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25 March 2021updated 26 Jul 2021 6:01am

Will Labour or the Conservatives win the battle for second place in the Scottish election?

Under new leader Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour has cause to hope it can supplant the Tories as the official opposition.

By Chris Deerin

By the end of the no-confidence debate at the Scottish parliament earlier this week, it had become hard to tell who had no confidence in whom. What began as an attempt by the Conservatives to unseat Nicola Sturgeon ended with the Tories and Labour taking potshots at each other.

Douglas Ross, the Conservative leader, attacked Labour members for abstaining on the vote, saying they were “too weak”. “It was a pathetic display and confirms to voters that Labour serves no useful purpose and cannot be trusted,” he added.

Labour’s new leader Anas Sarwar was just as scathing, insisting the Tories were “guilty of playing grubby party politics on an issue as serious as sexual harassment”.

As we move on from the Alex Salmond scandal to the desperate bare-knuckle bout of an election campaign, it is the two opposition parties, not the SNP, which are each other’s worst enemy.

That Sturgeon will win the 6 May Holyrood election, ensuring a fourth consecutive term of government and matching the Thatcher/Major era of electoral dominance, is beyond doubt. Most polls continue to suggest the SNP is on course for an overall majority at Holyrood – Survation’s latest, published today, had the party winning 67 of Holyrood’s 129 seats (with the Greens on 11, forming an unassailable pro-independence, pro-referendum phalanx). For the Nats, the only question is whether they achieve that majority alone or with the Greens.

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 [See also: Nicola Sturgeon can breathe easier thanks to her incompetent opponents

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Greater doubt surrounds second place. At the last Scottish election in 2016, Ruth Davidson’s Tories rose from 15 seats to 31, while Labour dropped from 38 to 24. This reordering – with the Conservatives becoming Scotland’s second party – was something of a psychological shock and a measure of just how far Labour had fallen.

Neither party is pretending it is about to seize control of the First Minister’s residence of Bute House, but the role of official opposition is up for grabs. The Survation poll found Labour would win 24 seats, to the Conservatives’ 22. If this were borne out on election day it would suggest the 2016 Tory surge was an anomaly, and driven largely by the appeal of Davidson, who stood down as leader in 2019 and who is not seeking re-election to Holyrood.

Supplanting the Tories would be a feather in Sarwar’s cap. Although Labour might ultimately have no more seats than it did after 2016, it would have held firm in the SNP cyclone while the Conservatives were blown off course. That is something, and may look a little like momentum.

Sarwar is a charming politician and appears to be betting much on displays of reasonableness. His tactics ape the caution shown by Keir Starmer at Westminster, hence the abstention on the vote of no confidence in Sturgeon. Where the SNP is gung-ho for a second referendum and the Conservatives are dead against, Labour’s position is “not now”. Sarwar talks – not unconvincingly – about the need for a Covid-recovery parliament in which another vote on leaving the UK would be an unnecessary distraction.

[See also: The quiet collapse of Scottish unionism]

It seems voters agree, at least to an extent. A number of polls have found support for holding a referendum by the end of this year is low – one recent survey put it at 17 per cent, with 16 per cent favouring the next two years, 14 per cent in the next five years, and 9 per cent choosing in the next ten years.

This has led to a change in rhetoric from Sturgeon and her team. Predictions of a vote before the end of 2021 have ceased, and when the Scottish government published its independence referendum bill earlier this week it was carefully worded: Scots would have “the right to decide their future, once the current health crisis is over”. Some senior Nats have begun talking about the second half of the next Holyrood parliament as a more likely time-frame.

Such are the calculations of Scottish devolved politics. The reality, of course, is that Westminster must give permission for any referendum, and that Boris Johnson is not minded to give it. The most recent polls suggest that the lead built up by the Yes side over the past year has diminished – with undecideds excluded, Survation put Yes at 49 per cent and No at 51 per cent.

It remains to be seen whether the shambles surrounding the Salmond inquiry will feed through to the polling numbers in coming weeks. The SNP is horribly split over the affair, and emotions are high. Now Holyrood has been closed for the election campaign, the two sides within the party may unite in pursuit of a majority. But voters have been exposed to months of bitterness and dispute, and may yet make their displeasure felt.

The Conservatives are gambling that this disaffection will grant a hearing for their robust proposals for the future of devolution. A long-awaited report from former Scotland Office minister Andrew Dunlop, titled Review of UK Government Union Capability, was published this week. It proposes a new Great Office of State in the cabinet; a new structure supporting the separate offices of the secretaries of state for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with a single permanent secretary; a new fund for UK-wide projects, including joint projects with devolved governments; and a new UK Intergovernmental Council to replace the ineffectual Joint Ministerial Committee, supported by an independent secretariat. 

This offer of “more Westminster” in Scotland will be up against Labour’s plan to redesign the constitution across the nations and regions of the UK, giving more autonomy to its component parts. Swing voters have much to think about – not least which, if either, of the main opposition parties deserve their confidence.

[See also: Will Scotland vote for independence? Our poll tracker]