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by Andrew Learmonth
30 March 2021
COVID and calculations: A different kind of campaign

COVID and calculations: A different kind of campaign

COVID hit the Green’s election campaign first. Patrick Harvie was forced to front the party’s launch solo after his co-leader, Lorna Slater, received a notification from the Protect Scotland app.

For 15 minutes, she had at some point – she doesn’t know when or where – been within two metres of someone who later tested positive for coronavirus.

“I feel fine, I don't have any symptoms,” she told Holyrood on her last day of isolation. “Just a weird thing to happen.”

It’s going to a be weird campaign.

Slater's enforced absence could be the first of many. Candidates hitting the trail this year may need to hit it from home. Nicola Sturgeon was forced to deliver her first major speech of the campaign from her conservatory.

Under the campaigning guidance issued by the government, the Holyrood hopefuls and their activists have been allowed to put leaflets through your door for the last two weeks, though only in groups of four or less – a rule that has already caught out two cabinet ministers.

From April 5, they’ll be allowed to ring your bell.

Canvassing will only be allowed if the constituency is in a local authority where the COVID infection rate is below 50 per 100,000 or less – the number which the WHO considers as evidence that the pandemic is sufficiently under control.

As soon as it climbs above 100 per 100,000, the door to door and the face to face needs to stop.

The travel ban stays in place, obviously, though it won’t apply to candidates, agents, and party leaders.

That’s welcome news for Willie Rennie photo op fans.

But of course, it’s not just candidates who need to turn out for the election. There’s a real anxiety among the parties about what exactly might happen on polling day.

It’s promising perhaps that more Americans than at any other point in the country’s history voted in the US elections last November at the height of the pandemic.

And earlier this month, the Dutch election had a turnout of 82.6 per cent, up slightly on the previous vote.

Though, there the voting took place over three days.

The plan here is to get it all done on May 6, though the count will almost certainly last the weekend. The need for social distancing will mean fewer people in the Scotland’s exhibition centres and public halls where the tallying of votes normally takes place.

It’s expected we’ll see a rise in the number of voters opting to post their vote. The Electoral Commission believes it could be as many of 40 per cent of the electorate, up from 17 per cent.

And if someone in the rest of 60 per cent falls sick or ends up self-isolating, they can apply for a proxy vote up until 5pm on the day of the poll.

On the frontline, the candidates, so far, seem, if not relaxed, then not worried.

Slater – who’s standing for the Greens in Edinburgh Northern and Leith and is currently placed at number two on the party’s Lothian list, said she wasn’t too worried about the impact of the virus on the ability to reach voters.

“It's a really different kind of campaign this time around. The world is more digital now, though, and certainly young people - green voters are overwhelmingly young - I think we'll still be able to connect to our voters.”

In Aberdeenshire West, Lib Dem candidate Rosemary Bruce, was looking forward to speaking to people, but said the pandemic’s impact on the campaign wasn’t just about the weeks ahead, but all the events missed last year.

“It's not just the campaigning side of it, it's all the usual community events that didn't happen last year and still aren't happening, in terms of coffee mornings, in terms of fares.”

She added: “Given Aberdeenshire West is such a vast rural area there are an awful lot of these events, whether it's crafting or coffee mornings, the big shows those didn't happen, the Braemar gathering and so on. The whole backdrop has been different.”

Euan Blockley, the Conservative candidate for Glasgow Cathcart said he was desperate to see voters in real life: “The last couple of months we've been doing telephone canvassing, but as any candidate will tell you, it's not the same as a face-to-face conversation with someone. Nothing beats that in politics.”

The Tory hopeful said his activists were raring to go. He said that during a recent by-election in the city’s West End – held after the restrictions on leafleting were lifted -– huge numbers turned up to help spread the party’s message.

“I think it was, number one, exercise, and number two, just what’s happening in politics at the moment. On our side, they are very enthused and keen to get out there.”

