Devolved Elections 2016: State of Play in Scotland

1 April 2016

If Scotland had voted yes to independence, last week would have marked its first year as a sovereign country. As some observers reflected on what might have been as they marked the anniversary of non-independence on 24 March, much of the media focus rested on the volatility of the North Sea oil and gas sector, as many speculated on what the collapse in oil prices would have meant for an independent Scottish nation.

Some observers believed the 2014 referendum could have led demands for independence to momentarily wane. However, the SNP landslide during the 2015 General Election; debate over the potential repercussions of Brexit; and the forthcoming Scottish elections indicate the power this vision still continues to hold over the electorate.

The trend is expected to continue in May, with the SNP anticipating that its surge in membership and support will deliver a second majority government, confirmed by Ms Sturgeon’s record approval ratings. We assessed the tactics and strategies deployed by Labour and the Conservatives as they to try and halt what polls suggest is inevitable.

With a pre-election spring conference under its belt, Labour was able to refresh its election narrative, crafting a position that attacks SNP anti-austerity policy, and, having failed to extend an invitation to the Labour Leader or Shadow Chancellor, clearly marking itself apart from Jeremy Corbyn.

Nevertheless, Kezia Dugdale has been tasked with leading to the polls a party whose popularity ratings appear to be in perpetual decline, and, at a present, attempts to ameliorate the situation appear not to be cutting through. 

Labour’s manifesto has yet to be published, but Ms Dugdale’s initial bold pledge to increase Income Tax by 1p for a £500m spending increase for schools and councils, and to scrap “unfair” Council Tax in favour of a value-based property tax, both failed to court an electorate currently in thrall to the SNP.

Labour has recently gone further, testing the SNP by urging it to back a 50p tax rate once new Income Tax powers come into force. This move led to fierce debate with the SNP over a potential rise in tax dodging.

Ms Dugdale’s gamble has not resulted in more favourable ratings, even though the SNP is heading to the polls promising to maintain the current rate of Income Tax. If Labour is to succeed in overcoming the trauma of 2015 and maintaining a presence in Holyrood by holding on to power in its heartlands, the strategy to outflank the SNP still has some way to go. 

Meanwhile, the Scottish Conservative Party has undoubtedly undergone transformational change under the watch of Ruth Davidson, a leader who appears in-tune, tech-savvy and thoroughly modern by Westminster standards. With increased popularity ratings, Ms Davidson hopes to present a party capable of taking over Labour’s position in Holyrood, and reaching second place.

Just as Scottish Labour sought to distance itself from its Westminster counterpart, Ms Davidson had pledged to cut Scottish Income Tax rates, taking them lower than the UK. But deeper spending cuts imposed by the Treasury forced Ms Davidson to abandon her best-laid plans, which could prove damaging.

During the recent televised debates, Ms Davidson announced her pledge to reintroduce tuition fees, charged at £1,500 per year, alongside the reintroduction of NHS prescription charging. Policy aside, it is clear that Ms Davidson will continue to present the Conservatives as active defenders of the Union, as she pressed the First Minister on the likelihood of a second referendum during the debate.

As the electorate waits for the publication of manifestos to assess the policy credentials of each party, both Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour face attempts to redefine and refresh public perceptions - a trend likely to drive the parties to potentially uncompromising and controversial positions.

Jasmine Mitchell
Jasmine Mitchell
Political Analyst

Jasmine Mitchell is a Political Analyst at DeHavilland, where she monitors the UK Parliament and devolved institutions. She first joined DeHavilland as a Research Assistant in January 2015. Jasmine holds a BA in Modern History and Politics from the University of Liverpool and a Masters in Conflict, Security and Development from King's College London.