I’ve taken a few days to reign in emotion and get my sleep pattern back to what approaches normal when you have two kids under the age of two, but this is my attempt to look objectively at the winners and losers of Thursday’s election and the merits of each campaign.
TL:DR: #BothVotesSNP was a qualified success. The Conservatives played to their strengths and consolidated the unionist vote. Labour are in freefall. The Greens make gains but were squeezed, Lib Dems hold steady despite predicted oblivion and both RISE & UKIP fall short of expectations/hopes.
While most people predicted that the SNP would maintain or extend the majority they won in 2011, the eventual result is a reminder that the Additional Member System is designed to prevent a parliamentary majority except in the event of a popular majority.
While the SNP increased their total number of votes and vote percentage compared to 2011, the spread of votes and some upsets meant that the system reasserted itself and the final result was actually more representative of the votes cast than five years previously.
The turnout of 55.6% is a concern. While low turnouts have been usual for Scottish elections (50.4% in 2011, 51.7% in 2007, 49.4% in 2003 and 59.1% in 1999) the high turnout for the independence referendum (84.5%) and last year’s UK general election (71.1%) had created the feeling that Scotland was now a politically engaged country. Such a quick return to apathy for the election of the devolved parliament may indicate that popular enthusiasm has waned.
Scottish National Party
The SNP successfully gained their third term in power (not actually confirmed but pretty much certain as a minority administration) and Nicola Sturgeon got her personal mandate as First Minister, while gaining a record number (over a million) and percentage of constituency votes – albeit well short of the 50-55% which had been predicted in some polls.
However, they couldn’t retain their majority, despite predictions. The core reason has to be that they failed to get enough votes in the right places as surprise constituency losses to the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Deomcrats were not recouped on the list due to improved showings for the Conservatives and the Greens.
Faced with a choice between making a radical case for using the Scottish Parliament’s new powers and pitching themselves as the status quo option, the SNP took the latter path of a steady hand on the tiller and were rewarded with suitably modest success.
The #BothVotesSNP campaign was a qualified success in that it staved off the bleeding of list votes to smaller pro-indy parties but it failed to attract disgruntled Labour or Lib Dem voters or inspire the wider electorate to come out and vote. It could be argued that the SNP are happier with a strong Conservative opposition to their right than a larger group of pro-indy MSPs to their left…
They find themselves in a dominant but fluid position of probably having to make concessions to get their bills. Whether they choose to deal with the Greens or Liberal Democrats might come down to an issue by issue basis, with the Greens to their left economically and the Liberals to their right, but both with more anti-authoritarian social policy. The fact that the Greens are the only other explicitly pro-independence party in parliament could prove to be significant and it is surely unthinkable that the SNP will cosy up to Labour or the Conservatives, which might indicate they will be dragged to a more socially liberal position by the Greens and/or the Lib Dems.
Expect fracking, education, local government, taxation, land reform and mental health provision to be the key issues going forward, with a possible conversation to be had over the electoral system as well.
Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party
Everybody hates a Tory, right? Apparently not.
Ruth Davidson pitched the Tory flag firmly in the ground of providing a strong, right wing, pro-union opposition to the SNP and that has been rewarded with unprecedented gains at constituency and regional level for the Conservatives best ever result by far in the Scottish Parliament.
The strong, cohesive campaign seems to have attracted floating unionist voters and Labour voters who are concerned about that party’s indecision on where they stand economically and constitutionally.
At the end of the day, the Tories played to their strengths and were rewarded for that when their usual opponents suffered from uncertainty.
Expect Ruth Davidson to oppose all attempts to raise taxes, move towards a second independence referendum and generally look to spoil all the SNP’s parties…
Scottish Labour Party
Oh dear. Labour have paid the price for arrogance dating back a generation or two and a complete lack of direction since 2007 as they’ve attempted to reconcile the Blairite mantra of ‘aspiration’ with the clear need to oppose Conservative austerity and ended up failing to champion either. The result has been a loss of pro-independence and left wing voters to the SNP & Greens and a loss of right-wing, pro-union voters to the Conservatives.
Internal squabbles, nonsensical policies (raise taxes on everyone but then rebate it back to the poor?) and a complete lack of self awareness has plagued Labour from the start in this campaign. This is further set against the backdrop of the ongoing schism in the UK party as Jeremy Corbyn continues to be too nice in the face of open insurrection from his parliamentary party.
A lack of confidence, bravery or apparent activist numbers has been perhaps most evident in the decision of former deputy leader (and rumoured leadership contender) Anas Sarwar to head the Glasgow regional list, but not contest a constituency – especially when the Westminster constituency he held from 2010-15 overlaps with the seat held by Sturgeon.
