In the second national election since the referendum on independence, Scotland has voted to support the SNP in overwhelming numbers. The voter turnout remained markedly higher in Scotland when compared with England (29.1%) and Wales (45.3%), however it wasn’t at the same level as the general election. This is probably because the SNP’s momentum from the referendum is probably starting to slow down, purely because of time, and there remains the perception of Holyrood not having enough powers. Nevertheless, there are many stories from the night’s events, and each relate to the individual parties.
With all 129 MSPs now elected, the make-up of the Scottish Parliament is now as follows: SNP with 63 MSPs; Conservatives with 31; Labour with 24; Scottish Green Party with 6; and Lib Dems with 5. Although the SNP lack an overall majority, they will require only 2 votes in Holyrood to have Nicola Sturgeon re-elected as First Minister.
The headline story was about the SNP and how they will form the next government in Edinburgh. I predicted an SNP landslide back in September 2015 but the one thing I hadn’t predicted was that the SNP would lose seats and therefore not form a majority government. There are a few reasons behind this loss of seats, and there are two things I would point to: the rise of the Scottish Greens and the recent changes to the Scottish Labour Party’s platform. The Scottish Greens have managed to syphon off some of the pro-independence vote by coherently arguing that the SNP aren’t the radical party that they claim to be. The Scottish Labour Party have aligned themselves with the SNP, like on Trident and in welcoming pro-independence supporters, and are now clearly more left-wing in areas like the economy and welfare. Admittedly Scottish Labour did have a torrid time, and I’ll get on to that in a moment, but these two things have led to people on the Left beginning to stop supporting the SNP. In two-way races between the Tories and the SNP, the loss of these left-wing voters resulted in the SNP losing ground, hence the loss of seats.
Despite the headlines about SNP dominance, the Scottish Conservatives were the biggest winners of the night, picking up 16 MSPs and becoming the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament. The Conservatives, under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, have managed to successfully begin detoxifying the Tory Party brand. Because Davidson is the face of the Tories in Scotland, the perception of disconnectedness from Cameron and Osborne is less prevalent. Furthermore the social conservatism of the party on a UK-level has been replaced by a more liberal outlook.
In the 1980s the Thatcher government had introduced Section 28 but nowadays the Conservative Party introduced the 2013 Same Sex Marraige Act and is led in Scotland by a lesbian. The independence referendum also had it role to play in the Tories’ Scottish resurgence. Voters who supported Labour who were floating voters would flirt with supporting the SNP because, although they didn’t necessarily agree with independence, they liked their message. However now that Scotland is polarised by the question of secession, these voters are now more receptive to the Tories than crossing the aisle to support the SNP, and the Lib Dems have yet to recover thus making the Tories the only other ‘major’ party in Scotland.
Scottish Labour’s night was never going to be good but the success of the Tories crystallized what a bad night it was for the party. Losing seats seemed like it was almost inevitable but the fact that the Tories are now the official opposition just shows how far the party has fallen. Scottish Labour have a serious problem about attracting supporters. Polls have shown that young people are more likely to favour independence, and therefore Labour is at a disadvantage in recruiting new members. Also Labour cannot use the argument that anyone left-of-centre has to vote for them to keep the Tories out because the SNP exist as a viable political force. There is nothing that Labour can really do other than slowly die.
As I have said in the past the official opposition should be challenging the SNP on policy rather than on constitutional questions and the constitutional divide appears to be becoming a Left-Right issue, and unfortunately for Labour they are using arguments of the Right to appeal to the Left. This makes the Scottish Labour party a dinosaur and with movements like RISE springing up, the centre-left is monopolised by the SNP and groups like RISE and the Greens are attracting socialists. Labour’s support base is disappearing.
Speaking of the Greens, they had a great night picking up 4 additional MSPs, and in doing so leaf-frogged the Lib Dems into fourth place. As a more left-wing pro-independence party, the Scottish Greens have positioned themselves to be one of the main beneficiaries of the Labour Party’s decline and a party that can fight on behalf of young people, who as I mentioned are more likely to support independence. Without repeating too much of what I said in article about the Greens two weeks ago, the Greens have the potential to build on this result by offering a brand of anti-austerity socialism that Scotland needs and that the SNP are not delivering.
The Lib Dems stalled in the election result, retaining their 5 MSPs, but this could be seen as either a good or a bad thing. On a positive note, the Lib Dems didn’t haemorrhage many votes and didn’t lose any seats, and the reason I would give is the same as I gave for the success of the Tories. The fact that more powers have been devolved and the leadership is distinct from the UK party; the Scottish Lib Dem brand is now more about Willie Rennie and Holyrood, and less about the legacy of the 2010-15 Coalition government in Westminster. On the flip side, the Lib Dems only have 5 MSPs and there is little evidence of a grand upswing in popularity for Liberal ideas bubbling away under the surface. Overall I’d think that the Lib Dems would be somewhat disappointed that they didn’t make any gains, but I guess that they would also take comfort that they didn’t lose any more ground.
The other story of the election that I want to mention is something that didn’t happen. UKIP’s vote topped out at 2.5% and the party didn’t break into Holyrood. In the same way as the SNP had a boost after the Scottish independence referendum campaign, UKIP have received a bump in the polls. The reason for this is simple: UKIP’s main policy is being voted on and is currently dominating the discourse. However what is shown by the Holyrood results is that this isn’t happening, and the reason for this is also simple. UKIP are gaining most among disaffected voters who are sceptical of the political class in Westminster, particularly among groups that traditionally have voted Labour. In Scotland there has been a party that has been doing that for years in the form of the SNP. As a result the ground that is fertile for UKIP to grow in Wales doesn’t exist as much in Scotland.
Scotland has voted for another SNP government and the continued decline of Scottish Labour has resulted in the Conservatives becoming the official opposition. As I have said on repeated occasions the Conservatives need to become the only unionist party in Scotland so that the SNP do not become complacent. This means that I would support the idea of a pro-independence centre-right party and a pro-independence liberal party, even though I wouldn’t endorse any of their policies.
I think that there is potential for such a realignment in Scottish politics and if it does transpire, there will be no place for Scottish Labour. In the mean time the SNP will continue to drift to the Right in order to respond the opposition of the Tories and Labour needs to be replaced by a genuine socialist party, and in my view the most ideologically consistent form of such a party would be one in favour of independence.