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The other election: South Carolina and the battle for the US Senate

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As a first-term congressman from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and attacked what he called the “fog” of Washington.

“People are so detached from reality . . . it really is amazing,” the political newcomer said. He noted his promise to serve no more than a dozen years on Capitol Hill.

That was 25 years ago.

A quarter-century later, a silver-haired Mr Graham is coming to the end of his third six-year term as a US senator. He is among the most senior Republicans in Congress and one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies.

But the 65-year-old is in now in the fight of his political life. He faces a formidable challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison, a black 44-year-old former congressional aide and lobbyist who has raised $86m for his campaign — more money than any Senate candidate in US history.

With fewer than three weeks to go until election day, statewide polls show a tight race — the last Quinnipiac survey had the two men statistically tied. The same poll showed Mr Trump leading his Democratic opponent Joe Biden by just one point, a stunning set of circumstances in a historically Republican southern state where Mr Graham won re-election six years ago by a nearly 17-point margin.

The Republican party is hoping to rally its base with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court justice © Win McNamee/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“The fact is that Jaime hopped into this race when nobody said he had a snowball’s chance in hell,” says Trav Robertson, chair of the South Carolina Democratic party. “He has put together a campaign that has put him nationally, and in this state, in the realm of doing what people did not think was possible.”

The fate of Republican senators, such as Mr Graham, is central to the outcome of the November 3 election. Given Mr Biden’s comfortable lead in the polls, many Democrats are starting to grow more confident about winning the White House.

But the success of a Biden administration would also depend on the Democrats winning the Senate. Only then would the new president have a chance to push through legislative priorities on everything from healthcare to climate change to pandemic stimulus without Republican obstruction.

Mr Graham is one of several Republican senators struggling to keep their seats. Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado and Susan Collins in Maine all face tough re-election battles. So do David Perdue in Georgia, Joni Ernst in Iowa and Thom Tillis in North Carolina — all states that Mr Trump won in 2016.

It is a state of affairs that seemed unimaginable just a few months ago. But amid heavy criticism of Mr Trump’s handling of the pandemic, many voters appear to be lining up behind Democratic congressional candidates, too.

The key races 1: Republican women under fire

Iowa 

Republican incumbent Joni Ernst, right, the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate, is trailing Democrat Theresa Greenfield, who runs a local real estate firm, in the polls in the Midwestern state that Mr Trump won by 10 points in 2016.

Maine 

Longtime Republican senator Susan Collins, right, who has always styled herself as a moderate, could lose her seat to Sara Gideon, a Democratic state lawmaker, in part because of her support for Mr Trump’s appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

“When you are looking at trying to win in places like South Carolina and Montana, and Iowa, and Georgia, and North Carolina, it seemed impossible to knock off incumbents . . . if you presumed a normal presidential map in a normal year,” says Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Democratic think-tank Third Way. “But certainly the map is expanding in incredible ways.”

Democrats hold the House of Representatives, but the Republicans currently control the 100-member upper chamber of Congress, with 53 senators. Two senators — Angus King of Maine, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — are independents but caucus with the Democrats.

Mr Graham’s race in South Carolina is emblematic of the broader issues faced by Republicans across America. On one hand, the party is hoping to rally its base with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court justice who is opposed to abortion and in favour of gun rights. As chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, Mr Graham has a starring role in that process, with confirming hearings being held this week.

On the other hand, the senator and many of his colleagues are realising that supporting Mr Trump is a double-edged sword. If they curry favour with the president’s most ardent supporters, they risk alienating the moderate Republicans and swing voters who cannot stomach his bombastic rhetoric and are angered by his management of the pandemic.

Mr Harrison believes he can pull off what he describes as a “David and Goliath” story. “We are on the verge of a tremendous upset,” he says.

Lindsey Graham, left, is a frequent defender of Trump, centre, on Fox News, and a regular golfing partner for the president © Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE

‘Trump is on your side’

Mr Graham is perhaps the most extreme example of a Republican who has changed his tune on the president. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the senator called Mr Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot”, a “kook” and a “jackass” who was “unfit” to be president.

