So, Charlie, the SNP, the Scottish National Party, and the current governing party in Scotland, are doing very well in the polls, and expectations for them are high. What does First Minister Nicola Sturgeon need to do to deliver on those expectations? Yeah, the SNP is doing really well in the polls in Scotland at the moment, and pretty much every poll is saying that they will do better than last time. They got an absolute majority last time. The majority is likely to be bigger this time. So, in a sense, what Nicola Sturgeon has to do to secure that is probably not rock the boat too much. Go steady as she goes.
We’ve seen a bit of a transformation in Scottish politics since the referendum, which has done one really, really interesting thing. What used to happen when Scottish voters were thinking about elections was that they thought differently for the Westminster context as compared to the Scottish context. That seems to have gone completely now. We saw that in the UK election last year. We see it now. There is practically no difference in the voting behaviour, what people say they would do at the polls for those two different arenas. Scotland has become a kind of single political arena really, really distinct from the Westminster arena. And that plays, of course, to the party which sees itself as the advocate of Scotland’s interests.
Charlie, there’s an interesting contest for who finishes second at the election. It’s currently between Scottish Labour, led by Kezia Dugdale, and the Scottish Conservatives, led by Ruth Davidson. How do you see this part of the contest shaping up? The race for second place is going to be really, really interesting in the forthcoming Scottish Parliament election. Some of the polls – not all of them, by any means – have shown the Conservatives challenging Labour. Now just think of that. A few years ago, the idea of the Conservatives becoming a bigger party than the Labour Party in Scotland would have been dismissed as absolute madness. But we are really, genuinely considering whether that will happen.
Now, I’m not so convinced that it will. I think the polling has been a bit soft on this. And if nobody’s noticed, the Conservative Party at the UK level is going through a particularly difficult divided period because of those divisions around Europe. And that may well have its consequences here in Scotland. I certainly think Ruth Davidson is a bit worried that Iain Duncan Smith having a go at George Osborne for whatever reason, whether it’s about the budget or whether it’s about Europe, reflects badly on the Conservatives and will limit their capacity to catch up with Labour. The SNP nearly swept the board at the UK general election in May, and Labour, Scottish Labour, suffered the most from this.
What does Labour’s leader, Kezia Dugdale, need to do to rekindle her party’s fortunes? Labour really, really did get a hammering in the UK election last year, keeping only one seat out of the 41 that it had had before. And it’s looking at something pretty similar. It may not be that many Scottish Labour MSPs, Members of the Scottish Parliament, keep their constituency seats. Labour will be looking primarily to the list part of the electoral system to secure its place in the Scottish Parliament. What does Kezia Dugdale, the relatively new Labour leader do?
What I suspect she will do, and probably should be doing, what she has been doing, which is trying to pinpoint areas where the SNP, the governing party under Nicola Sturgeon looks vulnerable on policy terms, where there have been controversies, where the data on performance are lagging. You can talk about education, you can talk about health. There have been controversies about the reorganisation of policing. That’s where Kez Dugdale has been focusing her efforts, trying to turn this into a debate about policy. She’s also been trying to turn it into a debate about the new tax powers that the Scottish Parliament will have, and positioning Labour to the left of the SNP in policy terms.
Whether any of that is actually having any traction is unclear because the SNP still seems to be ahead on the basis that it is the best advocate for Scotland. And that seems to be what many people in Scotland want to hear at the moment. Not a detailed policy debate, but who’s going to stand up for Scotland. You mentioned the difficulties the Conservative Party at the UK level are currently going through, and the Tories haven’t always done very well in Scotland. What is Ruth Davidson going to be doing to try to maximise her party’s chances? Well Ruth Davidson, leader of the Conservatives, does have a chance to try and edge ahead of Labour into second place.
She’s trying to do that against a backdrop from Westminster which isn’t terribly helpful – a divided Conservative Party especially around the Europe issue, also about the recent budget – and she’s been trying quite artfully to distance herself from the UK level party and to establish a distinctive position. So she’s unambiguously pro-EU. She will vote to remain within the EU. Her party seems to be pretty much behind her in Scotland on this. Last year, she was quite critical of George Osborne’s budget in the way that it affected benefits. So she’s steering a little bit certainly to the left of the UK Conservative Party. That will be her task. And that is to say, we are not them.
They may have the same name as us, but we are a distinctive Scottish variant of conservatism. Finally, Charlie, there are other parties contesting this election. The Scottish Liberal Democrats, Scottish Greens, UKIP and other parties. How can we expect them to fare? Yeah. The smaller parties in Scotland, I guess that has to include the Liberal Democrats now, having returned only five MSPs in the last Scottish election, they will be looking pretty much to try and hold onto that, and don’t really have great ambitions to recover lost ground. I think they may well do. I think they’re probably quite embedded in some of the constituencies, and may have some success. But they’re not going to recover. They’re in too weak a position.
The Greens, that’s a different matter. The Greens, like the SNP, have seen a big influx of new members since the Scottish referendum. And that does suggest a potential to grab a few list seats, and to get up above the two current representatives that they have. But I don’t see it being, again, a major breakthrough, going back perhaps to 2003 when the Greens had, I think, six or seven MSPs, something in that area. UKIP, I’d be very, very surprised if UKIP managed to return an MSP in the Scottish Parliament election. Their message about European integration is one which has a particular resonance in England, and don’t really have that resonance in Scotland.