NOTEBOOK by BILL HEANEY: Four more weeks of the election to go and the campaign is already a write-off

Only two questions of real interest appear to remain before polling day on May 6

Can anything derail a pro-independence majority on May 6 and, secondly, who will form the official opposition to the SNP at Holyrood?

These are the only two questions which will have to be answered in this “overtly surreal” Scottish Parliament election, according to Bernard Ponsonby, pictured right, STV’s election pundit extraordinaire.

I like and admire Bernard greatly even if he did head up the motley crew of correspondents who came to monster and not to praise my old boss Henry McLeish when he was First Minister of Scotland and I was one of his special advisers who had been designated to head off the cavalry. He won that one.

Ponsonby is still a big beast in the world of politics, even if his hair has turned silver and he is drawing a substantial pension these days.

He is sharp as ever he has been and his colleague Colin Mackay must be grateful that Bernard is hanging around the corridors of Holyrood as his arm’s length mentor.

Everyone in this crazy business wants to know what Ponsonby thinks when it comes to who, why, what and when will take the big prize on May 6.

It seems obvious from what he has written today that he thinks Nicola Sturgeon will hold on to the keys of the First Minister’s office at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh.

He refers to two opinion polls conducted this time by Savanta ComRes for The Scotsman and by Opinium for Sky News.

“It’s not important to obsess about the individual details of all of the campaign polls to date. It’s the trend they speak to that’s important, ” he told his readers.

Bernard added sagely: “From the evidence of the polls, a number of conclusions are beyond debate. The SNP are going to win the election. Can they achieve a majority of the 129 seats in the parliament? The reasonable conclusion from the polls is that, in all likelihood, they will. If they don’t, they won’t be far off.

“The ratings for the Scottish Greens on the regional list suggests that the performance of both of these pro- independence parties would deliver a clear-cut and unambiguous majority of MSPs committed to holding another referendum on Scottish independence.

“Alex Salmond’s Alba party is polling anything from 2% to 6%. That former figure would see no candidates returned, the latter figure puts them within touching distance of gaining a foothold in the parliament.

“Alba’s strategy is to urge a vote for the SNP in the 73 constituencies and a vote for Alba on the list to deliver a “supermajority” for independence.

“The problem for Salmond is that the polls suggest the most obvious way to create a supermajority for independence is to vote Scottish Green on the list.

“Of the five polls to date, Alba average just 3.4% whilst the Greens average nearly 10%. The uncomfortable logic for Alba from the polls is that their strategic raison d’etre is best served by voting Green on the list.”

And here was I, from my wee office in Dumbarton, hoping and praying for something to happen that was not so prosaic.

Like victories for Salmond, Sturgeon and Gorgeous George Galloway which would see all three of them take up their seats at Holyrood.

I am being selfish, of course. Think of all the stories we would have for The Democrat then.

Bernard’s douche of freezing cold water has brought reality to the table, however.

He writes: “It is difficult to see what dynamic in the next four weeks is going to change the narrative for Alba.

“Mr Salmond knows better than most politicians the rules under which broadcasters operate during an election and he will know that the scope for publicity is strictly limited.

“The reality is that Alba is a party that delivers saturation comment on websites populated by the foot soldiers of independence but is not producing any sense of excitement among the general voting public.

“That is not surprising since it was always a big ask to launch a party at the start of an election period and hope that it would be a material issue for the entire duration.

“To compound the challenge it was always going to be squeezed out of the kind of set-piece TV debates that might have produced the kind of headlines that would have kept it relevant.

“On that front, the STV Leaders debate takes place next Tuesday and will be broadcast live from 7.30pm-9pm.”

He adds: “For Nicola Sturgeon, this is an exercise in not slipping up. Even if she does, it is difficult to imagine a gaffe capable of redefining the electoral calculus.

“The more interesting contest for me is the race for second place. The Scottish Conservatives have benefited in the post-2014 environment as ‘No’ voters, aghast at the prospect of busting the union, have backed what they perceive as the most unionist of the parties.

“Scottish Labour have been choked electorally by a double whammy on the constitution. Many of their voters have now jumped ship to the SNP and now back independence. And on the union they have been outflanked by the Tories.

“For a party that has traditionally relied on the old certainties of class-based politics, the post-2014 re-calibration which sees national identity politics being a prime factor in electoral choice has been catastrophic for Labour.”

No one will be surprised when I tell them I choose to disagree with Bernard, which is a bit like Dumbarton FC taking on Real Madrid.

As Ponsonby says Anas Sarwar has made a good start to the process of rebuilding Labour.

He is composed and articulate, his messaging on the need to rebuild after Covid has been clear and he has attempted to cut through obsessing on the constitution to focus on the immediate economic challenges in post-pandemic Scotland.

Bernard says the only realistic objective for Scottish Labour in this election is to get back into second place. I hope he goes one better than that and that we witness him winning.

I believe that Sarwar will succeed where Richard Leonard failed and that his quest to bring Labour out of the shadows will be helped by the fact the Scottish Conservatives have a new and untested leader in Douglas Ross. Willie Rennie is a well intentioned man but he just doesn’t cut it with the voters.

Sarwar will need to ‘up his game’ in the STV hustings to come on Tuesday night though though.

Bernard Ponsonby says: “As someone who has covered quite a few campaigns, let me tell you they are all highly artificial: staged photo ops, staged street chats under the guise of meeting the voters, pictures designed to make the leader look leader-like for as long as a photographer lingers.

“Then it’s back into the car. Even the set-piece TV exchanges have a pantomime quality as heavily rehearsed scripts are traded fraudulently, masquerading as spontaneous exchange.

“For all that, elections are a serious business. They are the ultimate egalitarian leveller. One citizen, one vote or, in this case, two votes.”

Pundits’ wish list for a Scottish Parliament with punch – George Galloway, Nicola Sturgeon, Anas Sarwar and Alex Salmond. Now that would be something to write about.


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