Mass Times Velocity
The polls appear to be moving against the SNP. Can Labour finally offer an alternative?
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Yousaf’s Numbers are Up
Two polls in the last couple of days have got everyone in Scottish politics excited.
On Thursday a delayed Panelbase poll suggested that the gap between Labour and the SNP shrunk significantly after Nicola Sturgeon announced she was resigning. The SNP lead in Westminster voting intentions shrank by ten points. For Holyrood, the poll was even more dramatic, with a fifteen-point drop in the SNP lead in the constituency votes and ten points in the list.
If that was the last poll published from Sturgeon’s era, the first of Yousaf’s time in office was published by The Scotsman last night. It found that the SNP’s lead at Westminster is down to six points. In Holyrood, their lead is now seven points in the constituency vote and just three points on the regional list.
Projecting the Savanta numbers, the SNP would lose 18 MPs to Labour next year and would have just four more seats than Labour in the next Scottish Parliament. While Humza Yousaf’s home seat in Dundee would be safe for his party, the constituency he represents in Glasgow would fall to Labour.
Combine this polling with the forthcoming by-election in Rutherglen, in terrible circumstances for the SNP, and there is much chatter about this being a pivotal moment. Might that most elusive of things finally be with Labour? Could the party really have momentum?
First a reality check. These polls would simply show that something akin to normal politics is returning to Scotland. A deeply divided party with a desperately unconvincing leader and a dire record in government is seeing the unearned lead it enjoys eroding. That it still has a lead at all speaks to how dominant the nationalist frame has become in Scottish politics. For too many Scots the test is not to ask why aren’t services better, as would be the question in normal politics, it is whether they are slightly better than under a conservative government.
We should be cautious. Humza Yousaf still has the power of government and the ability to set the agenda. And he still leads a party which is willing to take shamelessly populist positions and to exploit any grievance. He can (surely) only get better.
Three Reasons Why Labour Might Be Back
With that buzz-kill over with, there are reasons to believe that Labour’s long-delayed recovery might now arrive.
The first comes from the mouths of the SNP’s new leadership themselves. Humza Yousaf has been clear that there is no majority for leaving the UK. His new Deputy, Shona Robison also suggests that they are now operating to a different timescale, telling the BBC that independence will “take as long as it takes.” Plus of course, Nicola Sturgeon choosing to walk away is the ultimate proof that the SNP’s offer of change through leaving the Union is not going to be made real in the near future.
Katherine Sangster of the Scottish Fabians has an interesting analysis of the voters who want change in The Guardian. Based on their voter research:
“It is clear that none felt the time was right for another independence referendum. These voters are struggling to make ends meet, heat their homes and access healthcare. They told us they were on the fence about who to support in a general election, but it is clear they are desperate for change.”
For these voters, Labour offers immediate change, the SNP are asking us to wait for something that nobody, least of all their leader, believes is coming soon.
Second, the SNP’s performance at General Elections has been built on playing a supporting role in the Conservative election strategy. Polls pointing to a hung parliament allowed successive Tory leaders to portray Labour hopefuls as sitting in the top pocket of Salmond and then Sturgeon. With opinion poll leads that average stronger than anything Tony Blair enjoyed, resurrecting that old campaign would lack credibility. And without the Conservative message helping them out, and without a leader of Sturgeon’s standing, the SNP may struggle to make their party part of the national General Election story.
A decade of voting SNP never got rid of the Tories. Rather than sending MPs to protest, Scotland can be part of a change in Government by voting Labour.
Third, the SNP’s messaging on Labour is wildly out of date. To argue that there is no difference between Labour and the Conservatives after the last few years sounds disconnected from reality. Yet that is what Humza Yousaf will now attempt to do.
Attacking Labour’s economic agenda using dusted-off anti-Blair lines would be fighting the last war. Even a brief look at Starmer’s economic agenda and you can see it represents structural change: day one rights to sick pay, holiday and parental leave for workers; linking the minimum wage to the cost of living; introducing sectoral bargaining; the public energy company the SNP failed to deliver; and massive investment to deliver Net Zero by the end of the decade.
In attacking Labour over the Conservatives, the SNP will risk opening themselves up to the same charge they have made against my own party in recent years: they are more interested in protecting their jobs than in delivering change.
The real choice at this election is between the Conservatives and the change that Labour offers, yet the SNP will spend the election attacking Labour.
Where once the SNP’s message was momentum - the unstoppable inevitability of leaving the UK - now they have taken a step, maybe even a leap backwards. The bandwagon is stuck in the mud. Passengers might get off.
Momentum is almost always manufactured before it is real. When I worked in the Scottish Labour press office, we had a running joke about the number of times the phrase “the wheels are coming off New Labour” appeared in press releases from Alex Salmond. Even if we assume these big moves in polling are a temporary reaction to events, they can become real through a confident reaction by Labour. Every day they need to evidence that the statistical movement is real through endless stories of people deserting the SNP and choosing to be part of the change that is coming.
If we apply Newton’s law to politics then momentum comes from the combination of mass and velocity. For now, the SNP have the mass but they are no longer moving forward. Labour’s poll numbers are moving fast, they now need to demonstrate that they represent a growing mass of Scots. Then the momentum might finally be with my party.
In Case You Missed It
Then SNP MP Margaret Ferrier travelled 400 miles by train despite knowing she had Covid. She was charged with having "exposed people to risk of infection, illness and death" and pled guilty. Despite this, the SNP are still closing ranks around her, with the SNP member of the standards committee Allan Dorans voting to try to prevent a by-election and another SNP MP leaping to her defence.
This story highlights the vulnerability of Humza Yousaf representing a seat 86 miles away from his home in Broughty Ferry. It is also worth noting that Yousaf’s entire government has only one MSP from Glasgow - and that is the one Green he inherited in the coalition agreement. The party is at real risk of taking Scotland’s biggest city for granted.
The Daily Record has an interview with clean rivers campaigner (and cousin of Kevin) Feargal Sharkey on how, despite the usual exceptionalism, the problem of dumping sewage is just as bad in Scotland.
As the last health minister is promoted to First Minister, one of the biggest GP practices in Scotland has cancelled its contract with the NHS because it cannot recruit GPs.
Imagine you live on South Uist and you see this message about your lifeline ferry.
This SNP Councillor explains why she is closing libraries in Aberdeen. Apparently, libraries are just buildings and don’t teach people how to read. Next week: hospitals don’t cure the sick.
Culture Corner: Let my Country Awake
In the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking about the sentiments of Tagore’s great poem which the brilliant Martin Sheen slips into in the speech below.