A few months ago, I concluded that for the first time in a long time, this election in Scotland would go down to the wire and that the actual election campaign would be crucial.
Allow me to elaborate. Usually, as Kenny Farquharson opines in his column today, a mood can be detected in the population at large. Voters will have decided which way their political barometers are swinging and quietly determined how they are going to vote. Sometimes the extent of that settling only becomes apparent after polling day, as it did in 2007.
But this election is different, as the polls would now appear to show. There is no creeping upwards of one of the parties. For months, Labour has reigned dominant yet in the first major poll of the year, voters have done the equivalent of a handbrake turn and spun 180 degrees in favour of the SNP. The burd predicts that until early April, this is how the polls will stay, with the SNP narrowly in front – much more narrowly when the undecideds and dont knows are considered, rather than just the “certain to votes”.
Thereafter, folk will start making up their minds and that may involve them shifting their intended vote again. The reason? It’s when Scotland’s phoney war with the cuts comes to an end.
For in April, the first pay packets will be opened that show the increase in National Insurance and for many, the first lack of an annual pay increase. Factor in that the winter fuel bills will have arrived, causing eyes to water; the reality of VAT hikes biting when people have to make a first significant purchase of the year; and worst of all for many families, the changes in tax credits hitting home. Some will see this lifeline disappear altogether.
It will be April that the phoniness of a council tax freeze will be exposed – a few pounds a week potentially saved against the reality of rocketing food prices, the cost of filling the car, a possible interest rate rise on mortgages and the certainty of an excruciating rent hike for council tenants. Yep, come April, we will all be faced with the certainty of having to pay for more with a lot less.
The first public sector and voluntary sector job losses, much announced, will actually happen; expect some big name failures on the high street; and the first cuts in services will begin to filter through. There will also be increased fees for everything from meals on wheels to swimming, from birth and death registrations to care home charges.
At the moment, we all know it’s coming but are in hibernation preparation mode, squirrelling away, keeping our heads down, only vaguely trying to tally it all up. But we are afraid. Very afraid. When was the last time you had a conversation with friends and family when the subject matter didn’t turn quickly to our impending financial doom?
This fear was also reflected in what people ranked as the most important issues in this election in the IPSOS-MORI Scottish Public Opinion Monitor published last week. (Scroll to page 47 for the findings).
The top two issues ranked as the most important – by a country mile – are the economy (25%) and unemployment (23%). Education is a distant third on 8%, independence and the constitution on 7% and the NHS (5%). These are unprompted responses, which means, people are not given a list to choose from but asked to say off the top of their heads. It’s only when asked what other issues are important that the big devolved issues feature. Education is cited the most (24%), then the NHS (18%), then public spending cuts (17%), the economy (12%) and crime (11%).
It’s clearly going to be all about the economy and we might all want to brush up on how and why Clinton made such a success of this kind of mantra in the early 90s. To win this election, Labour and the SNP are going to have to produce a coherent narrative about how they intend to keep Scotland afloat in the troubled waters ahead, how they propose to reshape our economy and our public sector, and deliver some hope for future generations.
At the moment, neither is prepared (one hopes, they are actually able) to paint this big picture. We’ve had some wee stuff – a spat over the precise number of modern apprenticeships required to resolve youth unemployment – and boy, are they good at arguing over the parochial. We’ve also had some very big numbers – Salmond’s millions for renewable energy developments – which are difficult to break down into real life impact on real life communities.
We’ve had some promising indicators, such as the most recent unemployment figures, but until someone, anyone is able to explain satisfactorily why and how Scotland is bucking the UK trend, these are largely washing over us. We are not convinced they are anything more than a blip.
Both the major parties appear thirled to a more of the same economic approach; both have largely accepted job losses as inevitable; neither has offered more than a hint on where new jobs – decent jobs – in the future might be found; no one is setting out how our economy might be transformed and made fit for the 21st Century.
In short, we have yet to be offered a route map out of our financially straitened times, and until we are, neither party are able to seal the deal with the electorate.
And when the reality of April hits our bank balances, it will be the first party to provide this narrative, to “”tap into the dark leitmotif of the age“, that will surely reap the electoral dividends.
This election ain’t over by a long chalk. Hell, the squeezing of the poll margins – and the volatility of key voter groups like women – suggest it’s only just begun.