Scotland politics

Scottish election: Talking nearly over for politicians

Tavish Scott, Alex Salmond, Iain Gray, Annabel Goldie and Patrick Harvie
Image caption Which of the Scottish party leaders will still be smiling after polling day, on 5 May?

In less than 24-hours, voters across Scotland will go to the polls to decide which party wins the 2011 Scottish Parliament election.

It's been a mammoth campaign - more than six weeks since Holyrood was dissolved towards the end of March - in which the SNP is seeking a historic, second term in office in the face of a Labour challenge for a return to power.

In many ways, it's been a Holyrood campaign the like of which we've never seen before, both in terms of what has - and hasn't - happened.

If the polls are to be believed - and of course they can often be wrong - this had been Labour's election to lose. Is that what will end up happening?

So what about the issues? Those observing the campaign from afar may rightly have had the impression this one was about independence - the fight for freedom versus the battle to save the Union, as the various politicians would put it.

Yes, there's been some of that, but the top issue for the parties in the past weeks has been the economy.

Brutal, deficit-reducing spending cuts being taken forward by the UK government are having a knock-on effect on the Scottish budget and, as the Holyrood parties have to do more with less, job creation has been a key part of the manifestos.

For Labour, Iain Gray's bold vision is to create 250,000 jobs by end of the decade and abolish youth unemployment during the next parliament.

The SNP's Alex Salmond wants to deliver 130,000 under a green energy revolution which would see 100% of domestic energy generation coming from by 2020.

And over in the Liberal Democrat camp, Tavish Scott has opted for a plan to free up £1.5bn by selling off the debts of public utility Scottish Water, to create the conditions for 100,000 new jobs.

And what of the Tories? Amid the other party claims of a jobs bonanza, Annabel Goldie and her troops have opted to keep it real, with a "common sense" approach to policies which reflect the current financial limitations.

For example, the party backs the introduction of a graduate fee for Scottish university students studying at home while its opponents want to keep higher education free.

But this being an election, the parties know they have to offer goodies to help hard-pressed families in the more immediate term, along with the longer-term economic plans - cue the council tax freeze.

Paying the bills

The SNP government froze council tax throughout the last parliament and has now pledged to do the same in the next - although that's a policy which will either have to end or the council tax reformed or replaced.

The Tories back a freeze in 2012-13 and a £200 council tax cut for every pensioner household, while the Lib Dems want the poorest pensioners, those with an annual income of less than £10,000, exempted from paying the charge entirely.

In Labour's case, prior to the election campaign the party moved from capping council tax rises to backing a two-year freeze, while the Greens, hoping to improve on their two seats in the last parliament, want to replace council tax and business rates with a land value tax.

And there has also been widespread backing to protect vital, frontline services - the NHS and police officer numbers to name but a few.

Although this is a Scottish Parliament election, the Westminster influence has never been far away.

Both Labour and the SNP have been scathing in their assessment of the UK Tory/Lib Dem coalition's spending cuts.

The Scottish Tories say there was no choice after Labour left the country in an economic mess, while Tavish Scott says he reserves the right not to agree with Nick.

The Holyrood election campaign also started amid the UK Budget, in which a cut in fuel duty will be funded with £2bn taken from the large profits of North Sea oil producers - a "raid", as the SNP put it.

Added to which has been the on-going campaign to secure the future of under-threat RAF bases in Scotland facing the axe under the UK defence review.

Westminster big-hitters have also come out to play - Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls and former PM Gordon Brown have all shown face on the Holyrood campaign trail.

First minister

This election has also been about records - records in government as well as records out of it.

Much of the SNP's election strategy has been about its record of achievement in government. Likewise, much of Labour's election strategy has been about the SNP's record of achievement in government.

Mr Salmond says the SNP government has, among other things, restored free education with the abolition of the student graduate charge, frozen council tax and had opened 330 new or refurbished schools.

Image caption The four main leaders took part in a final TV hustings on Tuesday

Mr Gray says the SNP is guilty of dropping key manifesto pledges on scrapping student debt and cutting class sizes, while unemployment in Scotland has "raced ahead" of the rest of the country in the last few years.

The Tories, meanwhile, say it's thanks to them that polices including boosting police officer numbers by 1,000 were enacted by the minority SNP government.

Annabel Goldie has also been painting herself, in her usual matronly way, as the person to keep the next first minister in check - whether that be Mr Gray or Mr Salmond.

They need to be grabbed, she suggested on TV, by their "short and curlies".

And what of the Liberal Democrats? Mr Scott knows this is a tough one for them, given claims that Nick Clegg has become some kind of cuts hate-figure.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader said he was not comfortable about his party being "related" to the Tories - but has rubbished claims that voters will take revenge on the coalition by giving the Lib Dems a brutal spanking at the polls on Thursday.

And what of independence? The SNP dropped its referendum bill in the last parliament because of a lack of support.

It's been there in the campaign as a major SNP priority - Mr Salmond has a grand vision for a "free and just" Scotland - it's just that it's not quite right at the top of the in-tray just now.

If victorious at the polls on Thursday, Mr Salmond will seek to bring the referendum plan back in the second half of the next parliament - saying Westminster's Scotland Bill on more powers for Holyrood needs to be dealt with first.

Nevertheless, independence remains one of the ultimate goals of the Scottish National Party.

The Lib Dems, Labour and Tories have sought to attack the independence issue at its most fundamental level, claiming that even debating a Referendum Bill will put off investors doing business in Scotland.

And what of the dreaded campaign gaffe?

There haven't been too many major ones, although Miss Goldie had to deny her campaign collapsed after the loss of three candidates.

Liberal Democrat Hugh O'Donnell quit the party in protest to stand as an independent, while another of the party's veterans, John Farquhar Munro, backed Mr Salmond for first minister.

On the "broken promises" front, the SNP came under pressure to publish a document on how many manifesto commitments it had honoured, while leaked information obtained by The Telegraph newspaper claimed the nationalists' plans for a local income tax would have cost Scots more this year than the party had previously suggested.

Polls, polls, polls

And then there was the incident at Glasgow Central train station, where Mr Gray was forced to abort a campaign event which was hijacked by anti-cuts protesters, briefly taking refuge in a sandwich shop.

The Scottish Labour leader later brushed off the incident as nothing in comparison to the fact that he had "walked the killing fields of Cambodia".

So, what are the chances of the various parties on the killing fields of Scottish politics?

Right at the start of the campaign, a TNS-BMRB poll for the broadcaster STV of 1,028 adults put Labour on 38% of the constituency vote, with the SNP on 37%, and both parties on 35% in the regional list vote.

A second STV poll on Tuesday put the SNP on 45% of the constituency vote, with Labour on 25%, while the numbers were worked out at 38% and 25% in the list vote respectively.

So what does that mean? For a start, all polls carry an important heath warning that they could all be totally wrong.

The parties know this - Labour says there are a large number of undecided voters, while the SNP says it's taking nothing for granted - and both point out the only poll that really counts is the one on 5 May.

The other leap into the unknown is the fact that almost all the Scottish Parliament boundaries have been re-drawn - some fairly radically - to reflect population changes.

There are still 73 constituencies and 56 list seats up for grabs, but the parties have been trying to work out where they might have advantage - or disadvantage - in the new landscape.

So, after more than 10 years of devolution, the changes continue apace.

Former first minister Lord McConnell, one of 20 MSPs who decided to call it a day at the end of the last parliament, remarked that Holyrood had encouraged "more Scots to walk a little taller, cringe a little less and have ideas above their station".

Whatever change happens at this election, it's all in the hands of the voters.

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