Today, Mr Graham, a frequent defender of Mr Trump on Fox News and a regular golfing partner for the president at weekends, is working in lockstep with the White House to confirm Ms Barrett.

In South Carolina, Mr Graham has tried to satisfy two different groups. He has a rightwing base that has never liked his record of bipartisanship — along with his close friend, the late Republican senator John McCain, the senator frequently worked with Democrats earlier in his career. But he also needs more moderate Republicans and independents who see his U-turn on Mr Trump as hypocritical at best and unforgivable at worst.

Earlier this month, just hours after the White House revealed that the president had tested positive for Covid-19, Mr Graham was in a hotel ballroom in Myrtle Beach, a seaside golf resort, addressing a conference of current and retired South Carolina police officers. It was only 9am, but the senator said he had already spoken to the president on the phone to wish him well.

“The Republican party has its faults, and Trump can be a handful . . . but he has been right on the things that matter to me, and I hope to you,” Mr Graham told the audience. “Do you have any doubt that Donald Trump is on your side? Do you have any doubt that I am on your side?”

Key races 2: the Deep South

Alabama 

Republicans are likely to pick up a Senate seat in Alabama, where college football coach Tommy Tuberville, right, is challenging incumbent Democrat Doug Jones, who won in a 2017 special election against Roy Moore, who was the subject of sexual misconduct allegations.

Georgia 

Both of Georgia’s US Senate seats are up for grabs, with Democrat Jon Ossoff, left, challenging incumbent Republican David Perdue, second from left, and a simultaneous special election involving two Republicans and one Democrat vying for a vacancy that opened up in 2019 with Johnny Isakson’s resignation. Kelly Loeffler, an Intercontinental Exchange executive, filled the spot but she is being challenged by fellow Republican Doug Collins, bottom right, a vocal Trump ally, and Democrat Raphael Warnock, second from right.

The officers — many of whom said they would never vote for a Democrat after calls by left-leaning activists to “defund the police” during this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests — proved to be a friendly crowd for Mr Graham, giving him a standing ovation.

But the senator did not shy away from acknowledging his ballot box battle, saying he was taking the challenge “seriously”.

“Has anybody seen a commercial of my opponent? If I see one more, I think I am going to vote for him,” Mr Graham quipped, referring to the wall-to-wall television advertisements the Harrison campaign has purchased. “Where the hell is all of this money coming from?”

“Every liberal in the country is supporting my opponent, which means to me I must be doing something right,” he added. “So let’s send a message to Hollywood from South Carolina: You’re welcome to visit, but you’re not going to pick our senator.”

Changing state

South Carolina has long been a Republican stronghold. The last Democrat to win the state in a presidential election was Jimmy Carter in 1976, and he benefited in part from calling the neighbouring state of Georgia home. Republicans currently control all of South Carolina’s statewide offices. Mr Graham is one of two Republican senators from the state. Five of the state’s seven House members are also from the GOP.

The two exceptions are Jim Clyburn, a veteran Democratic congressman whose endorsement helped catapult Mr Biden to his party’s presidential nomination, and Joe Cunningham, a first-term congressman who was part of a wave of Democrats who flipped seats held by Republicans in the 2018 US midterm elections.

The socially conservative and strongly religious state, which was the first to secede from the union in the American Civil War, also maintains a complicated relationship with its slave-trading past. The Confederate battle flag — a symbol often associated with slavery and segregation — was only removed from the State House five years ago, after a white supremacist killed nine black worshippers at Mother Emanuel, a church in Charleston.

“It really is a Republican-dominated state. But it is a state that is changing,” says Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. He pointed to an influx of Democrats from parts of the north-east and Midwest and said Mr Harrison would need to mobilise those voters, as well as the state’s large African-American population, to win in November.

“There is a coalition to be built,” Mr Knotts says. “[Barack] Obama did it nationally; Joe Cunningham did it in the first congressional district. But we have not seen anyone do that statewide in South Carolina in 20 years or so.”

