When Nicola Sturgeon strode across the gravel of Ferguson shipyard on the Clyde, one campaign ritual which has come to symbolise her popularity and dominance of Scottish politics quickly took centre stage: the selfie.
The group of bulky dockworkers wearing overalls stained by paint and oil, blue hardhats, tinted safety glasses and sheepish grins, clustered around the first minister, and several thrust mobile phones into her hands.
It was a natural Nicola moment. She flipped the phones over, and the dockers leaned in for the snap. As the platoon of press photographers massed up in front of them, one bearded docker quipped: “You want taps aff? [tops off] A bit of chest?”
This was a richly symbolic place for the first minister to stage yet another Holyrood campaign event before she hurried north to one more in Inverness in a fleet of sleek black Mercedes minivans, their sides plastered with the slogan: “Nicola Sturgeon for first minister.”
Ferguson is the last commercial shipyard on the Clyde, the sole remnant of an industry which once defined Glasgow and Scotland, and was once tribally loyal to Labour. It sits on the coastline of one of Labour’s last Scottish parliamentary constituencies, Greenock and Inverclyde, which all the evidence suggests will fall to the SNP on 5 May, like the vast majority of Holyrood’s 76 constituencies.
The yard was rescued from closure in the final days of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum after Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor, helped find a buyer. Then Ferguson had four employees. It is now building a new generation of high-efficiency diesel electric hybrid ferries. It expects to employ 400 people next spring.
The polls now consistently put the SNP at more than 50%, with Labour at 21%. Already reduced to just one MP at Westminster, Scottish Labour faces losing at least a third of its Holyrood seats. It could, under the worst scenario, come third behind the Tories. “It’s fucking terrible,” said one Labour activist.
The SNP’s dominance puts its opponents in the odd position of effectively conceding defeat before a vote is cast. They are fighting each other for second, third or fourth place, battling to win a share of Holyrood’s 56 proportionally-selected list seats. The Tory manifesto is headed: a programme for opposition.
Sturgeon, who craves the mandate of her first Holyrood election victory, will launch her party’s manifesto in central Edinburgh on Wednesday in front of an invited audience of 1,400 activists and guests – the size of the event underlining that dominance.
Yet with the SNP at its strongest, with 54 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster MPs (two of its original 56 now sit as independents, facing police investigations into alleged financial misconduct), 115,000 members and on the cusp of a second successive overall majority at Holyrood, that manifesto will downplay the one topic which defines this nationalist party most: the quest for independence.
Mindful of the black hole in Scotland’s finances following the collapse in oil prices and the SNP weakness in 2014 on the currency question, there will be no demand for a second referendum. Sturgeon has instead called on SNP members to take part in an open-ended debate this summer, to find new strategies which meet those challenges and reassure anxious voters who said no to independence because of the economy.
What the SNP offers Scotland’s voters on 5 May is not another constitutional battle but competence, safety and security – a theme Sturgeon mentioned repeatedly last week at Ferguson Marine.
The yard was open because the SNP puts jobs and the economy first. “I think it’s important when these strategic industries are under threat you’ve got a government prepared to step up and step in and take whatever action is necessary to save them,” she told an STV reporter.
There is another facet to the Ferguson story directly relevant to this election but one the SNP will not publicise: its saviour is a multimillionaire tax exile. A close friend and ally of Salmond’s, Jim McColl lives in Monaco.
The SNP’s opponents are desperately trying to make Scotland’s new powers to control £11bn worth of income tax revenues, equal to roughly a third of Holyrood’s spending, the defining issue of this campaign.
Men like McColl should be paying a 50p or 60p top rate of tax, says Labour and the Scottish Green party, to help offset deep funding cuts imposed by the Conservative government in London.
They and the Liberal Democrats lambast Sturgeon for failing to use those powers to increase taxes on the rich. Higher tax seems popular – a poll for the Herald this week said 51% of voters liked the idea. Yet the SNP’s commanding lead has been undented; in its alliances with businesspeople such as McColl, the SNP has read the Scottish electorate better than its opponents care to admit.
Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, despairs. She remembers Sturgeon crushing the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband, in the general election television debates in April 2015, wooing English and Welsh voters with her centre-left rhetoric.
“This time last year, in the general election, Nicola Sturgeon became a UK-wide celebrity by saying she opposed the cuts and wanted to tax the rich,” Dugdale said. “A year later, she’s completely reversed those positions. So she supports austerity because she’s just passed on £500m worth of cuts to councils in Scotland, and there are more cuts coming because of the choices she has made and she refuses to tax the rich.”
