How Scotland will vote: ‘It’s a question of the lesser of two evils’

A Scottish-independence rally in Glasgow this month. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty
IN SCOTLAND, AS THE UK GENERAL ELECTION LOOMS, THE THORNY ISSUE OF BREXIT IS FURTHER COMPLICATED BY THE INDEPENDENCE QUESTION. THE POLITICAL VOLATILITY OF RECENT YEARS HAS MADE VOTERS PROMISCUOUS, AND MANY ARE UNSURE WHOM TO BACK ON DECEMBER 12TH

The Conservative candidate

It is only 4pm, but the light is already fading in Waterfoot, a comfortably off dormitory town outside Glasgow, as the area’s Conservative Party candidate, Paul Masterton, and a team of young volunteers in blue jackets knock on doors. Most of the houses are dark, and even where a light is on there is usually no answer, and Masterton just pushes a leaflet through the letter box.

A young man called Callum agrees to take a leaflet, but as someone who opposes both Brexit and Scottish independence he doesn’t know how he will vote. “It’s a question of the lesser of two evils really,” he says.

Masterton bought his children’s Christmas presents before the campaign began, aware that he could be out of a job three weeks from now. He says he has no idea what he will do if that happens

A couple of doors away Masterton finds a more emphatic welcome from a woman unpacking groceries from her car boot. She tells him there is no question of her voting anything other than Conservative, and her only regret is that the party’s popular leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, has stepped down. “It’s a pity Ruth is not with you. I’d have had a selfie with her. She’s just such a lovely person,” she says.

At 34, Masterton has been MP for East Renfrewshire since 2017, when he took the seat from the Scottish National Party, which took it from Labour in 2015. His majority of 4,712 means his seat is vulnerable to a resurgent SNP, and he is relieved that the canvass in Waterfoot is going well. “If we went around here and you had a really bad night that would be a big warning flag,” he says.

When the election was called, the Conservatives were expected to lose most of their 13 seats in Scotland, including Masterton’s. He bought his children’s Christmas presents before the campaign began, aware that he could be out of a job three weeks from now. He says he has no idea what he will do if that happens. “I was a solicitor before, so I have kept that. But to be honest I’m not really planning on losing my seat,” he says.

“The other thing I think that people forget is that when you’re an MP you employ five or six people. And if you go, they go as well. So there is that pressure that you are not just campaigning for you but to do your part to keep half a dozen people in a job as well. So I feel much more pressure to make sure we give this everything.”

Paul Masterton, the Conservative Party candidate in East Renfrewshire
Paul Masterton, the Conservative Party candidate in East Renfrewshire

Masterton backed Remain in 2016, along with 62 per cent of Scottish voters, and he once said Boris Johnson would be “an excellent prime minister of Little England”. The prime minister is unpopular in Scotland, and he chooses carefully where to campaign there, but Masterton says Johnson is not as toxic as people thought he would be.

“He tends to come up [on the doorsteps] from the people who say, ‘Well, I just don’t know what to do. I don’t like Boris and I don’t like Brexit,’” he says.

Many voters Masterton meets on the doorsteps say they don’t like Nicola Sturgeon or Jeremy Corbyn either, and they don’t want Scottish independence. He is hoping they will hold their noses and vote Conservative.

Masterton worked with the former Conservative Nick Boles and others to promote Common Market 2.0, a proposal to keep the UK in the European single market and the customs union, and he believes the final shape of Brexit has yet to be determined.

“For me the most important thing was to ensure that in the first phase we got a deal. So we got the transition period, EU citizens’ rights and the money sorted out. But, you know, the most important thing for our country over the next generation is going to be the future relationship [with the EU]. And that’s up for grabs, and parliament’s going to have a role in that. We’re going to have a new parliament. If we get a Conservative majority we’re going to come out, and that’s going to completely change the dynamic,” he says.

“Once we get the deal over the line, Brexit is done. We have to start to think about what kind of Brexit we want.”

We’re not overconfident, we’re not complacent, because we’ve been wiped out in Scotland before. We know it happens

The Conservatives have gained in confidence during the campaign, and senior figures in the party are now confident that they will lose no more than three or four of their seats in Scotland. Limiting their losses in Scotland would make Johnson’s task easier as he tries to capture enough Labour-held seats in Wales, the north of England and the English midlands to form a majority government.

“We’re not overconfident, we’re not complacent, because we’ve been wiped out in Scotland before. We know it happens,” Masterton says.

