Labour can hope for. A third of their habitual supporters voted Yes in September. Many of those votes are not coming back. And why would they? It would be illogical for these supporters to desert the nationalist cause now. But Labour don’t need them all to come back, they just need some of them to do so or, as seems probable, failing that, to find new votes elsewhere. A tough ask, granted, but not an impossible one.
Again, I would not want you to think I think Labour can survive in Scotland, merely that it is by no means impossible to imagine scenarios in which they do live to fight another day. That day will be soon, too, when Scots trek to the polls again in May 2016 for the next set of Scottish parliamentary elections.
Keeping Labour alive so they can fight that election is Jim Murphy’s chief goal this month. This, remember, is not the whole game. It is merely the first half.
Sure, to get where Labour want to be you wouldn’t start from here. But this is where they are. And, despite everything, they’re not dead yet. Not quite, anyway.