What’s undoubtedly enthusing the Tories is the fallout from the Scottish Government’s botched handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond, and the increasingly bitter civil war in the SNP.

Sturgeon – exonerated by James Hamilton and castigated by the Holyrood committee –  will be at the centre of their campaign almost as much as she’ll be at the centre of the SNP’s campaign.

“It’s evident that Henry McLeish, Wendy Alexander and David McLetchie resigned for far less than the charge sheet facing Nicola Sturgeon,” Douglas Ross said earlier this month.

The First Minister still remains a huge asset for the SNP. They say they have experienced a bounce as supporters rally to the aid of the party leader. According to the depute leader Keith Brown, 15,000 people joined in March.

If the polls, so far, have told us anything about this election, then it’s that the SNP are going to win.

The question is the scale of the victory. Will they secure a majority? Or will they fall short?

One senior party figure – speaking before the events of last week – said they thought Nicola Sturgeon was on course for a result not a million years away from what the party achieved in 2016.

“Unless there's some sort of cataclysmic event I think it'll end up much the same as it currently is.

“I can't see us getting over 70. And equally, I don't see it dropping much, if any. Although there'll be some casualties.”

In a bid to try and address the diversity of their almost all white Holyrood group, the party’s governing NEC placed a black, Asian, ethnic minority or disabled candidate at the top of each of the eight regional lists.

That’s seen some weel-kent faces pushed down a space or two, including Nicola Sturgeon, who now sits second on the Glasgow list behind one of the former ‘Glasgow Girl’ Roza Salih. Although Sturgeon is unlikely to lose her Glasgow Southside seat where she holds a majority of almost 15,000.

Our insider – having crunched the numbers and done his own d’Hondt calculations – thought Cabinet minister Paul Wheelhouse, contesting the relatively safe Tory seat of  Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire and ranked third on the South of Scotland list, could be one of those list casualties.

However, in Scottish politics the only certainty is uncertainty. 

In what could yet be the cataclysmic event, Alex Salmond left his old colleagues reeling as he launched a new political party on Friday.

Alba will stand only on the list and could, he said, help create a “supermajority” for independence by getting 90 pro-indy MSPs into Holyrood.

His argument is that because the SNP is so dominant in the constituency vote, it limits the SNP’s ability to do well on the Additional Member System used on the list vote.

Quick reminder, the d’Hondt method used for counting those list votes, in its most basic and crudest sense, aims to return a proportional number of MSPs. If a party win 40 per cent of the vote in a region, they should get 40 per cent of all – both constituency and list - MSPs in that region.

It works by dividing the number of regional votes cast for a party, by the number of constituency seats already won in that region, plus one. The party with the highest total after this calculation gains one additional member.

In 2016, the SNP won six of the nine constituency seats in the Lothian region. That mean that despite winning 36.2 per cent of the list vote – more than all the other parties - they didn’t win any list MSPs, as they’d already had their proportional share.

The argument Salmond makes is that a strong showing on the constituency for the SNP and Tories means votes for the SNP and Tories on the list are wasted.

It’s a strategy which might work, but which contains an element of risk for independence supporters. Professor Sir John Curtice has warned that Alba could even help deny the SNP a majority at Holyrood.

The party has already caused the SNP grief. Kenny MacAskill, the former justice secretary and East Lothian MP, his fellow MP Neale Hanvey, and the councillors Chris McEleny, Lynne Anderson, Caroline McAllister and Michelle Ferns, have all defected.

There are rumours of more to come.

It’s also had an impact on the parties opposed to independence.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has urged Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats to work with him on a tactical voting plan.

He said his party could even stand down candidates in May's Holyrood election in a bid to maximise the unionist vote.

Labour leader Anas Sarwar has rejected the offer. He said: “This election is not a game, our parliament is not a game, it is about focusing on what our priorities should be as a country and deciding what the focus of our parliament should be for the next five years.”

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - Constituency profile: Glasgow Southside

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