From 2001 until 2017 the Conservatives sent only one MP from Scotland to Westminster, as Scottish politics was dominated first by Labour and then by the SNP. For a long time voters would back the SNP in elections to the Scottish parliament, which uses proportional representation, but switch to Labour for Westminster elections, because the SNP was seen as having no hope under the first-past-the-post system.

That changed in 2015, when the SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, almost wiping out the once-dominant Scottish Labour Party as well as the Conservatives. Labour made a moderate recovery, winning seven seats in 2017, and Davidson led the Conservatives into second place in Scottish politics, both at Holyrood and at Westminster.

Labour went into a sharp decline after the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, but Ailsa Henderson, professor of political science at Edinburgh University, says the downturn in the party’s fortunes started earlier.

“You could see the signs of that coming in polling in 2010-11, when you started asking people which party best stands up for Scotland. Labour were already doing less well with respect to the SNP on that question even then. And then 2014 is when we see a large change in people’s understanding of who best stands up for Scotland and who best understands the needs and wishes of the Scottish electorate.”

Henderson says independence is a bigger issue for Scots than Brexit and a stronger determining factor in how they will vote next month. This is particularly true for those who would vote Yes to independence. Three out of four Yes voters who backed Remain in the Brexit referendum are supporting the SNP, which opposes Brexit. But the SNP also wins the support of a plurality of Leave voters who favour Scottish independence.

A Scottish-independence rally in Glasgow this month. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty
A Scottish-independence rally in Glasgow this month. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty

The Conservatives, who have ruled out a second referendum on Scottish independence, are winning the support of voters who favour Brexit and oppose independence. But they only have the support of about 15 per cent of those who oppose both Brexit and independence.

That group of unionist remainers are the greatest source of volatility in Scottish politics, split between the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. But Henderson says that while polling sees voters drifting towards the other unionist parties, nobody is moving towards Labour.

Senior Conservative and SNP sources also say privately that they see the Labour vote in Scotland collapsing.

“I think it’s a combination of having economic policies that don’t set them apart from the SNP and constitutional policies that no one understands. An absent constitutional policy and economic policies that don’t distinguish them.

“So if you were supporting independence you would vote SNP. But also if you were on the left and you knew that you were going to have a chance to vote however you wanted in an independence referendum, then why wouldn’t you vote SNP, because it was the more successful party that you felt could likely enact the economic policies you wanted?” Henderson says.

“The other thing worth pointing out, though, is that even though they obviously did very, very poorly in the European elections, if you look back at the 2017 elections, six of those seven seats they won with margins of 5.5 per cent or less. But they were also quite close to winning a number of the Glasgow constituencies as well.

“We have a tendency to only think in terms of how tight the contest was when they won, but they were in with a shout on a number of others. And that is particularly the case in Glasgow. So to the extent that they are, their support is holding up, it’s still holding up. And the last place it is likely to keep holding up is Glasgow.”

The SNP candidate

In Shettleston, in the east end of Glasgow, David Linden is out early leafleting in the flats they still call tenements. The front doors are only open until 11am, and there are thousands of flats to leaflet, so Linden and his team are moving fast.

Linden, who is 29, grew up in this neighbourhood, which has twice the national unemployment rate and saw the normal rise in life expectancy go into reverse at the beginning of the 21st century. Linden’s constituency of Glasgow East has been changing hands between Labour and the SNP at almost every election since 2008. It voted in favour of Scottish independence in 2014 and against Brexit in 2016.

David Linden, the SNP candidate in Glasgow East. Photograph: Ken Jack/Getty
David Linden, the SNP candidate in Glasgow East. Photograph: Ken Jack/Getty

Natalie McGarry, who won the seat for the SNP from Labour in 2015, left the party and was later convicted of embezzling funds from a pro-independence pressure group. Linden held the seat in 2017 but with a margin of just 75 votes – making Glasgow East only the fourth-most-marginal seat in Scotland. (His SNP colleague Stephen Gethins, in North East Fife, has a majority of two.)

Linden says he is “fairly hopeful” of holding his seat, but he seems more confident than that, partly because of what he sees as Labour’s weakness over Brexit and Scottish independence.

“I would say about the Labour Party that if you dance around in the middle of the road you’re eventually going to get splattered. And I think that’s probably what we’re going to see at this election. Sadly, for them,” he says.

Linden, who joined the SNP when he was 11, sees the contest in Scotland as a two-horse race between his party and the Conservatives. He says the issues of Brexit and independence are entangled because Scotland needs an escape route from Brexit.

