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The Scottish Election

May 7, 2011

Here are my thoughts on the election to the Scottish Parliament held on 5 May. It’s not really aimed at readers in Scotland, who can figure this out for themselves, but for people in England and outside the UK. I am writing it because I think the analysis in UK national as well as international media is poor.

I’ll disclose my own vote, to give context: I voted Labour in my constituency, and Green on my regional list. I probably voted Labour more out of pity than anything else, because they really didn’t deserve my vote.

The Scottish National Party won an overwhelming majority, gaining 69 seats out of 129. Labour has 37 seats, and the LibDems were annihilated – they have just five seats, and lost all their constituencies on the Scottish mainland.

What does this all mean?

Scotland is a left wing country. There is a progressive majority, and left wing voters are king makers. If you capture the left in Scotland, you win the election. This has manifested itself in different ways over the years: Labour have generally had the support of the majority, but in the past there have been some interesting results: in the 2003 election, the Greens had seven seats and the Socialists six. The SNP had 35 seats in 2003, which is an indication of how staggering it is that they won an overall majority this time.

Just a jump to the left

The main reason for the SNP’s success is that the party has shifted left over the past few years. Its election campaign was solidly green and social democratic, and it offered a real alternative to the tired impasse of UK politics. The SNP has specifically modelled itself on Nordic-style social democracy, and this has paid off.

The SSP collapsed after the Sheridan debacle and the Nats stole a lot of the Green’s clothes. Republican socialists, social democrats and many greens shifted their support to the SNP. The party also picked up a lot of support from Scottish Asians, with prominent activists like Osama Saeed coming on board. In Scotland, the SNP are the party of ethnic minorities – not Labour.

Trajectory to power

Despite some staggeringly negative campaigning, in the 2007 election the SNP won 47 seats to Labour’s 46. Labour was stunned: how could the people of Scotland desert them? Those votes were rightfully theirs – how dare the SNP take them? I heard plenty of Labour people at the time saying that people had made a mistake, or were too stupid, that the SNP government would soon collapse and normal service of Labour hegemony would resume.

Labour spent the entire parliamentary term trying to undermine the SNP – something that was widely noticed by Scottish voters. Labour was more comfortable joining an Unpopular Front with the Tories than working with the SNP, and voters could see the interests of Scotland were being subordinated to the interests of the Labour party. I got the impression that if the SNP had delivered world peace, Labour would have attacked them for threatening defence jobs. Labour also failed to distinguish itself from the Westminster party, and voters were treated like cannon fodder for London-based political priorities.

The SNP ran a highly successful and competent administration. Their tactic was to show what could be delivered under very restrictive circumstances with a minority administration in Holyrood, and invite the people of Scotland to trust them with more power.

And competence is a very effective argument.

Labour’s appalling campaign

Labour’s campaign was overwhelmingly negative – but not negative enough for John “nasty cardMcTernan. Despite stealing SNP policies, Labour ignored the SNP’s leftward shift and implied they were the same as the Conservatives: the Tories are back, and only Labour can save you. Come back to Papa. Despite this, they failed to articulate any alternative to the centrism that has dominated UK politics since the 1990s.  I was told by some (admittedly clueless) Labour supporters that the SNP are the Scottish equivalent of the BNP. The election agent for the Labour candidate in my constituency spent the campaign banging on about “Tartan Tories”.

Given the rightward shift of the Labour party, and the fact that the secret of the SNP’s success is its move to the left, this is politically illiterate.

Let’s remind ourselves of the SNP position:

  • Anti-nuclear power
  • In favour of 100% energy from renewables
  • Anti-nuclear weapons – opposed to Trident and other defence spending
  • Anti-war – opposed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as NATO intervention in Serbia
  • Anti-PFI
  • In favour of civic, not racial, nationalism: immigrants are “New Scots”, and should be attracted.
Calling them “Tartan Tories” is a completely transparent attempt to smear them, and it treats voters like idiots.

Labour had absolutely nothing to offer Scotland – or if they did, they didn’t tell us about it. The flagship “policy” was an idiotic, unworkable and reactionary non-policy on knife crime, the basic subtext of which was “Vote Nat – get stabbed”. I got nothing but negativity and fearmongering through the door from Labour. The Nats had an entirely positive campaign, and the SNP activist who knocked on my door was friendly, honest about the SNP’s limitations, and shared some of my concerns.

Labour were also useless and inept at social media, broadcasting party slogans and Tartan Tory cliches while SNP activists piled onto twitter and provided nuanced engagement with voters.

I listened to BBC Radio Scotland all day on Friday for analysis, and listening to the Labour speaker – I think it was James Kelly MSP – it was clear that Labour was still in denial. “Our vote held up”, he said. “It’s the media’s fault, for portraying our candidate in a bad light”, and “it’s the LibDems fault, for collapsing so spectacularly”. No mate – it’s your fault for being so dire. Why did all the LibDem voters go to the SNP? He was so poor that I was sorry Labour’s annihilation wasn’t worse. A party this out of touch really doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near power.


The big question is whether this result will lead to Scottish independence. I don’t know. Independence isn’t massively popular in Scotland – about a third support it, a third are opposed, and the rest would probably like greater autonomy without full independence. Salmond is a political wizard, and he will play it skilfully. It will certainly result in greater autonomy for Scotland, which is a good thing: Scotland is to the left of England, and is dominated by right wing politics from south of the border. Autonomy could facilitate the development of a progressive alternative – which would also be a pole of attraction for English progressives.

