Nae man can tether time nor tide

Yesterday I met a redoutable 87 year old woman who was the primary carer of her 90 year old husband of 63 years. We chatted about the weather and her garden before getting down to business. Which party does she normally identify with?  That would be Labour. She and her husband had voted Labour all their days, and voted No in the referendum, despite the exhortations of her Yes-daft “laddie” (he’s in his fifties). And who would she be voting for in the UK election in May? That would be the SNP. Or not exactly the SNP but “thon wee lassie”. She meant Nicola Sturgeon.

She had never been a fan of “him” she said but this lassie was of different mettle and there was a lot to like. She’s shaking things up a bit and with her in charge, the SNP will shake up a whole lot more, down there and here. We need things all shook up, she reckoned. And I like how she’s putting women first, she said.

Anyone wondering what difference Nicola Sturgeon has made in the early days of her leadership of her party and of Scotland, that’s it there in a nutshell. For every person opting positively to choose the SNP over Labour in this Westminster election, there is a minority – a significant minority, I’d hazard – who have been attracted to the SNP and what it stands for because of its leader and what she stands for. They like what they’ve heard so far and it shows in the polls too.

Most still show a continued gender gap among those who intend to vote SNP in May (such as in this Survation poll for Unison Scotland), but some show that gap having narrowed considerably (the most recent YouGov Scottish poll).

The First Minister has made no secret of her desire to deliver equality for women in Scotland. Her argument – that if you are good enough and work hard enough, being a woman should be no barrier to achieving success at work and in life – is the most explicit commitment made by any party leader in post-devolution Scotland to creating a fairer, better society for women. Implicit in her approach is the need to remove any barriers and plenty still exist.

Not least within her own party. Which explains the resolutions on the agenda for debate at the party’s Spring conference next weekend to create formal mechanisms to ensure a higher number of women candidates standing for the SNP and more of them elected.

I should declare an interest here – I’ve been a longtime proponent within the SNP of positive discrimination measures. The last time the party debated it (in 1998 I think), I was on the pro side of zipping male and female candidates on the regional list selections. That debate for me was characterised by the number of bright, young women speaking against the idea, adamant that they would get there under their own steam, thanks very much. Only one of them ever did.

So bravo for the new party leadership (and I include in this the NEC) for bringing the issue back for further, long overdue debate. This time, I hope the measures win the day.

Last time round, such is the contrary nature of the SNP membership, it more or less zipped anyway with a significant number of women elected to the Scottish Parliament. But without the issue being kept in focus, the numbers slipped. And have never been anything like balanced, let alone equal, for Westminster and local election selections.

As ever, there will be opposition. The same old, tired old arguments will be trotted out. It should be the best candidate who gets selected – which assumes that is usually a man – and there will no doubt be a coterie of women who shore that up by insisting on the right to do it for themselves, not wanting – ever – to feel they were chosen just because they are a woman.  It won’t be until they are rejected as a candidate precisely because they are a woman that they will get it.

The party can rightly point to the progress made in recent times. There are more women than ever before selected for Westminster seats and that’s testament not just to the formidable talent in the ranks of approved candidates but also to the willingness of local party organisations to select the best person to represent them in their constituencies in this contest.  But women still make up under 40% of the total candidates standing for Westminster and it will only be if we get into landslide territory on May 7th that signiificant numbers of them will be elected.

More women have joined the SNP creating a much more balanced membership; it has a 50-50 Cabinet; it has committed to changing the face of public boards and is encouraging private sector and charitable ones to do the same. All of this has come about – partly – because it has a female leader, because of what the party now stands for under her leadership and the policies it espouses.

A breakthrough was signalled at last party conference, when despite fierce opposition, a resolution was passed on gender balance in public life. I sat at home watching it all unfold and cried buckets at the conclusion, for it represented such a milestone.

Next Saturday, the SNP has the chance to show that it’s not just its leader who has mettle. That this is a party in tune with the mood abroad, prepared to lead on changing the nature of society by beginning with reforming its own structures. Before voting on this vital resolution and all the amendments, delegates should pause and consider where Scotland stands, what their party – and especially, their leader – stand for and where she and they want to lead their country to.

The SNP is at a juncture – is it thirled to it (and Scotland’s) past, stuck in the present or focussed on the future and creating a different party (and country) for the next generation to inherit? After all, a better, fairer society for all means exactly that, in all structures and circumstances.

To coin a phrase, moments like this in party histories are like “poppies spread”. They can choose to “seize the flower” before “its bloom is shed”.  And in doing so, delegates might want to remember that “nae man can tether time nor tide”.

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?

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.