It’s likely that you noticed there was an election yesterday in Scotland; even if the disturbing lack of coverage in the run-up to the election left you in the dark, the wall to wall coverage this morning should make you aware. In some ways, it was the night we expected, but in many others it was a night full of some unexpected developments.
Across the country, the Conservatives made gains in SNP and Labour seats, in Glasgow the SNP wiped Labour out completely and in the list vote, Labour’s Kezia Dugdale managed to hold onto a seat by a hair’s breadth. The Greens made significant inroads too, taking 6 seats and forming a fully fledged parliamentary group for the first time since 2003.
The main story is, of course, that of the Scottish National Party, securing an historic third term in office. They pulled out 63 seats, falling shy of the 65 required for a majority and the 69 they held after the 2011 election. Many were speculating that the SNP would be looking at a majority again, seeking to replicate 2011’s monumental achievement, with many treating is as a given; however, very early on in the night and prior to even the first declarations, Alex Salmond said that it was, “by no means a foregone conclusion”.
Indeed, the Scottish Parliament’s additional member system is specifically designed to prevent a single party majority. Many spectators even referred to the SNP as having “broken the system” in 2011, with it now returning to normal. This morning’s result, then, should not be seen as a defeat for the SNP, rather as a fantastic “vote of confidence” -as Nicola Sturgeon said following the counts – for the SNP to continue in government for another three years.
However, if there are any real winners this morning, it is, rather unexpectedly too, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, who thumped Labour across the board to become the largest opposition party in Holyrood. There had been the odd speculation from the pundits throughout the campaign that the Tories could be the second largest party, pushing Labour into third, but it was largely laughed off by most of us. It was, however, the platform upon which Ruth Davidson based her whole campaign – “A Strong Opposition”. Credit must go to Ruth Davidson too, she has turned the Scottish Tories around spectacularly achieving their best Scottish Parliament result to date.
The real losers, after the dust settled, were indeed the Scottish Labour Party. Most were convinced that Labour would still hold onto second place, after all, how could Scotland ever places the Tories above Labour? However, it wasn’t to be; the traditional Labour heartlands of Scotland fell and Labour were put into a horrifying third place, behind the Tories for the first time in generations.
Well, some may argue that the proposals for raises to various bands of income tax were to blame; but a 1p rise for middle income earners was hardly going to turn the entire country against them and those affected by a hike to the highest levels were probably not voting Labour to start with. By and large, the reason for Labour’s downfall seems to be on the question of independence.
It’s this constitutional question that has rattled Labour then, with Kezia Dugdale trying to stay out of the whole rotten business and giving neither a clear yes or no to support for independence. This maybes aye maybes naw approach, compared to the staunch defence for the Union only a couple of years ago, has hurt the Labour Party more deeply than they could have imagined.
Those blaming the SNP for the demise of Labour should take a look at the results; whilst in Yes strongholds such as Glasgow and Dundee the SNP routed Labour, increasing majorities or making gains, the SNP vote stayed largely level across the country. The Yes vote has shifted to the SNP, but most of them were there to begin with in 2011, however a large number of Labour’s Yes voters have stayed with Labour.
Instead, it’s the No voters that appear to have deserted Labour. The Scottish Tories ran their campaign on the idea of a “Strong Opposition”, but that was not only to Nicola Sturgeon’s government, but also to any further push for independence. It was the Tories who drove home the idea of continued campaigning to preserve the centuries long Union with the rest of the UK. Whilst Labour try to brush the whole idea under the carpet, the Tories have recognised that this issue will not go away.
Now, I am a Yes supporter, as many may have gathered by reading this blog, but it is pointless to disregard those who support the Union and their opinions. Labour, however inadvertently, did just this by trying to ignore the whole constitutional question. The result was that those who had supported Labour and who wished to remain as part of the United Kingdom felt that their party was not going to deliver the commitment to that cause.
Now, regardless of one’s position, one cannot fail to realise that this issue is going to be at the forefront of Scottish politics for quite some time to come and will remain the dominant issue throughout this parliament and possibly the next. So, where then do Labour’s No voters go? They go to the only mainstream party that is fully committed to fighting for the Union, the Conservatives.
If you want proof of this, you need only look at individual constituency results which mostly sit around SNP level (or up slightly) Labour down dramatically, and Conservative up dramatically.
Whilst it was always assumed that the SNP would win overall, the real battle was the traditional one of Conservative vs. Labour. And the Tories punished Labour in a way we haven’t ever seen in the Scottish Parliament. In just about every seat, the Tories gained what Labour lost and it was for the very simple reason that the Labour party have tried to ignore the question of Scotland’s constitutional future.
Where now for Labour, in that case? Having been thumped into a humiliating third place with their own supporters crossing over to the traditional enemies of the Tory party, there is a lot of building to do. As a party they need to show strength and unity – two horrid buzzwords, but it’s true. They need to stand behind Kezia Dugdale and the leadership, knuckle under and push forward a unified policy front on all the issues including independence and, sorry Jackie, Trident. Only then can they even hope to become a serious political establishment in Scotland again and regain the voters they lost to Ruth Davidson.
As for the SNP, they’ll form a minority government. It’s what the Additional Member System was made to do. With 63 MSPs, however, they should have no real difficulty in pushing forward their agenda.
Nicola Sturgeon will be elected as First Minister. She said this morning that she would not seek to form any formal coalition government, but with the common ground shared with all parties on varying issues, it’s likely that cooperation will be the key word in this parliament. The minority will also make for more balanced debates and perhaps a more rigorous examination of policy in the chamber.
And it’s this minority that may offer Labour a second chance at convincing voters to back them in the future as they try to hold the SNP to account. It also brings the Green Party into place again as they expect to push the SNP on issues such as fracking and taxation.
Yes, we expected the SNP to govern and yes, we expected Labour to suffer slightly, but, as usual, there was so much we didn’t expect. All that can be said for certain is that the next five years will definitely be interesting for all parties and for everyone in Scotland. We will likely see questions over reform to the NHS, education, housing, taxation, jobs, the economy and benefits. We may even see the independence question thrown up again, but who knows.
We now just have to look forward to 2017 for the local elections, this will be the next real challenge for all parties and should provide an interesting indicator of how they are all doing in the public’s opinion.
Until then, though, we’ll just have to wait and see what the new government looks like and what the first year in parliament brings. It will be many things, but it shouldn’t be boring, that’s for sure.