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  1. Long reads
12 February 1999

Promiscuous voters do the splits

In Scotland, Kirsty Milne discovers Labour voters flirting with the Nationalists

By Kirsty Milne

Legal skills? At a loose end? Then hot-foot it to Edinburgh, where they are hiring experts to prepare bills for the Scottish Parliament. Draftsmen are in demand now. Politicians are already arguing over whether there should be daily prayers in the parliament, and what exactly the Queen should do at the opening ceremony on 1 July.

Devolution, then, is really happening. Yet what has been strikingly absent is grown-up discussion of what the parliament is for. Even in well-informed media company, people suggest that it could legalise cannabis or reverse benefit cuts. No chance. Powers over drugs and social security will be retained by Westminster.

People are just as ignorant about what the parliament can do as about what it can’t. Labour in Scotland can be accused of many failings; but its failure to explain what devolution will really mean is the biggest failure of all.

For Labour, this is more than a public information problem. It has become a political emergency. Its fabled focus groups have revealed a new breed of voter: the “splitter”.

“Splitters” would usually vote Labour. But they fancy the SNP for the Scottish Parliament elections on 6 May. They are not to be confused with “switchers”, who transfer their loyalties to another party wholesale. “Switchers” are the serial monogamists of politics; “splitters” go in for one-poll stands. Usually men under 45 and from social classes C2, D and E, they intend only a casual relationship with the Nationalists.

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The existence of the splitters explains the curious state of the polls. When people are asked how they would vote in a UK general election, Labour retains a clear 13-point lead. But voting intentions for the Holyrood parliament show the SNP breathing down Labour’s neck, with just a couple of points between the two parties.

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The splitters had high expectations of a Labour general election victory. Now they complain of broken promises. They blame the government for local job losses and corrupt or inefficient councils. When asked why they want independence, splitters say they want Scotland to run its own schools, hospitals and police – all of which will come under the new parliament’s control.

Crucially, the splitters believe it is now “safe” to vote SNP, a belief cultivated by the party’s leader, Alex Salmond. Salmond projects his team as prudent managers who can be trusted to run the Scottish Parliament. SNP spokespeople do not rant and rave; they discuss Scotland’s low rate of business start-ups.

Like new Labour in opposition, they are coy on tax. Salmond is holding back his plans until after the Budget on 9 March, but it looks as if he will copy Labour in renouncing any use of the Scottish Parliament’s minimal tax-raising powers. Yet, in a pitch for the support of disaffected groups like teachers, the SNP also claims it will raise public-sector pay.

Scottish Labour’s response is to try and scare off the splitters. In Glasgow last week Tony Blair launched a new slogan: “Divorce is an expensive business: there’s no trial separation with the SNP.” Labour is not trumpeting the extent and the potential of devolution – or “home rule”, as Labour in Scotland conspicuously fails to call it. This is because Labour remains ambivalent towards anything that could spell divergence from the UK party. A pre-manifesto document being sent to Scotland’s 30,000 party members this week stresses the government’s record – on health, education, crime and the New Deal – as evidence of Labour’s ability to “deliver” in the Scottish Parliament.

Deliver what, exactly? This is not a general election: it is a mid-term poll. Why vote Labour when you have a Labour government already? Scots will have two votes for Holyrood: one for their constituency MSP, one for the top-up regional list. The temptation to use the second vote as a second choice could do wonders for the SNP.

To give the party “added value”, Labour’s back-room boys are devising pledges like those used in the general election. These must play to the powers of the Scottish Parliament, but not leapfrog UK party policy. Land reform, training and an anti-drugs campaign are possible candidates. But this is the eleventh hour. Labour has less than 100 days to persuade the splitters to return to the fold.

The writer is political editor of the “Sunday Herald”, a new Scottish paper