The National:


Winner in 2016: Alex Neil (SNP)

IT’S often said that the last time the Conservatives won a national vote in Scotland was in the 1955 General Election, but that technically isn’t true. In June 1979, one month after Margaret Thatcher was first elected as prime minister, the Tories narrowly won the popular vote in Scotland in the first direct election to the European Parliament. They also won five of the eight Scottish seats, so it was a clear victory by either measure.

How was that possible, given that Labour had been dominant in Scotland in the Westminster election that had only just occurred? It mainly boiled down to the differential motivation levels of voters: Tory supporters were so energised by the Thatcher win that they could have happily voted another 20 times, whereas Labour voters were too despondent to trudge to the polling stations again so soon.

That precedent should give us some cause for concern about the unique juxtaposition of events that is about to occur in Airdrie and Shotts. On May 6, the constituency will elect a local MSP and party-list MSPs, just like the rest of us. But only a week later, the Westminster constituency of the same name will return to the polls for a by-election to choose a new MP because the incumbent Neil Gray has stepped down to contest the Holyrood seat.

Strictly speaking, the additional election is entirely needless – there is no law against dual Holyrood/Westminster mandates and there are several precedents of politicians from multiple parties, including the SNP, serving as MPs and MSPs simultaneously. However, a new internal SNP rule – suspected by some of being directed against Joanna Cherry – has forbidden the practice.

The calculation was apparently that any by-election that resulted from the rule wouldn’t be an extravagant risk because it would be held on the same day as the Holyrood election. It would thus be subsumed into a nationwide vote with reasonably predictable nationwide trends.

That assumption has been turned upside down by the Returning Officer’s decision that two elections on the same day would be unsafe due to the increased possibility of Covid transmission. There is now an obvious danger that if the SNP under-perform nationally in the Holyrood election, which could include even a 2017-type scenario in which their winning margin is less than expected, there might just be a snowball effect resulting in Labour making a shock gain in the by-election.

The flipside of the coin, of course, is that a big pro-independence mandate at the Holyrood election could generate momentum that will carry the SNP’s by-election candidate Anum Qaisar-Javed to a thumping victory. But ultimately the SNP are the incumbents and the only party with much to lose.

Nobody is expecting Labour to win the constituency at either Holyrood or Westminster level. If they do it will simply be a very large bonus.

Although the SNP have comfortable majorities of more than 5000 votes in the Westminster seat and more than 6000 in the Holyrood seat, there’s one good reason for thinking they may not be entirely invulnerable in this part of the world – and that’s the result in the 2017 General Election. Although Airdrie and Shotts wasn’t one of the six Scottish seats Labour took back as part of the Corbyn resurgence, it was one of a number of very near misses.

Neil Gray’s majority slipped to a miniscule 195 votes. That would imply Labour can expect to be competitive locally if they can get to within around 10 percentage points of the SNP nationally, as they did in 2017. There’s no sign of anything close to that in the opinion polls so far, although the new Panelbase poll for Scot Goes Pop does show them cutting the gap from 27 to 23 points, with more than a week still to go.

The likelihood is that the SNP will evade the banana skin and that Gray and Qaisar-Javed will be safely elected as local MSP and MP respectively. But if so, there may still be some reflection on why so much energy had to be expended avoiding a self-inflicted wound.