Prof James Mitchell, co-director of the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh, believes the SNP has correctly decided the Scottish electorate is less radical than it likes to think – as is the SNP’s hugely enlarged membership, which has increased fivefold since the 2014 referendum.
He and Rob Johns, an elections expert at the University of Essex, are writing a new book on the party called Takeover: Explaining the Extraordinary Rise of the SNP. They have just completed a mass survey of 20,000 SNP members with the party’s help, and found that the post-referendum surge has not pulled the party very much to the left after all.
In addition, the large majority of its new members are inactive. “The SNP is not one of those Podemos-type parties; it’s not one of those far left parties at all,” Mitchell said. It is moderate and centrist, he believes, belying Sturgeon’s vigorous rhetoric in last year’s general election contest.
What it has done is replaced Labour as the voice and champion of Scotland; its mantra is the clear and effective “Stronger for Scotland”. “The SNP has now become, to much of the electorate, the more effective anti-Conservative and more obviously anti-Conservative party,” Johns added.
And behind that is a formidable SNP campaign machine and, said Kevin Pringle, the party’s former director of communications, “sheer hard work” from Sturgeon downwards.
“Success is still relatively novel. [In] the cycle of SNP history the past few years are still a relatively short period of time,” he said.
This work ethic is extremely well resourced. The SNP’s wealth is evidenced in its range of campaign merchandise, from balloons and windmills to branded phone chargers. There’s a Holyrood shop-cum-campaign hub in most towns selling them. And the SNP has pioneered digital campaigning in Scotland.
At the party’s spring conference, the SNP’s campaign director and deputy first minister, John Swinney, said the goal by 5 May was to reach every internet user in Scotland. This is where its 115,000 members show their power: tweeters using the #BothVotesSNP hashtag reach around 1 million on Twitter each day, while in an average week the SNP’s Facebook and Twitter accounts reach around 500,000 people.
Jeanne Freeman, an SNP candidate for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, personifies that broadened appeal. Once a special adviser to the then Labour first minister Jack McConnell, Freeman went on to be a co-founder of the highly influential Women for Independence campaign.
The SNP’s appeal is built on aspiration but also competence in government, she believes. “What strikes me is that activists are genuinely campaigning for every vote, and that is inbuilt in the SNP because people remember not so long ago the idea of these poll ratings would have been laughable. They take an interest in but are not overwhelmed by the polls.”
“Out canvassing I am absolutely not getting that people think the campaign dull or uninteresting,” she adds. “People have very specific local issues they want to raise – dairy farming, transport infrastructure, superfast broadband is a big deal for this constituency – and there are a lot of undecideds.”
Many argue voter attitudes are more fluid than the polls imply. Jonathan Shafi is co-founder of a new radical left alliance called Rise, born out of the pro-independence campaign. Rise is competing for regional list votes, making the second-vote contest even more crowded on the left for Labour and the Scottish Greens.
“Don’t write off big changes of opinion in second votes in the last few weeks of the campaign,” Shafi said. The SNP’s “extreme timidity” on taxation has shifted the debate, he believes. “The legacy of the referendum is still unravelling, and the political awakening has persisted. People put up with Labour selling them out but won’t let it happen with the SNP,” he said.
Holyrood will be a very different place when the parliament next meets on Monday 9 May. All five parties have found new, sharper and heftier candidates, such as Freeman.
Among those will be Prof Adam Tomkins, a constitutional lawyer at Glasgow University who sat for the Tories on the Smith commission, which agreed Holyrood’s new tax and welfare powers. Tomkins is top of the Glasgow regional list for the Tories, and is certain to win a seat.
He agrees with Shafi that voters want a strong opposition to the SNP. “I’ve never used the phrase ‘one-party state’ but that’s what people see. They feel that the SNP is too domineering, too intolerant of dissent,” he said.
In contrast with Shafi, he believes Labour’s tack to the left, exemplified by its tax policy, has put off many Labour voters. He now sees them switching to the robustly pro-UK Conservatives. “It’s not that much of a leap going from Blairite to supporting Ruth Davidson,” he said. “These people are moderates, they’re not particularly tribal.”
The austerity agenda and internal conflicts afflicting the Conservatives at Westminster do not greatly influence Scottish voters, he reckons. “Folk in Scotland watch Scottish news and read Scottish papers, which means we are able to have our own political conversation. David Cameron is the leader of the Conservative party but it’s not his election and people get that. It’s a very Scottish election.”
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