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to be among the topics discussed in Mr Graham’s first re-election debate with Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison © Joshua Boucher/The State/AP

Younger Democrats, many with college degrees, have moved to South Carolina in recent years for jobs in the suburbs of Charlotte, which is just over the state border in North Carolina. Older Democrats, drawn to milder winters and lower taxes, have moved to South Carolina to retire along the Atlantic coast.

For conservatives, the shift has not gone unnoticed. At a local Republican party office in Charleston earlier this month, one man stopped in to collect yard signs advertising for Mr Graham, noting that “unfortunately” he had seen many placards for Mr Harrison in his neighbourhood. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I have a feeling I know what’s going on,” he said to a party volunteer, who nodded in agreement.

“They come down here for the lower taxes and the nice lifestyle, but then they bring their politics with them,” she said. “They turn us into what they left.”

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South Carolina is one of many southern states where changing demographics, driven in part by economic growth and job opportunities in cities like Charlotte, as well as Atlanta, Georgia, and Austin, Texas, have resulted in an influx of Democratic voters and the possibility that states that were once solidly “red” could shift to the Democrats. Mr Harrison frequently describes his campaign as part of a wider effort to build a “New South”.

But Republican officials maintain South Carolina will stay true to its roots. Drew McKissick, chairman of the state Republican party, contends that even the large sums of money being spent by the Harrison campaign would not be enough to win over a majority of the state’s voters.

“Quite frankly, no matter how much you spend on any campaign, people have to be willing to buy what you are selling. Just ask President [Mike] Bloomberg or President Tom Steyer,” he says, referring to the two billionaires who failed in their Democratic presidential primary bids.

“Jaime is the representative of Democratic party on the ballot,” Mr McKissick said. “Representing the Democratic party comes with a lot of political baggage that is not popular in South Carolina.”

Key races 3: a shift in the Sunbelt

Arizona 

Democrats in this south-western state have pinned their hopes on Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and husband of Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman who narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 2011. Mr Kelly is on course to oust Martha McSally, a former fighter pilot who has struggled to appeal to both Donald Trump’s rightwing base and centrist Republicans.

North Carolina 

Republican Thom Tillis, right, a former management consultant at PwC and IBM, is in the fight of his political life, defending his seat against Democrat Cal Cunningham, a retired military officer who was leading in the polls but whose campaign is reeling from revelations that he had an extramarital affair.

Fundraising gap

The Harrison campaign on Sunday revealed they had raised $57m in the third quarter, the largest sum raised in three months by a Senate candidate in US history. The previous quarterly record was held by Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman who raised $38m in the final stretch of his effort to oust Ted Cruz in Texas in the 2018 midterms.

Republicans are keen to draw comparisons between Mr Harrison and Mr O’Rourke, who came up short against Mr Cruz despite generating widespread national enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Mr Harrison bristles at Republicans’ suggestions that the bulk of his donations have come from wealthy donors living outside of South Carolina. His campaign says the total of $86m they had raised so far in this election cycle has come from nearly 1m individual donors, with an average donation size of $37. South Carolina has a population of 5.1m.

“This is grassroots. Grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, cousins, donations from all [of South Carolina’s] 46 counties . . . I am proud of that,” Mr Harrison said.

Katon Dawson, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican party, disagrees. “Jaime Harrison doesn’t know these people, he does not have to know them,” Mr Dawson says, adding that he was confident that despite the fundraising gap — Mr Graham’s campaign has not disclosed its third-quarter figures, but had raised nearly $30m at the end of June — the senator would triumph.

Mr Graham has come under fire for going back on his 2016 statement that there should be no vote on Supreme Court nominees in an election year © Stefani Reynolds/Getty

“It will show you that a lot of people don’t like President Trump, nor Lindsey, but that’s OK. We’re going to show how many people do like him,” he says. “Everybody around the country who doesn’t like him, doesn’t matter here. Because guess what? They can’t vote.”

