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Target: LibDems!

12/09/2010

With Caroline Lucas making an effort to woo disaffected LibDems in England and Wales, it’s little surprise that Patrick Harvie is following suit in Scotland, and it’s believed that, following on from their contesting Glasgow Kelvin in 2007, the Greens will devote more attention to the Constituency vote than ever before, specifically targeting Liberal Democrat MSPs.

Of course, this strategy could backfire: for one thing, there’s only the Tories who you’d imagine the Greens couldn’t take votes off and it’s always possible that they could siphon just as many votes from Labour or the SNP. After all, everyone expected the SSP to hit Labour the hardest in 2003. Instead, they hit the SNP far more severely.

Besides, the last concerted effort at specific targeting – the LibDem ‘decapitation’ strategy in 2005, which saw the party take aim at members of the Tory frontbench – was far from a roaring success, with only Tim Farron defeating Shadow Education Secretary Tim Collins by 267 votes. And even that might have more to do with the 660 votes for the UKIP candidate.

So the Greens ought to be wary – this could achieve nothing except a number of lost deposits. But then, we are in uncharted political territory: the LibDems are now in Coalition with the Tories, imposing cuts on the Government’s budget. The SNP, as the Scottish Government, has to implement those spending cuts as its devolved budget will shrink. And Labour were the ones who got us into the current position at Westminster, while at Holyrood, seem devoid of any ideas of their own save for spending money that the Government doesn’t have.

In short, this is the chance for the Greens to step up: if an approach like this is ever going to be truly successful for any party – it’s going to be next year, and for the Scottish Greens. What, then, will happen if it is?

It’s possible that the SSP’s intervention in 2003 cost the SNP up to a quarter of its support. If the Green strategy is equally successful at picking up angry LibDems (and only angry LibDems), let’s look at what that would mean.

Hugh O’Donnell would be out of Holyrood – though it wouldn’t be the Greens picking up his Regional Seat, but, potentially, Labour. This would be the first backfire, though it would carry a significance. Up to now, all of the ‘Big 4′ parties (the SNP, Labour, Tories and LibDems) have had some sort of representation – whether constituencies, regional seats or both – in all eight regions. Were this to come to pass, the LibDems would lose that status, which would surely provide their opponents with another stick with which to beat them.

Nothing would change in Glasgow, though Patrick Harvie’s position would be far more secure (and if you use the Denver numbers, then there’s a chance of Robert Brown losing his seat).

Of the four LibDem constituencies in the Highlands and Islands, a Green intervention on its own could only cost the LibDems one constituency – Skye, Lochaber & Badenoch, which would fall to the SNP. However, this could equally end up being explained away by Quasi-Incumbency Bonus: John Farquhar Munro is standing down and Regional MSP Dave Thompson is the SNP candidate here. But if things go really well for the Greens, their intervention could combine with Quasi-Incumbency Bonus to see the SNP take Caithness, Sutherland & Ross as well. Assuming, however, that the perfect storm doesn’t come about, and only the first constituency falls, that will create a vacancy on the Regional List, and the increased Green vote will deliver it to Eleanor Scott.

Assuming that the Greens stand in Edinburgh Central – now a notional LibDem seat – then their intervention would deliver it to Labour, and Edinburgh Southern could follow suit. If the success were carried through onto the List, then this could end up restoring the Greens’ second Lothian seat, as the loss of Central would correct the LibDem overhang (and Labour shortfall), while the change in Edinburgh Southern would create a vacancy on the List, allowing Steve Burgess to join Alison Johnstone, who is defending Robin Harper’s seat.

Labour would regain Dunfermline, and the vacant Regional seat in Mid Scotland & Fife would go to Mark Ruskell.

A Green intervention would hand the SNP Aberdeen South & North Kincardine, giving Martin Ford a seat for the Greens in the North East. It would be a net LibDem loss but would also be significant for the SNP: they’ve managed regional seats in every region at every election. In this scenario, the SNP North East contingent would comprise entirely of Constituency MSPs.

There’s talk of the Greens challenging Jeremy Purvis in Midlothian South, Tweeddale & Lauderdale, but the consensus is that the boundary changes have already done their job for them. However, a Regional vote advance could cost the LibDems the List seat they gain in compensation for that change.

In West Scotland, however, there are no constituencies for the Greens to target, but a strong enough advance could see a Regional MSP for the Greens anyway – not at the LibDems’ expense, but at that of their Coalition partners, the Tories, who would not enjoy the notional gain that is projected.

So if the Greens are as successful at doing to the LibDems what the SSP did to the SNP, then it could cost the Liberal Democrats as many as seven seats, and even set the Tories back a touch as well. We could see a Green group of eight MSPs, but interestingly (and, from Alex Salmond’s perspective, alarmingly), the Green intervention could gift Labour two extra seats.

Of course, all of this is before you take current opinion polls into account, and there are a lot of assumptions to be made. But if he plays his cards right now, Patrick Harvie could find himself with a lot of power and a massive decision to make come next May.

And, like Nick Clegg – who found himself in a similar position last May despite losing seats – the people will have their verdict on his actions in May 2015.

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