Beware the polls of March

While there has always been tension within the Scottish Labour party about how and where to target resources during elections, never have we enjoyed such a ringside seat to the internal drama. Such is the panic in their breasties that it’s all being played out publicly for our delectation. It makes for a very bad farce. Or even a Greek tragedy.

This weekend, we’ve had unnamed sources calling for the West of Scotland and Glasgow, those previous citadels of Labour electoral dominance, to be abandoned in favour of seats that can still be saved in the East of Scotland. Then there’s been the criticism of the amount of support going into Margaret Curran’s Glasgow East constituency at the expense of others. Finally, some have questioned how it was worked out which seats would benefit from £1,000 of Blair’s filthy lucre, while some of the beneficiaries appear to have tried and failed to not accept the donation.

Every day provides another round of apparent Labour in-fighting. And there’s still weeks to go to polling day. For observers and commentators, and hard pressed and harried political journalists everywhere, this is, as the saying goes, the gift that will keep on giving.

For the SNP, well do they even have to turn up?  What need is there of a campaign when Labour is managing to dig its own political grave, with little help from any of the other parties? I’ve taken to listening to BBC Question Time on the radio: it’s a much more edifying and interesting experience. Tuning into last week’s show, never in all my days have I heard an audience in Scotland so hostile to the Labour party; poor Kezia Dugdale couldn’t even finish a sentence before being shouted down or eliciting collective disapproval or worst of all, the audience guffawing. In Glasgow.

And setting the mood music are all those polls: doesn’t matter who runs them, the numbers are largely similar. The SNP is in unprecedented territory for a Westminster election, Labour is in freefall, the Conservatives are static and the Liberal Democrats are finished as a political entity.

Everything – every nuance, detail and scrap of information at macro and micro political level – suggests that something huge is going to happen on Thursday 7 May in Scotland. The SNP is going to win, Labour is going to lose. It’s going to be massive.

And yet.

Call me Cassandra but some caution is required.

I worry that those leading the SNP campaign are not quite managing to contain their glee and successfully play down expectations.  “We’re taking nothing for granted” is not the same as “the only poll that counts is the one on election day and there are a lot of votes out there yet to be won”.

What if what the polls are predicting doesn’t quite come to pass?  What if Labour manages to narrow the gap by even just 5%? How would a gain of say 20+ seats, taking the SNP’s tally to a remarkable 30 look like a loss because the 50 seat total predicted by these wild February and March polls did not in the end materialise? That’ll be the mainstream media’s role.

Suddenly, Jim Murphy looks like a miracle worker and his party didn’t do as badly as predicted. The surge towards the SNP was a mirage, momentum has halted and it is portrayed as having lost the General Election, putting the party on the back foot right at the start of its campaign for 2016. Headlines abound like “Can Jim Murphy build on this to regain lost ground in 2016?” “Is the end nigh for the SNP?” “Is this the high point for the SNP’s electoral fortunes?” “Is it all downhill from here?”

So, I – and I know I’m not alone – would feel a lot more comfortable if the SNP was talking down the polling, as well as working away on the ground to turn opinion into fact.

Because it is not entirely clear that the polls will translate into results – and given the providence of some of the pollsters, we need to beware their March polls.

There is no such thing as a uniform shift as predicted by the headline, aggregated results in all the polls, as discovered by any activitists this weekend who were out in No voting constituencies in the referendum and in particular, those better off areas which did indeed vote No in considerable numbers. Clearly, people can only provide anecdotal snapshots but what they found on the ground is at least a live possibility of the beginnings of an anti-SNP tactival voting alliance among those whose antipathy to the SNP is all-consuming. In short, those who voted No might well be considering holding their noses to vote for another party to thwart the SNP’s landslide.

There are clues too below the headlines. Let’s look at the Ashcroft poll in the 14 Labour held constituencies which voted yes, in which a swing to the SNP of over 25% was predicted. Taken together, the polling results suggest that 37% of people intend to vote SNP compared to only 27% Labour. There is little difference between men and women, though Ashcroft suggests a much closer split among women with only 33% saying they will vote SNP compared to 29% for Labour. Taking socio-economic data, the SNP appears to enjoy a lead across all groups, including a remarkable 16% gap among AB voters, narrowing to only a 1% lead among DE voters.