Mr Dawson and other Republicans say Mr Graham’s stewardship of Judge Barrett’s confirmation will only earn him plaudits with South Carolina voters, galvanising conservatives around issues like abortion and gun rights, while reminding those on the fence of his influence in Washington.

Rob Godfrey, a longtime adviser to former South Carolina Republican governor Nikki Haley, says the hearings will provide an “unquantifiable and invaluable” contribution to Mr Graham. “It is pretty easy for people to click away from, or turn the channel on, traditional TV ads,” says “It is a much harder proposition to change every channel when you have got Senator Graham leading the . . . hearings.”

But Mr Harrison says Mr Graham’s handling of the Supreme Court vacancy is just another example of the senator’s flip-flopping.

After Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last month, a video went viral of Mr Graham from four years earlier, when Republicans refused to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, during an election year.

In the clip, the senator said: “I want you to use my words against me. If there is a Republican president . . . and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said, ‘let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination’.”

The senator swiftly distanced himself from his earlier comments, insisting Republicans press ahead with confirming Judge Barrett, saying: “The rules have changed as far as I’m concerned.”

“This is a guy who cannot keep his word,” Mr Harrison said. “My grandfather taught me, he said a man is only as good as his word. What is Lindsey Graham’s word worth?”

Profile photographs by AP, Getty Images, AFP via Getty Images, Bloomberg and Reuters



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Analysis

Covid paralyses Asia as western economies prepare for blast-off

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Throughout 2020, Asia’s success in controlling Covid-19 made it the champion of the world economy. While Europe and the US were mired in deep recessions, much of Asia escaped with a shallower downturn or even kept growing.

But as western economies gear up for a vaccine-induced rebound which is set to take their output back to its pre-pandemic scale by the end of this year, parts of Asia are still paralysed by coronavirus. As a result, although the region’s output is already above its pre-pandemic level, slower growth is expected in the coming months.

As it launched its new regional outlook last week, the Asian Development Bank said that the region’s economies were diverging and that more Covid-19 waves were a big risk.

“New outbreaks continue, in part due to new variants, and many Asian economies face challenges in procuring and administering vaccines,” said Yasuyuki Sawada, the ADB’s chief economist.

The ADB projected growth of 5.6 per cent across developing Asian economies in 2021, led by growth of 8.1 per cent in China and 11 per cent in India. But the continued threat of coronavirus means risks to that outlook are skewed to the downside.

“Six months ago, or eight months ago, I would have said Asia is going to be ahead of the game because Asia can control Covid,” said Steve Cochrane, chief Apac economist at Moody’s Analytics in Singapore.

But the picture has changed, with India suffering a severe wave of the virus, and cases still high in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Thailand is unable to reopen its crucial tourist industry.

More subtly, countries such as Japan are only controlling the virus with restrictions that keep parts of the economy in hibernation. “Some countries need vaccines to control Covid,” said Cochrane. “Others need it so they can open up to international travel and tourism.”

The promise of more than 6 per cent growth in the US this year, as a result of President Joe Biden’s fiscal stimulus, would normally have Asian exporters licking their lips.

Line chart of GDP rebased (2019 = 100) showing Asian economies were less affected by the early stages of the pandemic

The outlook, however, is more subdued than record US growth would usually imply: Americans already bought plenty of goods during the pandemic, while higher US interest rates would mean tighter financial conditions in Asia.

“Adding stimulus at this stage, from the goods perspective, is a real test of whether wants are insatiable,” said Freya Beamish, chief Asia economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. As the economy opens up, US consumers will probably pay for the services they were denied during lockdown — such as meals out and haircuts — rather than replacing their television again.

There will still be some spillover from the US stimulus, said Beamish, noting that service providers needed equipment, too. “We suspect that people will find new goods to buy and that Asia will benefit from that.” But she added: “We suspect that China will benefit proportionately less from the services recovery than from the manufacturing recovery.”

Whether the extra US demand for goods turns out to be large or small, it is clearly positive. By contrast, higher US interest rates and a stronger dollar would threaten many emerging Asian economies with a repeat of the 2013 “taper tantrum”.

