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A New Era of Scottish Politics?

Labour has a tough fight in the Scottish parliament elections with a reformed electoral system and a resurgent SNP. Gerry Hassan looks at the new dynamics that will change Scottish politics forever.

Scottish politics are at the brink of a new era. The official campaign for the first Scottish Parliamentary elections is about to start and the election will be held on May 6th 1999 - just over two years since Labour was first returned to Government at a UK level.

The outcome of the first Scottish Parliaments will be extremely difficult to predict for two main reasons. The first is the emergence of new voting patterns in Scotland. The second is the new electoral system of the Parliament which is designed to retain the constituency link while being broadly proportional.

Opinion polls for over the last year have shown a marked difference between voting intentions for Westminster elections and the new Scottish Parliament, with Labour continuing to poll well in the former, and the SNP do well in the latter. Since early 1998, Labour and the SNP have been roughly running neck and neck in voting intentions for the Scottish Parliament, with the SNP briefly taking the lead last summer, and Labour taking a small lead since.

The Scottish Parliament will also see electors get two votes - one for their FPTP constituencies and one for the top-up regional seats, with the SNP consistently doing slightly better in the second. The February 1999 System Three/Herald poll showed Labour on 41% and the SNP on 39% on the first vote and tied on Labour 38% SNP 38% on the second vote. This is a gigantic change in terms of Scottish electoral patterns even from the 1997 election when Scottish Labour polled 46% to the SNP's 22%.

Labour has never been run this close for generations and the party is not used to it and has been clearly rattled and caught unprepared. One aid for the SNP surge has been the decline of the Tory and Lib Dem vote since the 1997 election; then the Tories polled 18% and the Lib Dems 13%, whereas now polls have consistently put them both at about 10%.

What this has meant is that Scottish politics for the first time ever has become a two party contest between Labour and SNP, and this is something Labour has yet to acknowledge. Given that we are still a little away from polling day, and the Tories and Lib Dems may stage a recovery, we need to be cautious about the changes going on, but it seems that Scottish politics may be slowly shifting from an asymmetrical system of one-party Labour dominance which has shaped and distorted Scotland for at least two generations, to a genuine two party competitive system: a fundamental realignment of politics north of the border. This new system would involve two roughly equal voting blocs being able to pose as alternative governments offering Scots voters a choice about who runs their affairs.

All of this is aided by an electoral system which will produce politics without absolute majorities. The Scottish Parliament's electoral system involves 129 members with 73 elected by FPTP (72 Westminster seats with Orkney and Shetland divided into two) and 56 Additional Member Seats (AMS) which act as a regional top-up in each area.

This electoral system will overnight transform Scottish politics with Labour's one party hold over Scotland being abolished based as it has been more on the distortions of the FPTP system than Scottish Labour's electoral strength; in 1997 Labour won 46% of the vote yet took 78% of the seats.

Politics will then come down to two defining alternatives as government coalitions: Labour and Liberal Democrats vs. SNP and Liberal Democrats. The arithmetic of any Parliament may aid the former coalition, while the Lib Dems have said they are unwilling to form an administration with the SNP at the moment as long as they wish to have a referendum on Scotland being independent.

In the long-term people will have a choice about who they want to run Scotland's Government with different options on offer other than Labour. At some point, some combination of the non-Labour majority will coalesce and form an administration; this will be helped by the inevitable return of the Scots Tories at some point from the political ghetto they have been put in as a price for Thatcherism.

Scottish politics will be utterly changed by the processes unleashed in the Scottish Parliament elections. Labour's one party hegemony across Scotland will be ended at a national level, while the party will have to think anew about fighting its first real competitive elections in forty years. The SNP, on the other hand, will have to abandon the politics of protest, oppositionalism and opportunism which it has been so good at over the years and develop into a serious political party looking for power. There is ever sign that Alex Salmond, SNP leader, is prepared to take the tough decisions to develop the SNP, but he will meet bitter resistance in parts of the party, particularly from its fundamentalist wing.

The new politics of the new electoral system will transform Labour's one party fiefdoms in the West of Scotland: Glasgow and its surrounding areas where opposition parties win no to little representation. In the 1997 election Labour in Glasgow won 10 out the 10 seats on 60% of the vote. Under the new system, the SNP, Tories, Lib Dems and even ultra-left Scottish Socialist Party would all stand a chance of winning representation in Glasgow and thus, reflecting the city's diversity more. What this will mean is that across swathes of West and Central Scotland, significant numbers of SNP and Tory MSPs will be elected and this will change the nature of politics in these areas and the parties themselves for the better. The SNP, until now, has been positioning itself as a party competing for the same vote as Labour but doing spectacularly badly about winning seats in Labour areas. All six of the SNP's Westminster seats are rural, ex-Tory seats out with the Central Belt, whereas the new electoral system will emphasise the urban, centre-left appeal of the SNP by themwinning seats in areas like Glasgow and the West of Scotland.

What will be the consequences of this political movement? In the short term, politics may actually get more acrimonious, nasty and bitter with Labour and SNP fighting out a war of attrition for the same voters. Old Labour politicians will be incensed at the prospects of the SNP winning a number of seats in what are still seen as Labour heartlands, while the SNP will be heartened that its strategy of defeating Labour is beginning to show fruition. However, in the long run, a politics that abolishes no go areas for political parties and ends the old one party must be good for the quality of politics.

The Scottish Parliament will also change the political parties culturally and organisationally. In terms of cultural politics, all the parties will now be forced to emphasis their Scottish credentials and out do each other to see who can best lay claim to be 'Scotland's party' (SNP), 'Scotland's oldest political party' (Tories), or offering policies 'Made in Scotland' (Tories again). This is a politics of positioning, but does have to connect to parties developing a genuine Scottish agenda.

In terms of party organisation, the parties all need to develop their policy, research and administrative work to make it more Scottish-based and autonomous. The easiest area to devolve should be party administrative functions with party selection of candidates developed in a Scottish context; Scottish Labour, showed some of the potential pitfalls in candidate selection with fears of London intervention in the selection for candidate panel, concerns over a Blairite purge, and then when the regional list was being made up charges of cronyism due to lack of one member, one vote.

However, the greater challenge will to develop policy and research work that is based in and relevant to Scotland. This will be a challenge to all the parties who although they have been issuing Scottish election manifestos for over twenty years have - with the exception of the SNP - just been borrowing on the parties research and strategic work down south and adapting it. The biggest dilemmas that will be faced over the next few years will be by Scottish Labour, given it has been Scotland's leading party for forty years. It has agreed in the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention to an electoral system which could be seen as against the party's narrow self-interest. Labour is now undertaking a learning curve about a new kind of Labour politics with emphasis on alliance, coalitions and compromise breaking from the old labourist traditions.

One of the defining features of Scottish politics is that Labour-SNP hostility disguises the fact that both parties and sets of voters share many values and priorities both being centre-left, social democratic parties. A new consensus may emerge in the Scottish Parliament excluding the question of whether Scotland should or should not be independent, and it would focus on developing public services in a more integrated, holistic way, while bringing more transparency and democracy to Scottish public life, from the quangos to local government. In the latter, there is now widespread agreement that proportional representation should be brought in to tackle the more extreme abuses of one-party rule at local level.

A Scottish politics defined by Labour and SNP competition for the banner of Scottish social democracy throws up new dilemmas and possibilities. First, the 'Salmond Labour' voters - the crucial swing voters in the new elections - Labour voters who are now considering voting SNP for the Scottish elections - could become the harbingers of a new political age. Second, both party leaderships are attempting to develop modernisation agendas which are actually remarkably similar: stressing a low tax, enterprise Scottish economy which show the problems in renewing Scottish social democracy.

Third, Labour's ambiguities about 'the Blair project' and divisions between Brown and Blair camps has prevented the development of a radical Labour agenda; instead the party has united around a high profile Helen Liddell inspired 'bash the Nats' hard Unionist message which carries with it the potential for Labour to be seen as anti-Scottish.

Scottish politics are entering exciting times. Scottish voters have extraordinarily high expectations of the Parliament across a range of economic and social issues, and they do not yet brand the Parliament as being associated with 'politics' and 'politicians'. This gives the Scottish Parliament a golden window of opportunity to reconnect politics to everyday life, before it is quickly branded as another talking shop or part of the governing elite. This is a once in a lifetime chance: we dare not blow it.

Gerry Hassan is Director of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy and editor of 'A Guide to the Scottish Parliament: The Shape of Things to Come' published by the Stationery Office, 6.95.