The Scottish Streets Where a U.K. Election Will Be Won or Lostby
John Donnelly adjusts the hood shielding him from the cold Glasgow rain and walks up to another house.
One of a squad of six Scottish National Party activists on an evening of campaigning in the east end of the city, he reports back to his colleagues: “Ninety-three is SNP.” The finding is logged on a soggy page on a clipboard.
While a few smiles brighten the damp night, for Donnelly, 27, this is a serious business. His mission is to overturn half a century of Labour dominance in Scotland, evict the party from its traditional heartland and redraw the political map of Britain at the general election on May 7.
“For me, this is work,” he said after posting another flyer on behalf of SNP candidate Natalie McGarry, who was speaking to a potential voter at another door. “But I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I didn’t do something.”
Six months after a referendum on independence put politics back into pubs and living rooms, the movement that brought voters out in record numbers and rattled financial markets has evolved into a mass phenomenon sweeping Scotland.
Rather than retreating after Scots voted to remain in the three-centuries-old union with England, the nationalists have harnessed that radical spirit and directed it at the U.K. Parliament at Westminster. SNP membership has quadrupled to 100,000, or one in 43 Scottish voters, and polls suggest the surge in support will translate into votes in May, placing Scotland once more at the heart of deciding the U.K.’s fate.
“It’s unprecedented, on a different scale,” Nicola McEwen, associate director of the Centre on Constitutional Change at Edinburgh University, said in an interview. “The referendum was never about a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I just didn’t foresee how the extent to which the ‘yes’ alliance mobilized behind the SNP.”
The Scottish nationalists meet this weekend for their pre-election convention in Glasgow amid unprecedented electoral expectations under new leader Nicola Sturgeon. The party’s rise is reverberating beyond Scotland’s borders because polls point to the U.K. election producing no clear winner, potentially handing the SNP a decisive role in who governs the country which they are committed to splitting up.
Much of the focus in England has been on a disaffected electorate and the rise of the Greens and the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party. Yet the voting system means they will probably win no more than a handful of Westminster seats.
Polls show the SNP, which opposes the Conservative-led U.K. government’s fiscal austerity, is ahead in at least 40 of Scotland’s 59 districts. It currently has six lawmakers at Westminster. If the polls are replicated on Election Day, the SNP could become the third-biggest force in U.K. politics, with the main opposition Labour Party which has dominated Scottish politics for decades the biggest casualty.
“Scotland will decide who governs the U.K.,” said Jim Murphy, leader of the Scottish Labour Party and a lawmaker in the U.K. Parliament. “That’s how high the stakes are and it’s no use pretending otherwise.”
Murphy, 47, was a star of the Better Together campaign during the referendum, touring Scotland to speak out against independence. His reward was the leadership of the party in Scotland, and the task of clawing back support that had seeped away. He acknowledges the scale of the challenge. “These numbers are terrible for the Labour Party and worse for Scotland,” he said.
SNP candidate McGarry is among the phalanx of challengers to the established order. On a rainy evening in March, McGarry, 33, and her activists pounded the quiet streets of suburban semi-detached homes that contrast with the impoverished housing projects elsewhere in the Glasgow East district of Scotland’s biggest city. The prize is taking the seat from Labour’s Scottish affairs spokeswoman, Margaret Curran.
Christine Reid, a 51-year-old health worker who answered at one door, said she used to back Labour but still voted for Scottish independence in the Sept. 18 referendum. Labour has lost the traditional socialist values that bound it to people like her in Glasgow, she said, and pledged to vote for the SNP. Another entry was logged on the clipboard.
“A lot of people felt the referendum gave them a voice and they’re not done talking,” said McGarry. “They’ve got all this energy that they’re not ready to put away.”
While the nationwide trend is for younger voters to shun politics, the SNP is managing to resonate in a way that echoes the “cool Britannia” phase in the 1990s of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s first term. The proportion of under-30s in the SNP has doubled to 21 percent, among them campaigner Donnelly, who joined the party the day after voting “yes” in the referendum.
People across Scotland refer to a sea change in the country’s politics since the last U.K. election in 2010, when not one Scottish seat at Westminster changed hands compared with five years earlier. By the following year, the SNP had won an unprecedented majority in elections to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, paving the way for the independence referendum.
Defeat for the “yes’ campaign, which brought together labour-union members, anti-nuclear campaigners and disparate other activists and political rookies alongside SNP supporters, should have been the end of the movement.
Instead, as the pound dropped in response to a poll showing the ‘‘yes’’ side ahead in the final days of the campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron offered Scotland new financial powers in an effort to sway the vote in favor of the union. That left an opening for the SNP to exploit with the argument that voters needed to return a block of SNP lawmakers to Westminster to ensure those powers were delivered.
Yet the legacy of the referendum runs deeper for many.
‘‘It totally changed my life,’’ said Philippa Whitford, a consultant breast-cancer surgeon who is running for the SNP in Central Ayrshire, a district of former mining communities and more affluent towns on the west coast that was once the stomping ground of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns. It also used to be safe Labour territory. No longer.
Whitford, 56, worked as a medic in Gaza in the early 1990s, and parted company with Labour over its support for the war in Iraq. She joined the SNP in the wake of the 2011 landslide and was among the women candidates proposed by the party after standing out during the referendum campaign.
The dynamism the referendum produced never petered out as people started looking toward the next election, Whitford said over tea at her home in Troon, famous for its golf course that’s hosted the British Open Championship eight times.
‘‘After the vote, you could just feel people coming out of their caves and blinking in the sunlight,” she said.
Local polling by Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft has indicated the SNP may take Labour-held districts including those of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling in Edinburgh and the Fife fastness of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
It will still take a lot to uproot Labour. Of the 40 Labour seats with the biggest margins of victory at the 2010 election, 16 are in Scotland, according to the U.K. Polling Report website run by YouGov Plc pollster Anthony Wells.
Glasgow East, an area where as many as 37 percent of people are classified as economically inactive, counts among them. Coincidentally, that’s the same percentage as the Labour majority, equivalent to almost 12,000 votes. The area has been held by Labour since the 1920s — save for a two-year hiatus after a 2008 special election win for the SNP.
The Scottish National Party hierarchy knows it needs a game changer to allow it to countenance another referendum on independence. An emphatic SNP victory in Scotland on May 7 might be such an event.
One scenario is a second term for Cameron’s Conservatives, which currently have just one lawmaker from Scotland’s 59 seats at Westminster. The Tories have pledged their own referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union, a ballot the SNP says it won’t recognize unless voters in Scotland are allowed their own say.
Should Labour under Ed Miliband prevail nationally, the party faces the loss of so many Scottish seats that it would need SNP support to form a viable government. The Conservatives have used that scenario in campaign posters to portray Labour as in thrall to the SNP, thus chafing at the bonds of the union.
“We’re in this thing to win,” said Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader. “The further from September and the closer to May we get, people will see the referendum in their rear-view mirror,” he said. “In politics, two months is an eternity.”