Increased financial integration and foreign currency borrowing mean that the pain of rising US interest rates is quickly felt on the other side of the Pacific.

“A stronger dollar is no longer an unalloyed blessing for Asia,” said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asia economics at HSBC in Hong Kong. “It helps exports but tightens financial conditions.”

However, inflation is subdued across most of emerging Asia, and the ADB said the risk of a US-induced shock to financial conditions “remains manageable at present”. It said economies such as Sri Lanka and Laos would be vulnerable if such a shock occurred.

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Some Asian economies are well-placed for the next few years, especially Taiwan and South Korea, which are exposed to the semiconductor cycle. “Judging from semiconductor shortages, it doesn’t look like the electronics cycle will break down in the next two or three quarters. That tides them over this rough patch,” said Neumann.

But other Asian economies will find themselves in the less familiar position of relying on domestic demand to grow. One of the biggest question marks is China itself, where first quarter numbers suggest the economy has lost a little momentum.

“Chinese domestic demand still has a way to go,” said Cochrane. “Our forecast right now is for 8 per cent growth in China in 2021, but it depends a lot on policymakers and how quickly they pull back on stimulus and introduce frictions in areas like construction.”



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Analysis

Has Venezuela’s economy bottomed out?

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After one of the biggest economic meltdowns in Latin American history, there are signs that Venezuela may finally be turning a corner.

According to some economists, the socialist government’s decisions to loosen currency controls, relax import restrictions and encourage informal dollarisation have breathed a modicum of life into an economy that has shrunk by about 75 per cent since 2013.

The change of government in the White House has also raised hopes that a solution might be found to the country’s long-running political stalemate, which might lead to an easing of US sanctions and in turn fuel a further rebound.

Credit Suisse recently predicted the Venezuelan economy would expand by 4 per cent this year, which would be its first year of growth since 2013. The bank acknowledged this was in part due to the resumption of economic activity after last year’s hit from the coronavirus pandemic, but this was “not the whole story”.

“The revival in domestic demand, which we have long been noting, is becoming more apparent in the data,” Alberto Rojas, the bank’s chief economist for Venezuela, wrote in a note to clients.

“The easing of controls and widespread use of foreign currencies in everyday transactions has rekindled economic activity — even if just slightly.”

Rojas forecasts further growth of 3 per cent in 2022. “In our view, the growth this year is not just a dead cat bounce,” he wrote.

In Caracas, people were sceptical that this amounted to any sort of meaningful recovery. According to the IMF, per capita gross domestic product in Venezuela has dropped a staggering 87 per cent over the past decade, from $12,200 a year in 2011 to $1,540 now. For the first time, the average Venezuelan is poorer than the average Haitian.

“When you’ve fallen so low, eventually you’re bound to see some sort of correction,” said Adán Celis, president of Venezuela’s manufacturers’ association Conindustria. “The government has introduced some anarchic measures of economic flexibility and that’s provided us with a little bit of oxygen but the structural problems remain.”

But a handful of other banks and consultancies also expect output to increase. Two Venezuelan consultancies, AGPV and Dinámica Venezuela, predict growth this year of 1.9 per cent and 2.3 per cent respectively.

UK-based Oxford Economics forecasts growth of 0.2 per cent this year followed by a jump of 13.1 per cent next year, although it stresses this recovery needs to be seen in context.

“This follows two years in a row [2019 and 2020] when GDP fell by a third or more,” said Marcos Casarin, OE’s chief Latin American economist. “Given the magnitude of the collapse seen since 2014, Venezuela could grow at double-digit rates for several years in a row and still not recover its pre-crisis GDP level.”

Column chart of GDP change (%) showing Venezuela's economy has been shrinking for years

For every economist predicting growth, there are plenty who say Venezuela will suffer more pain before things finally improve.

FocusEconomics, a provider of economic consensus forecasts, recently polled 21 banks and consultancies for their views on Venezuela. The consensus was for a fall in GDP of 3.1 per cent this year followed by a rebound of 2.7 per cent next year. The IMF predicts a contraction of 10 per cent this year and 5 per cent next.

