When I moved to Scotland almost twenty years ago and started watching election night programmes, I was surprised at first by their focus on the uniform swing. I then realised that it had been a very useful tool when there only were two main parties, and the psephologists and political journalists were simply too lazy to invent better ways to describe the changes to the electoral landscape. It’s thus no surprise that people are already talking a lot about the swing between Labour and the Conservatives, as if that’s what mattered.
Although the 2017 election seemed to move back towards two-party politics (Labour and the Tories got a combined 82.4% share of the vote, up from 67.3% in 2015, and this was the highest figure since 1970), all opinion polls are showing a return to multi-party politics south of the border. (In Scotland, the SNP will probably dominate even more than before, but of course the proportional electoral systems used for all elections other than Westminster ones has led to a healthy plethora of parties here anyway.)
In England, there are two races to watch: Firstly between the Tories and the Brexit Party, and secondly between Labour and the Lib Dems. Basically the Tories will do well if the Brexit Party gives way (at least by not standing in marginal seats), and Labour will hope that the Lib Dems don’t fight them where it matters.
Because the Brexit Party will regard Boris Johnson as sound on Brexit, I expect them to give him an easy ride (and focus on seats they can take from Labour), whereas Labour and the Lib Dems are already at each other’s throats. Also, many Labour candidates really aren’t very Remain-y, so they might not benefit from tactical voting as much as they expect. The most likely scenario is therefore a Tory victory, perhaps even a huge one. In theory, the Brexit Party could still decide to fight the Tories tooth and nail, and the Remain parties could decide on some tactical voting scheme, but it’s much less likely.
We also shouldn’t forget that most of the highly successful Leave campaign are now working for Number 10. They know how to win, and they’re very happy to play dirty to do so. In 2017, Corbyn benefited from Remain voters giving Labour the benefit of the doubt, while May’s abysmal campaigning skills depressed the Tory vote. This time will be very different.
In Scotland, what will the SNP do? Will they produce a strong independence manifesto that says it’s too late to stop Brexit and Scotland finally needs to launch its lifeboat? Or will they focus on stopping Brexit, with independence looking more like an afterthought? Or will they produce another timid manifesto that tries to keep both the pro-indy Leave voters and the Remain voters who’re uncertain about independence on board? I expect they will at least say that returning a majority of SNP MPs will be a mandate for a new indyref, but will they say anything about what they’ll do if they’re told again that “now is not the time”?
I’ve no doubt the SNP will win, and win big. The real question is whether they win on a manifesto that will be useful after a crushing Tory victory, or whether they’re preparing only for supporting a minority Labour government in return for stopping Brexit and/or getting an new independence referendum.
I hope the SNP will add something to their manifesto along the lines of this: “If we don’t succeed in gaining Westminster’s consent to a new independence referendum, an SNP election victory is a mandate for establishing a Scottish constitutional convention with a view to declaring independence and holding a confirmatory independence referendum afterwards.”
I have my doubts. Nicola Sturgeon is always cautious, and always prefers to stay within the law. But if this election produces a Tory majority that drags Scotland out of the EU in short order, that might not be the best approach any more.