That could have been one of the most high profile duels in the whole election, but Labour effectively conceded the seat.
Meek, confused and lacking direction. Labour need to find themselves or this will not be their nadir. This will be a very difficult parliament for the party and as former First Minister Henry McLeish suggested on the analysis programme, they need to have a long think about what they stand for and confront the constitutional question head on.
Scottish Green Party
It was a very bittersweet night for the Greens as they achieved a record number of votes, increased their vote share everywhere and achieved their second best return of MSPS (six compared to 2003’s seven – in a much more open election.)
On the bitter side, they saw a slew of female target candidates squeezed out between a surging Conservative vote and a failure to convert enough new list votes. It is galling to many Greens that quarter of a million SNP list votes in North East and Central Scotland didn’t result in an SNP list MSP but a fraction of those for the Greens would have resulted in pro-independence Green MSPs at the expense of unionists but at the end of the day, it’s about winning votes, not expecting them to be handed over.
Objectively, the Green message was perhaps too cerebral and could have been conveyed in stronger terms to overcome the superior resources of the SNP & Conservatives. Nonetheless, this election has to be seen as a learning experience, a blooding of the still relatively fresh Green Surge activists and a qualified success in trebling the Green group of MSPs.
That group of Green MSPs is large enough to make the difference between the minority SNP government and winning some votes. Expect the Greens to deal with their pro-independence allies on a case by case basis, pushing for a ban on fracking, more radical land reform and more progressive taxation (amongst other things) in return for backing SNP policies.
Scottish Liberal Democrats
It seems that for much of the campaign that the Liberal Democrats were just spinning wheels and having a laugh on the way to insignificance. Willie Rennie’s interviews with copulating pigs in the background or going down the slide in a soft play (not at the same time) were a viral highlights of the campaign.
However, concentrating on eternally popular Liberal policies such as education and mental health provision allied to a focused target to win campaign in their traditional heartlands led to the Liberals picking up shock wins on two mainland constituencies, even if it did end up as a zero-sum, losing regional seats in the process. Given that they were predicted to lose ground, perhaps dropping below four MSPs and losing the status of a cohesive parliamentary group – it’s been a successful election.
Play to your strengths, use your resources wisely and smile while doing it. Not a bad way to go about a campaign.
The Liberal Democrats almost amazingly find themselves in the position of being able to negotiate with the minority SNP government on an issue by issue basis, probably seeking to gain concessions on issues like education in order to support SNP motions.
Invisible activists, a laughable manifesto launch which lacked a hard copy of the manifesto but did boast the world’s ‘second best accordionist’, a campaign team that can’t work commonplace streaming apps and a (supposed) leader who seems to mostly want to talk about how the EU are ruining our toasters leads to 2% vote share and nowhere near electing an MSP even tough the media gave UKIP a wholly disproportionate amount of attention.
A complete lack of resources or mainstream media attention meant that any traction for RISE would be remarkable thing but given the membership of the Scottish Socialist Party (who achieved a similar result in 2011) and the momentum provided by the Radical Independence Campaign and Cat Boyd’s relatively high profile column in the National and as part of the pro-independence twittersphere, ambitions were high.
However in context of only adding less than 0.1% on the SSPs 2011 performance for a total of 0.5% vote share & 10,000 votes is a disappointing return, especially given that ‘Scotland’s Left Alliance’ didn’t have to compete with Socialist Labour or Respect this time around. Worst of all, they came behind Solidarity. That’s got to sting.
That said, their campaign was innovative – attempting make up in stunts what it lacked in numbers, profile or touring promotional machine and while the stylistic choices weren’t to everyone’s tastes, they were distinctive, bold and ambitious – if largely invisible to the bulk of the electorate.
If RISE can stay together and develop their young batch of activists and candidates, five years to recruit and blood activists in local authority and European election campaigns could see them actually have a shot at getting someone like Cat Boyd elected in 2021 – which would be a good thing for Scottish politics as a whole.
IF they can stay together, which the volatile history of Scotland’s hard left tells us is no mean feat.
This is a strange election, with the independence referendum casting a long shadow, best seen in the seeming polarisation of the parliament between the SNP and Conservatives, with Labour reduced to third place in a Scottish election for the first time since 1910.
Nonetheless, it has returned a more interesting, representative parliament with the SNP losing their majority but still being by far the largest party, the Greens and Liberal Democrats looking to leverage their potential to win the minority administration key votes and an implacable Conservative opposition.
Labour, no longer the largest opposition party and anathema to the SNP so unlikely to parlay their bloc of seats into influence, find themselves strangely irrelevant and searching for identity and purpose.
It will be an interesting five years…