The huge differences between forecasts reflect uncertainty over the consequences of the pandemic, the impact and timing of the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines and the future of the sanctions regime.

“The evolution of US sanctions under the Biden administration remains the key determinant of the outlook,” wrote Stephen Vogado, economist at FocusEconomics.

The sanctions prohibit Venezuela from selling oil to the US and make it difficult for it to export elsewhere, although the government has found ways to get round the measures. Venezuela’s oil exports have risen slightly in each of the past five months, hitting a 10-month high in March — although they are still feeble compared with historical highs.

While oil has been the mainstay of the Venezuelan economy for the past century, the country also used to produce cacao, coffee and rice in significant quantities. It boasted a textile industry and produced chemicals, cement, steel and aluminium. Most of those industries have been decimated in the past two decades of revolutionary socialist rule.

At an outlet selling car accessories in a petrol station in the Las Mercedes neighbourhood of Caracas, store manager Alfredo Barrera said informal dollarisation had brought some degree of price stability after years of hyperinflation.

“The economy has adapted to the country’s problems,” he said. “Right now, it’s fair to talk about relative stability in terms of the currency but we’re a long way from seeing real improvement.”

At La Alicantina, a bakery that has been in business for more than 30 years, manager Douglas Palencia said sales had been hit hard by the pandemic. The shop’s windows, usually full of cakes and pastries, were empty. “I don’t have great expectations for this year,” he said.



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Sturgeon taps Scottish resentment over Johnson and Brexit

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Kenny Paton, the postman in Dumbarton, has been criss-crossing the west coast town near Glasgow, delivering flyers for all the parties contesting Scotland’s parliamentary elections this Thursday. But he is only listening to one.

For all the shortcomings of the Scottish National party’s 14 years in power, the recent turmoil surrounding its handling of sexual harassment claims against former leader Alex Salmond and the destructive nature of its cherished goal of breaking the 314 year union, the party is on course for victory once again.

That is in large part because the SNP, with first minister Nicola Sturgeon at its helm, has been speaking to the heart, tapping into the deep resentment many Scottish people feel at being ruled from Westminster by Conservatives whose leader Boris Johnson and policies, notably Brexit, they did not vote for.

Dumbarton, Scotland map

For some Scots, the economic arguments against independence — and these have only grown with the sharp deterioration in Scotland’s fiscal position since Brexit and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — are no longer cutting through. 

“You can get into all the intricacies about the border and the currency but at the end of the day who do you want to run the country Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon?” said Paton, who once supported Labour, but is now rooting for the SNP.

Nicola Sturgeon campaigns in Dumbarton © Jeff J Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images

If opinion polls in the run-up to Thursday’s vote are correct, the party is sure to remain the largest in the devolved Holyrood parliament and will possibly gain the slender majority it wants to continue pressing Westminster, for its second chance in seven years of winning independence in a referendum.

There is also the probability that with the Scottish Green party, and Salmond’s newly launched Alba party, the SNP will form part of a bigger block in favour of Scotland going its own way.

Chart tracking voting intention polls for the constituency vote in the Scottish Parliament election

But to get across the line to an SNP majority, Sturgeon may need to win marginals such as Dumbarton, where Jackie Baillie, the deputy leader of Scottish Labour and a popular constituency MSP is defending a majority of just 109, the most vulnerable in Scotland.

As well as her appeal to Scottish identity, Sturgeon has a number of other things in her favour. One is Labour’s weakness, and the perception that it could be long before the party Scotland once voted for en masse returns to power.

“I have been an advocate for Scottish independence since the Conservatives won a majority in Westminster. They do not reflect our views — Scotland is a progressive place,” said Ross Crawford, a 28-year-old IT consultant. “It will be a while before Labour can collect themselves — that’s what makes it so discouraging. It means yet more Conservative rule,” he said.

