Superstitions, Premonitions & Polling for St Andrew’s Day

This blog was published before the very sad news about the passing of former Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling today. We send our condolences to his family and friends

What unites Cyprus, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, and islands in Columbia, Spain and Barbados? It’s their celebration of St Andrew’s day at the end of November.

Indeed in Romania, on the eve of the Patron Saint’s day, people have traditionally put 41 grains of wheat under their pillow - and if they dream of someone stealing it it’s said that they will find a husband by next year.

Of course, most people in the United Kingdom consider St Andrew’s Day to be a celebration of Scotland. So what do our grains of Scottish electoral insight tell us about which Prime Minister we might find ourselves with by next year?

As someone that grew up in the southside of Glasgow, you would  expect me to say that Scotland has always punched above its own weight politically. But measured in Prime Ministers, Scotland has had seven people born on its soil that went on to lead the country. Poor Wales hasn’t had a single one born there, as much as Neil Kinnock tried (although of course David Lloyd George is universally accepted as a Welshman despite being born in England owing to his Welsh parentage). 

Scotland and the Labour Party 

Much of this representation comes from the link between Scotland and the Labour Party, going all the way back to its founder and first leader Keir Hardie. Scotland has been vital to Labour’s electoral success, since Ramsay McDonald won in 1929 as the first Labour Prime Minister. Labour quickly found a natural home in Scotland, in fact the old adage goes that they didn’t have to count the Labour votes in Glasgow instead they would weigh them. 

While Labour  were a natural fit with Scotland, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher routinely clashed.The managed decline of Glasgow as an industrial hub, similar to northern cities like Liverpool, turned Scottish voters off the Conservatives in a significant way. But Margaret Thatcher and her government became genuine hate figures after the implementation of the Community Charge, or better known as the poll tax. My own Grandad was one of the protesters blocking bailiffs from collecting the charge back in 1990, to that generation and since the Conservatives are simply not an option. This has not changed in 30+ years. The poll tax was the beginning of the end for Thatcher, Scotland was integral to that fall. 

Safe Labour seats in Scotland allowed talented politicians from North of the border to climb the ranks of the party and the late 80s, 90s and 00s were dominated by Scottish politicians from across parliament at the forefront of Westminster politics. From Gordon Brown and Charles Kennedy to Alex Salmond and even Tony Blair (yes, he was born in Edinburgh). These politicians were focused on Scottish issues as well as national issues, with John Smith famously making devolution a key part of Labour’s policy proposals in the early 90s. And no article about Scotland written by an internationalist like me could fail to mention the late, great Robin Cook. 

But the 2015 general election was a political earthquake in Scotland. The Scottish National Party won 56 seats out of 59, the remaining 3 going one each to the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Labour lost 40 seats, which some might see as a complete rejection of the party for siding with David Cameron’s Conservative government against Scottish Independence. 

This new map of Scotland has proved difficult for Labour ever since, and without the safety of those Scottish seats their routes to power are fewer and more fraught with danger. Indeed in 2017, even in hung parliament territory the Labour party was still far from the numbers needed to take minority control.

So what does all this have to do with next year's general election?

On a national level, it is thought Labour would have to play several different roles to bring back its coalition of voters from when it last was in power in 2010. The task seemed almost impossible; Labour would have to win back the Red Wall, keep London AND bring in seats from the Midlands and South. But if Scotland moves back to Labour, the path to No.10 becomes much more achievable. 

If the polls turn out to be correct, then the SNP and Labour are in a dead heat for the first time in nearly a decade - and one poll this week even put them ahead. If Labour are able to match their polling numbers then we could be seeing upwards of 25-30 Scottish Labour MPs in the next parliament. The recent Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election was a major win for Labour, but it is a seat that has gone back and forth since 2015. With all recent seat level polling showing near obliteration for the Scottish Tories, the election will be dominated by SNP/Labour run offs. Glasgow and Edinburgh now contain the key battleground seats for Labour at the next election. 

For election watchers like me, it’s all eyes on Scotland between now and polling day. Afterall, as the enlightenment philosopher Voltaire said, "We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation."