Of all the seats that the SNP would like to win in May 2015, surely East Renfrewshire must be the jewel in the crown. In 1997, when Jim Murphy won what had until then been a safe Tory seat, it demonstrated the strength of New Labour. Today Jim Murphy is still one of the most faithful believers in Tony Blair's project and it is with this background that he's trying to become leader of Labour's Scottish Branch Office. If the SNP manages to win his seat, it will symbolise the final defeat of the New Labour project in Scotland.
However, how likely is it? First of all, let's have a look at my recent prediction:
The way to read this is as follows: The SNP got a poor result in 2010, ending up as number four just behind the LibDems. Once we've applied uniform swing (according to last month's opinion polls), the SNP is up at number three, getting close to overtaking the Tories; however, Labour is still far ahead. The prospects look similar if we look at the 2011 Holyrood election. Only if we look at the referendum results and assume the No voters would divide up in the same way as in 2010 would the SNP win, providing a Yes Alliance was in place. However, once we look at everything together, an SNP victory looks like quite a challenge.
This table doesn't show the full picture, however. For instance, if we apply uniform swing based on the recent sensational Ipsos MORI poll, the result would be SNP 20,964, Labour 16,263, Cons 12,138 -- in other words a very safe SNP victory.
There's another reason to believe the SNP can win East Renfrewshire, and this has to do with voter psychology and tactical voting.
Many people like to think of East Renfrewshire as a Tory stronghold although Labour has been the strongest party for two decades. The number of Conservative voters seems to be relatively constant, normally fluctuating between 26% and 33% of the votes -- Westminster Tory support: 46.8% (1992), 33.5% (1997), 28.7% (2001), 29.9% (2005 [boundary changed]), 30.4% (2010); Holyrood: 32.7% (1999), 26.3% (2003), 33.6% (2007), 33.4% (2011); East Renfrewshire Council: 40% of seats (1999), 35% (2003), 35% (2007), 30% (2011).
Given that it strikes me as unlikely that very many people would vote Tory tactically to get rid of Labour, it's probably safe to assume that the Conservatives will get about 30% of the vote in 2015.
If the Tories get this many votes and the LibDems get less than 5% (the uniform swing predicts they won't get any votes at all, but let's be generous), it follows that Labour + SNP are fighting over 65% of the vote. This means that if they split it evenly, both get 32.5% of the vote, which is more than the Tories, and in all other scenarios, the winning party will be significantly larger. This means the Tories cannot realistically take East Renfrewshire back.
However, just because the Conservatives cannot win it doesn't automatically imply that the SNP can do so (although both the referendum result and the recent Ipsos MORI poll suggest that they can).
The reason the SNP has traditionally done so badly in East Renfrewshire is because the Tories have been seen as a real threat. In other Scottish seats, the Tories disappeared from the horizon a long time ago, but here the Tories have been seen like real contenders until recently. Many people have therefore voted for anyone-but-the-Tories, and that has normally benefited Labour.
However, if we can convince the voters that the Tories cannot win in East Renfrewshire (based on the arguments above), it follows that there's no point in voting Labour tactically to keep them out. This might weaken the probably significant number of tactical anti-Tory voters in this constituency.
At the same time, many people are strongly against Murphy. Of course the Yes voters from the SNP, the Greens and Labour for Independence want to see him lose, but there must also be many No voters who cannot stand the man for various reasons. If they believe the SNP has the best chance of getting rid of him, they might vote tactically for the SNP candidate.
Finally, Jim Murphy's candidacy for the leadership of Scottish Labour means that one of the following will be the case in May 2015:
- He lost the leadership battle and now looks like a loser condemned to returning to Westminster when he really wanted to become First Minister. This is hardly a good platform for winning East Renfrewshire.
- He won the leadership battle but is returning to Westminster for a year until the next Holyrood election because Labour's rules say you have to be either an MP or an MSP but not both to be leader. This means that he isn't committed to representing the constituency and a good candidate should be able to use this against him. Also, it means a good SNP candidate will get a second shot in the subsequent by-election.
- He won the leadership battle and managed to get into Holyrood through a by-election. In this case a new Labour candidate will be fighting this seat, and the incumbency effect practically disappears.
In other words, because the Tories cannot win, because Murphy is hated by a large number of voters and because Murphy will be weakened in this seat by the leadership battle, it should be possible to get an SNP candidate elected in May 2015. It will require a strong candidate however -- it remains one of the most challenging seats for the SNP in the entire country.