Labour’s Jackie Baillie in Dumbarton © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

Most of all Sturgeon has Brexit and the indifference shown by first Theresa May, the former prime minister, and then Johnson to the majority in Scotland who voted to remain in the EU and who wanted to retain close relations.

“In 2019, the polls began consistently showing higher levels of support for the SNP. The rise occurs entirely among Remain voters,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. “Whatever the preferences of Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove [Cabinet Office minister], the brutal reality is that their pursuit of Brexit has undermined support for the union,” he said. 

Julie Reece: ‘We felt safe with her [Nicola Sturgeon] during Covid’ © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

For most of last year backing for independence in Scotland polled at 50 per cent or higher when undecided voters are excluded. But while it has slipped back since then, support for Sturgeon in Dumbarton remains high. This has much to do with her more assured performance during the pandemic, which has helped the SNP avoid an awkward reckoning for its less than stellar longer term record in areas such as education and health. 

“We felt safe with her during Covid,” said Julie Reece, a bus company manager and former Labour supporter now backing the SNP.

Like many people strawpolled in the constituency, Reece was unfazed by Sturgeon’s alleged mishandling of sexual harassment claims against her former ally. “They have tried to make her a scapegoat for Alex Salmond’s affairs,” she said, adding, with a nod to how the first minister has brought women like her behind the SNP cause: “She has engaged women better — it switches you on that bit more,” she said.

But the stakes are high and the tightness of the contest is also galvanising Scots who support the union and are passionately against the rupture it would cause. This has led to unlikely alliances in Dumbarton, with some staunch supporters of the Conservative party even promising to vote tactically for Labour — a rare occurrence in UK politics.

Chart tracking voting intention polls for the regional vote in the Scottish Parliament election

“Anything that keeps the SNP out,” said Carl Vickers, who works at the Faslane naval base further up the Clyde estuary, where thousands of jobs could be lost if Scotland breaks away. The SNP opposes the use of Faslane to store the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

Vickers described himself as a Conservative by nature but said he would be voting for Baillie on the day.

“It’s all about stopping them [the SNP] getting another referendum,” said Trish Collins, a headhunter and Tory who was also planning to vote for the Labour candidate in the constituency vote, which the Conservatives have little chance of winning.

In Scotland, members of the parliament in Edinburgh are elected using a hybrid voting system: constituency representatives elected using the first past the post voting system while additional representatives are elected according to the proportion of votes a party secures in a region comprising several constituencies.

On the banks of the river Leven, Baillie herself remained defiant. “My seat on paper should go to the SNP but I am a seasoned campaigner so I am not stopping until polls are closed,” she said.

A pro-Scottish independence rally in Glasgow last Saturday © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

“Our number one priority should be recovery and then we can argue about the constitution,” she added, warning that when Westminster pulls the plug on the job protection scheme, there could be a surge in unemployment.

“Brexit has been a mess,” said Baillie. “Leaving the UK could be 10 times worse.” 

That need to focus on recovering from the pandemic — the core of Labour’s campaign — does appear to have resonance, even among some SNP supporters. But for those already convinced about the risks involved in breaking up the UK union, the feelings were even more emphatic.

“We’d just got over one independence vote then Brexit was thrown at us. Now the SNP have got a good chance of coming out with a majority — the whole of Scottish politics is a joke,” said Bryan Burn, a wholesaler for fishing tackle.

He was speaking an hour south by car from Dumbarton in the relatively prosperous town of Ayr, where Conservative MSP and former farmer John Scott is defending another slender majority. A life-long Labour supporter, Burn was visibly distressed at the way things are headed. “If I were younger I would be looking to move elsewhere,” he said.

But Sturgeon is picking up votes in Ayr too.

“I like what she stands for. She’s great at what she does,” said Chris Hughes, a self-employed software engineer, who hoped an independent Scotland could rejoin Europe, and who along with his wife was voting SNP.

Scott, the Conservative incumbent who is defending a majority of just 700 votes, acknowledged that the odds were even. “It will be very, very close,” he said. “The independence issue has become an issue of the heart. Many people don’t take into account the grim realities it might hold for Scotland.”



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