But the most interesting breakdown relates to age. There is no doubt that the SNP enjoys astonishing levels of support among younger voters. The gap is around 20% for everyone aged 18 to 44 – that’s a huge chunk of the potential voting population in May. But we all know who actually can be relied upon to turn out and vote, whatever the weather and largely, whatever the election and among older voters, the gap narrows. In Ashcroft’s poll across 14 Labour seats in Yes voting areas, the SNP only leads by 5% among 55 to 64 year old voters. Among the over 65s, Labour still enjoys majority support, with 39% of those voters intending to stick with Labour compared to the 22% preparing to twist with the SNP.

And in that one statistic lies the seed of my disquiet. Everyone enjoying poll leads in the stratosphere would do well to check this one out.  It would seem the pensioners are still not shifting and just as their intransigence was a key factor in the outcome of the referendum, they may well yet decide the outcome of this historic election.

In short, all those pensioners opting to stay with what they know might cause Labour-held constituency dominoes to wobble but not fall down.  Which could well result in a quite different overall result to this Westminster election. And then what happens?

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Beware the snollygosters

It would appear there is an election in the offing. Voters might think it’s someway away, but not the parties.

Despite those astonishing Ashcroft and YouGov polls suggesting that it’s operation wipeout, Nicola Sturgeon hit the campaign trail in Glasgow yesterday, calling on her not insignificant pool of 93,000 potential activists, to chap every door between now and polling day. She’s right to take nothing for granted and her party would do well to heed the call: there might well be work to be done.

After all, there is truth in the cliché that the only poll that matters is the one on the day. And here’s Jim Murphy making a virtue out of hard work, cancelling any plans his MSPs might have had for a week half-term break, telling them all to get out and campaign like the election was a week to go. At least, he’s now admitting his party is in trouble, big trouble.

Both teams were out in my patch yesterday, but no sign of the Lib Dems in what is still a Liberal Democrat seat. That might be because they’re targeting a different demographic of voters in this constituency. With only 12 weeks to go, targeting resources, energy and time at the right groups of voters is key. Basically, Labour and the SNP are after the same ones.

I was surprised just how many times I was asked how I would appeal to this type of voter or that in my crash-and-burn attempt to become a candidate – it’s okay, there will be no gnashing and wailing, I’m nearly over myself.  To me, it’s self-evident where the SNP has to go to win seats all across the central belt. Indeed, the polls are like a great big X marking the spot: to the once staunch Labour vote must they go. Yes, the Lib Dem vote has collapsed in these same constituencies but think on this – it was never huge to begin with, except in one or two areas, nor is it so easy to track down in geographical or community terms.

Still not convinced? Well, why do you think Jim Murphy’s targeted campaign strategy is to prevent 190,000 Labour voters who voted Yes becoming SNP voters? This is the battleground where all those seats on those ginormous projected swings will stand or fall. And it’s vital that the SNP in its local domains gets this and focuses all its attention on those voters.

Because in those last few vital days of the independence referendum, whisper it, but the other lot had a better get out the vote strategy than we did. The No camp shifted to identified core vote and what’s known as knocking it up, far earlier than Yes did.  At the time, I thought this a weakness, a sign that undecideds who had been edging up the scale towards a Yes were now ours and that Better Together had given up on persuading them. Yet, the fact we were still out there trying to persuade them was the issue. The No camp had done enough to slow the snowball hurtling down the mountainside throughout September gathering momentum towards yes and actually halted it before it subsumed everything in its wake. As in all other referenda, a majority of those still umming and awing on the day broke for the status quo.

Here in Edinburgh, No’s get-out-the-vote activity was co-ordinated city-wide and run largely by Labour. It was organised, targeted and focused. And the fact that few of us noticed it at the time means it worked as the stealth operation it was designed to be. Anyone who thinks that it could not be replicated in Glasgow or in the towns all across the M8 corridor needs to think back to the 2012 local government elections. Despite what the polls were saying, Labour dug out a vote and I’m not sure we understand how yet.

Whether or not they will be able to snatch such victory from the jaws of defeat yet again is unclear. When the mood of a nation appears to have turned so decisively, the ability of a tribe – much depleted these days in any event – to descend onto streets en masse at 5pm on polling day and sweep every eligible adult along to vote is no longer a strength but a weakness. Adopting these tactics of old might just help deliver SNP MPs in their bucketload.