As a nationalist politician it really sticks in my craw that you’ve got Northern Ireland getting special status, essentially still getting unfettered access to the single market and the customs union

“As a nationalist politician it really sticks in my craw that you’ve got Northern Ireland getting special status, essentially still getting unfettered access to the single market and the customs union.

“And I think for any self-respecting MP who’s going to look after their constituents and jobs you have to think why on earth, if you had a business based in Glasgow, would you not up sticks and move your operations to Belfast, where you can have that access to the single market, the customs union, the free movement [and] all the things that are associated with that which are good for business? Yet Scotland is left out in the cold,” he says.

“Brexit and independence are very much interlinked. And the point that I have been making consistently is that the United Kingdom people voted to stay part of in 2014 in Scotland no longer exists. We were told that our place in Europe would be protected. So I think that when the facts change, people need to have the ability to change their mind. And that’s why it’s important that people in Scotland have the right to choose their future which comes with an independence referendum.”

At Mmm… Delicious, a small, greasy-spoon-style cafe near Linden’s campaign headquarters, the customers are loud with praise for their local MP.

“He helped me and my wife with something with the council. He’s very good, a hard worker,” says Robert, who is drinking a pot of tea with his friend Martin.

“But I won’t vote for him. I’m Labour.”

“We’re Labour around here,” Martin says.

“You see, I think of myself as working-class. Even though I’m unemployed.”

The Labour candidate

Ten kilometres across town, in Springburn, Paul Sweeney is making slow progress as he knocks on doors along a street of small houses, most of which were originally council homes. Every time he meets a Labour supporter he stays chatting on the doorstep, sometimes going back to his car to pick up a postal-voting form or some more information.

The 30-year-old’s canvassing team is ticking off each house from a list identifying their political leanings based on previous campaigns, and it is finding the vote holding steady on this street at least, with everyone who said they backed Labour four years ago still backing the party now.

“It was a bit nerve-racking walking through the division lobby in the House of Commons to vote for a general election where we weren’t exactly stepping off on a strong foundation in terms of polling. But the more I’ve been out here it has been incredibly positive,” Sweeney says.

The default setting of this seat is very much a Labour seat. I’m not being complacent by any stretch of the imagination. Who knows what could happen?

Solidly Labour for 80 years from 1935, Glasgow North East is at the heart of industrial Glasgow and of Labour’s history in the city. It fell to the SNP in 2015, but Sweeney, who used to work in the shipyards, won it back for Labour two years later, with a majority of 242.

“The default setting of this seat is very much a Labour seat. I’m not being complacent by any stretch of the imagination. Who knows what could happen? But, you know, the foundations of the labour movement are in this seat. So if we’re not winning seats like this, it’s not good for us in Scotland,” he says.

Sweeney says Labour’s more left-wing message under Corbyn is popular, especially among younger voters, but he acknowledges that his leader is not an easy sell on some doorsteps.

“All political leaders right now are polarising. On some doors they say, ‘I can’t vote for Labour because of Jeremy Corbyn.’ And I go, ‘What do you think of Nicola Sturgeon?’ ‘Oh I can’t stand her.’ They’re not great fans of Boris Johnson either, you know,” he says.

Paul Sweeney, the Labour Party candidate in Glasgow North East. Photograph: Ken Jack/Getty
Paul Sweeney, the Labour Party candidate in Glasgow North East. Photograph: Ken Jack/Getty

He says economic issues come up more than independence or Brexit, where the Liberal Democrats’ policy of revoking article 50, the legal process for leaving the EU, has opened a space for Labour as the only main party pushing for a second EU referendum.

“I had an interesting conversation with an SNP voter and she was, like, ‘I really like what you do locally. You know, I think you’re a dynamic and effective local MP. I just wish you could back independence. I want to vote Labour. I like what Jeremy is saying and all that, and maybe in an independent Scotland I’d vote Labour.’ So I think you get that sometimes with SNP voters,” he says.

“What I said to her was I think it’s tragic that working-class people have been split by this Yes/No question [on Scottish independence], because I don’t think that’s really where the majority of people want to be. I’m a federalist. I was never given that opportunity to express that viewpoint in the referendum, because it was a binary choice of rounding up or rounding down to Yes or No. You know, a total separate state versus the status quo. And I thought, Actually, there’s a space to have a much more interesting discussion about the whole constitutional reconstruction of Britain.”