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Scotland Is Waiting for a Unionist Alternative to the SNP

There is little prospect that, in the short term, Scottish Labour's core vote will return to it from the SNP. A tactical vote for the party, whilst it may be effective in a small collection of seats, will be as futile as expecting Darth Vader to oversee the construction of a Death Star without a fundamental design flaw.

Whilst many of you were enjoying the Bank Holiday weekend with walks in the park, a late brunch with that special someone and a trip to see the first of the summer blockbusters at the movies, I hit the campaign trail in Scotland.

Ochil and South Perthshire is one of many vast Scottish constituencies. At one time represented by that quintessential Tory and former Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home (he was actually a Unionist MP, not a Conservative), the area has been held since 2005 by Scottish Labour's Gordon Banks. The Scottish National Party, as elsewhere across Scotland, is poised to win the seat when the results are declared sometime on Friday 8th May.

During my two days in the constituency, I knocked on doors in the small village of Braco, rode in a Land Rover bedecked in saltires and Union flags (the so-called #UnionDefender), spoke to a variety of activists for the SNP and Scottish Conservatives and, curiously, did not encounter a single Scottish Labour activist.

As someone who follows Scottish politics pretty closely, my trip was in many ways revealing but also reinforced some thoughts that have long been brewing. The following three points are my entirely unscientific read of the Scottish political landscape, peppered with observations from my time in Ochil and South Perthshire.

There is an appetite for distinct Scottish parties -a Unionist one foremost amongst them

Countless times over the weekend, I encountered voters willing to back the SNP because they saw the party as best placed to be a strong voice for Scotland at Westminster. Scottish Labour, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservative and Unionists are all seen, to quote Johann Lamont's famous phrase, as the Scottish "branch office" of their English parent.

Many Scots want to see a Unionist Party. Although the Scottish Conservatives were given credit for the work they did during the referendum, time and again one word was fired back at the party - "toxic." Even naturally small 'c' conservatives said they could not bring themselves to support the Tories.

This places the Scottish Conservative and Unionists, the most explicitly pro-Union party in Scotland, in somewhat of a dilemma. They receive a sympathetic hearing but, beyond their core vote, their ability to attract a majority of pro-Union, centrist voters is hampered by the association of the party with a reviled name. Ruth Davidson, the leader of the party, is widely credited and praised for her performances. Despite that, support for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party remains at or close to 16%, as it has done since devolution in 1999.

Even among voters currently planning to vote SNP in this election, they could envision themselves supporting a Scottish Unionist Party. This is because such a party would be seen as Scottish first and foremost in much the same way as the SNP are. Whilst a reader in England may struggle to reconcile this fact, to people in Scotland it is not at all contradictory. But faced with the current choice, more and more Scottish voters are going to support the "Scottish Party" - the SNP - until an alternative emerges.

Voters left behind

Braco is a small village within the Ochil and South Perthshire constituency. It was one of a number of places where voters told me that they had not been contacted in person for almost two general election cycles. During my time with Luke Graham's campaign (the Scottish Conservative and Unionist candidate), a number of these voters expressed good wishes towards Graham's campaign for taking the time to speak with them.

This points to a wider problem, one that was also highlighted during the referendum campaign last year. Scottish Labour has treated Scotland as a reliable fiefdom which, whether they intended it or not, has led to complacency on an epic scale. Swathes of voters across Scotland have had their votes taken for granted and do not remember the last time they spoke to a party activist let alone a candidate. This is not a recipe for engendering trust in the political system.

Of course, with the rise and rise of the SNP, they are about to occupy the position that Scottish Labour once held - that of the predominate party of Scotland. With so much of the country likely to be represented by SNP MPs, a crucial challenge for them will be to treat the voters with the respect they deserve. This means constantly engaging across often disparate constituencies with numerous collections of small villages and towns. Rural voices are no less worthy of consideration than densely packed urban areas.

Early signals are mixed. Although the SNP have a visible presence in many towns, their primary tactic for rural voter engagement appears to be via telephone. Whilst this is no doubt a more efficient use of time, it is no substitute for knocking on doors - something many in Ochil and South Perthshire commented that the SNP seem curiously reluctant to do.

Tactical voting

For now, the equation the majority of people in Scotland are dealing with is a choice between voting for the SNP or voting to keep the SNP out. Obviously, this is related to my first observation about the clear demand for an alternative for the SNP. My feeling is that this is a short term phenomenon. By the time the Scottish Parliamentary election takes place this time next year, a very different dynamic will be in play.

Focusing on this election, tactical voting to keep the SNP out will mostly favour the incumbent Scottish Labour Party. With Scottish Labour's core vote fleeing like a bat out of hell, tactical votes for the party will artificially inflate their support. Many venerable journalists have penned articles urging voters to vote tactically for Scottish Labour as they believe it is the best chance to keep the SNP out.

Such advice, whilst well intentioned, is misguided on several levels. First and foremost, you should vote for what you believe in. This is not a glib political sound bite. Trust in politics will not be rebuilt if people feel they constantly have to decide between the least bad choice. How this is overcome is not straight forward (though part of the answer may lie with introducing proportional representation).

Secondly, Scottish Labour is the Darth Vader of politics - it is being kept alive by a series of intricate devices. It is increasingly a struggle for it to draw breath and the once ubiquitous sense of its' power is being continually eroded. Unless it suddenly rallies and wins support of its own accord, a tactical vote for Scottish Labour is building a pro-Union base on quicksand.

There is little prospect that, in the short term, Scottish Labour's core vote will return to it from the SNP. A tactical vote for the party, whilst it may be effective in a small collection of seats, will be as futile as expecting Darth Vader to oversee the construction of a Death Star without a fundamental design flaw.

For those of you who know Star Wars, the Death Star got blown up (twice). Scottish Labour got pummelled in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary election. They are about to suffer the same fate this Thursday.

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