Conversely, does the SNP have to do anything other than surf the wave of public opinion? Does it need to know where its vote is going to come from at this election? I’ve often wondered what might happen in a control experiment of a local campaign staying at home – completely at home – to see if all those local leaflets, footslog, A boards and door chapping actually does make a difference, or if it really is all down to national campaigns, narratives, messaging and media dominance.

This though is not the campaign for the SNP to try such experiments. For, despite what the polls are saying, the difference between shaving Labour majorities wafer thin and actually winning the seat will come down to local candidates and campaigns: the SNP might have a shiny team of fantastic people lined up to fight this election, but Labour has its snollygosters.

Twitter introduced me to this new word this week. Apparently, a snollygoster is someone, especially a politician, who is guided by personal advantage rather than consistent, respectable principles. There are good people in the Labour movement – still.  Some of them are even MPs and they are now fighting for their political lives. And all the trappings that go with it. There are few career options out there for former politicians, not in Scotland; certainly, none so lucrative as the sinecure on the green benches. And that aside, what to do when your entire life has been politics, politics and more politics?

Some Scottish Labour MPs will have peered over the abyss and not liked what they see at the bottom. They will by snollygosting for all they are worth for the next twelve weeks and the SNP needs to match them if those poll numbers are to translate into wins.

The Emperor’s new clothes

So, the first priority for the Emperor is to get himself some new clothes. His suit is no longer a la mode; folk point to him in the street and whisper. Some even openly guffaw. The old clothes have to go, but what to replace it with?

Fortunately, the Emperor has employed a tailor of some renown and expertise.  Though there are many who doubt his talents, and in fact question whether he has any at all, the tailor is perceived in most quarters, as being one of the best there is.  What he appears particularly to be good at is invisible mending, a skill which is indubitably going to be required in looking after the Emperor’s attire.

The tailor shows the Emperor some fine cloth options but the Emperor is not happy. To cut, shape, fit and sew an outfit from scratch?  That would take too long and there’s a big event in May for which the Emperor needs to be properly booted and suited.

Instead, he spies some items hanging at the back of the tailor’s shop, waiting for collection. “What about those”, he asks.  “Ah”, says the tailor, “they’re orders for other people. I can see why you like them. They’ve been skilfully made, beautifully cut, expertly sewn. Because these people took time to choose, to research the right clothes before deciding on what to wear.  Also, they picked styles that suit their personality. Perhaps, Emperor, you should do the same?”

But the Emperor had no idea what might suit him. He had a few suits hanging in the wardrobe but wasn’t sure they fitted anymore. They just didn’t seem the right thing to be wearing.

Then the Emperor spotted something vibrant hanging on its own. “Bring me that”, he instructed the tailor. The tailor began to protest: “But that is for quite a different customer, one with a real sense of their own style, who knows what they like and what they should be wearing. I really don’t think…”

No matter. The Emperor insisted the clothes be brought to him.  He tried them on and posed in front of the mirror.  So it was a bit tight across the chest and a bit baggy on the bum. Nor was he sure that purple suited him – even if he was the Emperor – but he liked it and liked how it looked.  He felt good in it.

The tailor rolled his eyes. “Really, Emperor? I really do think you should at least think about wearing a colour that suits you, that you can call your own.”  “Nonsense,” replied the Emperor, “Let out the seams here, tighten the fit here and I’ll take it.”

And so, the Emperor stepped out onto the stage for his first public engagement and the crowd gasped. The women in particular were astonished. “That’s our clothes he’s wearing,” they muttered. “What made him think he could just take our clothes and not tell anyone where they come from?” asked one. “That’s the new Emperor for you,” added another, “Doesn’t care whose clothes he’s in, he only cares that he’s wearing something, anything to dazzle the crowds.”

“Ah well,” the women agreed, “He’ll get found out soon enough.”

And guess what? He did.

– JIM MURPHY, IF YOU WANT TO WEAR WOMEN FOR INDEPENDENCE’S CLOTHES, AT LEAST HAVE THE GRACE TO TELL EVERYONE WHERE YOU GOT THEM FROM.

IF WE THOUGHT WE NEEDED OR WANTED YOUR HELP WITH OUR WOMEN’S PRISON CAMPAIGN, WE’D ASK YOU. THANK YOU .