Europe Politics

Scotland's general election is different and could change the United Kingdom forever

Key Points
  • The question of independence adds a layer of unpredictability in Scotland.
  • The Scottish National Party could offer a route to power for Labour.
  • Anti-independence support in Scotland is likely to boost the Conservative Party.

The ruling Conservative Party in the U.K. wants the upcoming general election to be framed largely as a de-facto vote on Brexit. The main opposition Labour party want to move the question on to domestic policies such as health and social care.

But in Scotland, where 59 of Parliament's 650 seats exist, the rules are different.

Leaving the European Union and local issues will still influence the thinking of Scottish voters but the question of Scotland's future within the U.K. itself, remains the bigger concern.

And the Scottish vote, albeit minor in the context of Westminster, may suddenly matter a whole lot on the day after the December 12 election. Should Labour need a coalition to win power, it may turn to the Scottish National Party (SNP) to form a winning alliance.

SNP banks on independence

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Getty Images | Staff

The SNP launched its manifesto on Wednesday and in its introduction, the party leader and First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, branded the current U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson as "dangerous and unfit for office." There is no love lost between the leaders in Edinburgh and London.

Beyond the rancor, headline policies from the SNP included a promise to stop Brexit, remove Britain's nuclear-armed submarines from Scottish waters, increase spend on the health service and tackle child poverty.

But the big reason why the SNP was formed is to seek independence from the U.K. and Sturgeon also confirmed she wanted another referendum on the matter in 2020.

In 2014, 55% of people living in Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom. In 2015, Sturgeon said that "something material would have to change," before she would propose another referendum.

The party now argue that change arrived rapidly in June 2016 when a U.K.-wide referendum on Britain's membership of the European union delivered a seismic "leave" result that the country is still bitterly divided over.

A strong majority of Scots voted to remain in the European Union and the SNP is fighting hard on the doorsteps to argue that only it, with a mandate to leave the U.K., can protect Scots from the effects of leaving the EU.

Currently the SNP hold 35 of the 59 seats but one prediction from polling guru John Curtice assesses that the December result could improve to 41 seats.

Labour's collapse

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses delegates on day four of the Labour Party conference at the Arena and Convention Centre on September 26, 2018 in Liverpool, England.
Leon Neal | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Throughout the mid to late 20th century, the center-left Labour party always performed well in Scotland with support built on the bedrock of a strong trade union movement. As manufacturing, mining and shipping industries declined in number, union membership fell in tandem, chipping away at the robust support for Labour.

As late as 1997, Scottish faith in Labour remained high. A swell of support for the incoming Tony Blair saw Labour in Scotland win 56 of the then 72 seats, gathering more than double the votes of any other party.

But fast forward to 2019 and the latest poll from Panelbase suggests Labour could be all but wiped out in Scotland on December 12, with percentages suggesting it is on course to lose six of seven seats.

Richard Leonard who heads the Scottish Labour party has said a pro-independence majority in Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021 would be a clear mandate for a second independence referendum and "would not be blocked by a U.K. Labour government."

This suggests that Labour is all but giving up the chase in Scotland and will hope to do a coalition deal with the SNP to take power in Downing Street.

Ian Davidson is a Scottish Labour MP (Member of Parliament) who held successive Glasgow seats from 1992 until 2015. He is now fighting an unlikely battle to win Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk in the Scottish borders.

Speaking to CNBC by phone Tuesday, Davidson said Labour is trapped between the Conservative and SNP messages which reject and support independence, respectively.

The candidate said neither of those parties want to move off constitutional questions such as Brexit or independence and talk about their records in power as "neither are particularly good."

Davidson conceded that Labour had failed in part to shift the campaign narrative.

"If we were fighting the election on the basis of what the SNP has done in Scotland, I think people would be much more enthusiastic about our offering. But we haven't manage to get the debate on to that."

Conservative opportunity

Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at Downing Street on October 28, 2019 in London, England.
Leon Neal | Getty Images News | Getty Images

In 1955, Scots returned 36 of the 72 seats available to the Conservative Party. That high water mark trended lower until Blair's first victory in 1997 which saw precisely no Conservative wins.

Thereafter, only one Tory MP would win a seat in Scotland at each of the four subsequent elections, until 2017 when suddenly 13 constituencies voted Conservative and the popular vote rose to almost 29%.

The sudden improvement was interpreted as a direct reflection on the Conservative's strong anti-independence stance, targeting votes from people in Scotland who want to stay a part of the United Kingdom.

There was little expectation that the Conservatives will improve even further but the latest poll from Panelbase offers the center-right party some hope. The survey, which quizzed 1,009 Scottish voters between November 20 and November 22, 2019, signposted a seven-point increase in support for the Scottish Tories since October.

The Conservative candidate for Edinburgh South West, Callum Laidlaw, told CNBC by phone that people he speaks to seem fatigued by politics, especially on the bigger questions of Brexit and independence.

"I think people have begun to realize the more we discuss constitutional issues, then the lack of focus grows on issues such as public services," said Laidlaw.

When referendums, European and local elections are added to Scottish parliamentary ballots and general elections, Scottish people have been to the polls seven times in the last six years

Laidlaw's seat is considered a marginal with incumbent SNP MP Joanna Cherry only winning by just 1,097 votes at the last election in 2017.

Liberal Democrats

Newly elected European Parliament candidate Sheila Ritchie of the Scottish Liberal Democrats (C) is joined by leader Willie Rennie (R) after attending the declaration at the City Chambers on May 27, 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Jeff J Mitchell | Getty Images

The Liberal Democrats is a center-ground unionist political party which holds four of the available 59 Scottish seats in the U.K. House of Commons.

Its selling point to Scots is that it's the only party seeking to stop Brexit and prevent another independence referendum. The leader of the Scottish branch of the party Willie Rennie, has said he is targeting moderate Labour voters in particular who feel they do not have a "political home."

One major problem is that the U.K. party leader, Jo Swinson, leans to the right in her political ideology, a tricky space to occupy if you want to attract many votes in left-leaning Scotland.

A Scot herself, Swinson holds the East Dunbartonshire seat but is seen as potentially at risk of losing to the SNP. In the European elections in May, the SNP outpolled the Lib Dems by around 10% in the East Dunbartonshire Council area.

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