UK Politics

Will SNP deal Labour a fatal blow?

Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood on Wednesday Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon was officially voted in as Scotland's First Minister on Wednesday

"The Labour Party that was born in Scotland is maybe going to die in Scotland."

The Yes campaign lost the referendum, but at the moment in Scotland it is winning the argument.

And the consequences for Ed Miliband and indeed the whole Labour movement are potentially disastrous, and potentially permanent, closing down the already narrow chance of the party achieving an overall majority at the next election, with alarming consequences for it beyond.

As new Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon settles into her post, and Alex Salmond licks his lips at the prospect of returning to Westminster to become troublemaker-in-chief after next May, the latest seat predictions suggest just how significant their impact could be on the next general election.

Based on the most up to date polls, electionforecast.co.uk's seat-by-seat forecast suggests the SNP might gain as many as 34 new seats in Scotland, and Labour might lose as many as 15.

Growing membership

Their exact projections, based on this week's numbers, put Labour on 30 seats, and the SNP on 25.

In what is the most unpredictable election in decades, the chipping away of what was once rock solid Labour support is something Ed Miliband can ill afford.

Day by day the shift is gathering pace.

The SNP's membership has grown enormously since its defeat in September's independence referendum, defying the usual logic that success begets success.

As of this week, it now has 85,000 members.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Alex Salmond hopes to be a major figure for the SNP at Westminster

Labour has fewer than 17,000 in Scotland - the last published figure, which sources suggest has dwindled still further.

The raw reality for Labour is that this is entirely different from the vagaries of the usual political cycle.

For decades, Labour has been part of Scotland's national identity.

Of course not every single voter has chosen the Labour Party, but the dominance of it in the Scottish psyche has been profound.

In some ways it was the establishment.

So the surge of people willing to sign on the dotted line for the SNP is extraordinary.

Ships and steel

It's almost as if the experience of the referendum peeled off a layer of Scottish identity, revealing something altogether new beneath.

It is not unusual to come across voters like John Daly and Hamish Husband, whose families have long histories with Labour. They both used to be members.

One of Mr Husband's ancestors was even involved in the founding of the party, and blacklisted from working in Glasgow's shipyards for being a member.

Yet he turned to the Yes campaign.

He told me: "In Scotland we have two establishments - we have the lairds, the lords and clan chiefs and the Labour Party - and the Labour Party's heartlands were in central Scotland within the shipyards and steelworks - and they abused the trust of the voters.

"I have a feeling that I know that Scotland will one day win a big game - we'll qualify again for Europe or the World Cup - however, the Labour Party are finished.

"I've joined a different party."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ed Miliband went on the campaign trail in Scotland during the referendum campaign

Mr Daly said: "My natural home is in a Scottish Labour Party, that's where I would feel really comfortable.

"But now I'm thinking 'What exactly is the Labour Party for?'.

"And anything I can think of is already being covered by the government that's in place in Holyrood.

"So I'm not sure if there's even a place for Labour left in Scotland.

"I'm beginning to come to the conclusion, probably wrongly, and I've been wrong before, that the Labour Party that was born in Scotland is maybe going to die in Scotland."

Strong words. But it's not the case that the SNP is a brand new political force.

Age of apathy

The party became the minority government in 2007 at Holyrood, and has been in charge in Edinburgh since 2011.

And crucially, since devolution Scottish voters have proved perfectly capable of voting different ways in different ballots.

Despite the 2011 SNP success in the Scottish elections, at the general election the year before, Labour actually increased its share of the vote.

And although it had set a target of 20 seats, the SNP came third behind the Liberal Democrats in terms of seats, and with 19.9% of the vote, scored less than half the Labour share of 42.2%.

The critical question is whether or not voters will switch to the SNP at a Westminster election where they are not just choosing their own representatives, but by implication between Ed Miliband and David Cameron as prime minister.

The numbers flocking to the SNP suggest that, this time, they will.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jim Murphy is widely tipped to be the next leader of Scottish Labour

In an era all too often described as an age of apathy, that level of political enthusiasm will surely translate into some shift in voting habits.

Voter Margaret Allen said: "I think people who used to vote Labour will now go to SNP.

"The SNP are stronger now than they've ever, ever been.

"Whereas people used to think it was a wasted vote because they knew the SNP weren't going to do anything, now all of a sudden in the last few years - the momentum the SNP has grown - people now think they're a force to be reckoned with."

Frustrated fervour?

However, just as the last few months have proved beyond doubt there is nothing certain about Labour's support surviving, there is nothing certain about the SNP maintaining this level of momentum.

There is a risk that the fervour of many of the party's new supporters will be frustrated.

Scottish Labour, under a new leader, most likely Jim Murphy, may manage to galvanise its members and reverse the trend of those abandoning them.

But Labour was the status quo for so long in Scotland, it's as if the party forgot it had to prove its worth.

Now, for the fortunes of Labour right across the UK, they have little choice but to try.

You can watch Laura's report on Newsnight at 22:30 GMT on BBC Two (except in Scotland) or later on the BBC iPlayer.

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