The gap between Labour and the SNP in Edinburgh South at the 2010 general election was over 11,000 votes. Meanwhile, there were only 316 votes between Labour and the Lib Dems. But a lot has changed since then.
“This is an SNP/Labour marginal,” asserts Neil Hay, SNP candidate for the constituency.
We met in a cafe in the centre of St Andrew Square, overlooking the Melville Monument in blazing sunshine. Though this isn’t the constituency proper, the city’s famous grandeur extends well into Edinburgh South. Morningside, an area in the constituency, contains one of the highest concentrations of millionaires in the UK.
But this isn’t the whole story — it’s a diverse constituency, and Hay tells us that the SNP draws more on traditional Labour supporters than the millionaires of Morningside. “There’s no getting away from the fact that in our working class areas, we have a stronger vote. These were all pretty tribal Labour votes before.”
He feels that the support in these areas is backed up by some pretty strong sentiments: “It’s a categoric switch, it’s a most definite action from some people that they are no longer voting Labour, they will never entertain voting Labour again, and they will now vote for us.”
Yet as a city, Edinburgh returned a No result to the Scottish Independence referendum, with 61% across the city voting against. The South of the city was even more strongly against, with 65% voting No.
It comes as little surprise that neither the SNP, nor Neil Hay, are treating this as a rejection of the party for the forthcoming general election. “There are people who say ‘I’d never class myself as a nationalist — but I vote SNP’. I know people in the constituency, I have friends, who will vote SNP every time. But they will have voted No last year.”
The reason, Hay believes, is trust — a quality which matters a lot in an election where disillusionment is a dominant theme. “They just believe that what we’re going to say, we’re going to do, it’s actually what we deliver on.”
During the course of our interview, Hay develops a theme of the other parties going back on their word after elections: Tony Blair with tuition fees, the Lib Dems on the same issue. This mirrors the national line that the SNP are attempting to deliver to the electorate.
But an 11,000 Labour lead is not easily overcome. This is one of the Scottish Labour strongholds in which the SNP have a shot, but the outcome is by no means certain, There’s no recent constituency-level polling here, though Lord Ashcroft’s poll in Edinburgh South West records a 22% swing from Labour to the SNP, taking the SNP from 12% to 40% of the vote there.
In South, the SNP is starting from 8% in 2010, compared to 12% in South West. Labour took 35% of the vote in South, compared to their South West result of 47%. So, though the SNP have further to climb in South than in South West, Labour have less distance to fall. Hay is still cautious of presaging the outcome in Edinburgh South: “I look at this as a very tight seat [between Labour and the SNP].”
The picture of SNP support is, he says, somewhat different among the more affluent constituents. Hay believes that the SNP are retaining the Yes vote in these areas coming into the general election, which he puts at around 30%. Prospects for making inroads into the remaining 70% are low, but that portion are split, he believes, between the other parties.
The Lib Dems would do extraordinarily well to retain their 2010 vote share here. The party’s role in the English tuition fee rise makes relations with the constituency’s large student population (which of course doesn’t directly affect Scottish students at Scottish universities) tricky — and largely left-leaning Scotland’s response to their collaboration with the Conservatives in coalition adds to that burden.
But the general, national theme of Lib Dem decline is not one which Hay appears to relish, particularly — the parties share positions on some core policies, and in an election which looks set to return another hung parliament, prospects for collaboration matter.
It’s also unhelpful for a campaign looking to convert voters: “there would be a logical process there for us to reach out to the Lib Dems, given that historically they’ve supported Home Rule and federalism, anti-Trident, pro-EU. There are a number of different policies there that match, not vaguely, quite specifically.”
In such a mixed constituency, constituents are thinking about a wide range of issues when deciding how to vote. Immigration, one of the key themes in England, isn’t one of them. “I can genuinely say I don’t think on the doors, anybody has yet focused on immigration.”
Other issues, though, are the same as those that matter elsewhere: “childcare, hospitals, NHS, education — all the things that impact upon everybody.” Others crop up sporadically, as media emphasis changes. “We get to more specific questions to do with what the media are highlighting at any given time — such as TTIP [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership]”.
As anywhere, where the media leads, opinions often follow. “When the media choose to focus on an issue, then that’s what comes up on the door.”
National party dynamics, as well as national issues, evidently impact candidates. And the SNP has seen huge changes since that last general election, which feed into their candidates’ campaigns. “In 2010 we would have targeted constituencies we had more of a chance with [than Edinburgh South]”, Hay tells me. He now has a chance to take a seat that was previously a no-hoper for the party. But he’s by no means the only one in this position.
“This time round there are no targets. Everywhere is a target.”
With an expansion in popularity has, for the SNP, come a rapid expansion in membership. “In the constituency we have just under 1500 members. On September 18th, we had 346.” Nationally they’ve topped 105,000 members — but it’s not only the Scottish who are registering interest.
A recent YouGov poll found that, extrapolating from a sample, if the SNP fielded candidates across the UK at that time, they would win 11% of the vote — ahead of the Lib Dems, and two points behind UKIP. This is likely an upshot of the debates, after which polls rated Nicola Sturgeon’s performance strongly, and which got the question of whether English voters could vote SNP trending on Google search.
Although first past the post favours the SNP in Scotland — they are likely to win more seats as a proportion of the Scottish total than is proportionate to their vote-share across Scotland — Hay, and others in the party, are still sharply critical of the system that currently benefits them. He describes it as “on the edge of Dickensian.”
“If you want a country with representation of opinions across every walk of life, and the length and breadth geographically as well, you have to introduce some form of proportional representation.” It’s a question, he suggests, that is tied to that of engagement and turnout.
“You can’t keep coming to elections and expecting people to vote when for whole swathes of the country it doesn’t really count for anything. So for me, and as a party as well, we would advocate change.”
Whether or not constitutional reform is a key theme of the next government remains to be seen: it’s featured in manifestos, but that’s rarely a watertight guarantee. A referendum in the last parliament resulting rejected the switch to the Alternative Vote system for British general elections. But the SNP have shown that one No vote doesn’t mean the end of a movement.