The early days of a better nation?

On balance, I am cautiously optimistic. The SNP doesn’t have the deep socialist roots of the Labour party, but they won an election on a social democratic mandate, and they will be expected to deliver on it. In a world of negativity, they were also overwhelming positive and inspiring – it was Salmond’s Obama moment. If Labour, trade unions and civil society engage constructively with the Nats, we can build a progressive national polity. If we try to shut them out, the right will engage with them. The Nats were rewarded for shifting left. We need to make sure this shift is consolidated, and use the opportunity to strengthen other progressive voices – Labour and the Greens. We should have left wing hegemony in Scotland, and it’s madness to fight other progressives.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Gary Hay permalink
    May 7, 2011 5:49 pm

    Hi There,

    Cool post – very succinct and well-researched – but some errors;

    129 seats – not 29 (simple typo but I noticed)
    Fib Dems have 4 seats not 5

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Gary Hay permalink
    May 7, 2011 6:06 pm

    oops! Lib Dems do have 5 – you were right – why did I think 4? Probably from the 2nd last region declared! Oh Well!

  3. Doug permalink
    May 7, 2011 6:23 pm

    Good piece again my man.
    Couple of wee points, Labour does have strong socialist roots in Scotland, but the Labour party looks like a dinosaur to most people outside the central belt of Scotland. Old, tired, scared, with nothing to offer and, as you say, interested only in the interests of the Labour Party.
    Essentially the SNP vote is a result of people in Scotland looking around and deciding that the SNP are the best equipped party to competently protect Scotland’s interests from the latest Tory government at Westminster. We’ve been here before in the 80’s when Labour’s feeble 50 could do nothing to halt the ravages of Thatcherism. To paraphrase a Tory campaign poster from 1979, Labour isn’t working.
    In the last government the SNP have shown themselves to be competent and efficient, they also have real talent leading them. It shouldn’t come down to personality, but in sheer terms of ability Alex Salmond is a political heavyweight, Iain Gray is not.
    Finally, I don’t think the SNP has really shifted to the left, their left wing stance has been there for a while. It can be dated to the internal wrangling and soul searching that followed the stramash of the 1979 devolution referendum. It was after that that the party made the sensible decision to adopt a properly left of centre program and essentially become a fully fledged political party with a thought out program for government. That is where the roots of this landslide victory lie.

  4. May 7, 2011 7:49 pm

    Interesting article and enjoyed reading a non-Nationalist point of view – but another wee typo – I think you’ll find the SNP had more than 9 seats in 2003. I think you got yourself tied up in knots over the constituency and list seats.

    And I’m sorry but I can’t let “Labour have generally had a large majority” pass without a qualification.

    In the Scottish Parliament Labour have NEVER had a majority, large or otherwise, thanks to the PR system allocating seats in near proportion to votes.

    They have since the 1960’s enjoyed a large majority of seats in the Westminster Parliament thanks to the corrupt FPTP electoral system. The last party to obtain a majority of Scottish VOTEs were actually…the TORIES! Strange but true!

    But good article nevertheless!

  5. James permalink
    May 7, 2011 7:58 pm

    The SNP moved left, that is why they were endorsed by the Sun, Bryan Souter and David Murray.

    Want to think about that theory for a second?

    • @barton71 permalink
      May 8, 2011 12:08 am

      The Scottish Sun had to support someone. They couldn’t support the Tories in England and Labour in Scotland, and they couldn’t support the Tories in Scotland for fear of losing their readers. That only left the Lib Dems and the SNP. They wouldn’t support the LibDems, because again, their popularity in Scotland is very low. The SNP were the only viable option.

      We have returned to the situation we were in the 1980’s and early 90’s. The Sun will support the Tories in England and the SNP in Scotland. Not because the fully endorse SNP policies, but because if Scottish Labour start losing seats at Westminster to the SNP, the Tories stand a much better chance of being the largest party and therefore being able to form a government. If Labour lost Scotland to the SNP, the Tories win.

  6. thenippysweetie permalink
    May 7, 2011 8:21 pm

    You also neglect to mention that the Asian vote was not captured by the SNP because of Osama Saeed, but Bashir Ahmad became an SNP MSP (and indeed the first ethnic minority MSP) in the Parliament in 2007, elected on the Glasgow List.

  7. May 8, 2011 10:32 am

    I don’t claim to understand Scottish politics, and struggle to understand what the essential deal is between England and Scotland to remain united. The only thing I can think of is this:
    * for Scotland, the poorer partner, the advantage must be a tax subsidy (that is, more UK money is spent in Scotland than taxes raised there – correct my if I’m wrong)
    * for England, the deal is soldiers to fight in British wars. Without Scottish soldiers, a reduced UK military will not be able to to attack and subjugate faraway countries, or at least not as often.

    Please educate me if I’m mistaken.

    • May 8, 2011 1:34 pm

      Alleman – you are broadly correct. The benefit of the union to Scotland is tax subsidy and infrastructure – unless you add the contribution of North Sea oil to the UK exchequer, by which count Scotland subsidises the UK. The SNP point to Norway’s sovereign wealth fund as a way for a small country to use oil money to diversify and transition to a green economy. It is also worth considering Shetland, which is the second richest local authority – and to my eyes a socialist paradise – because of oil money.

      The benefit to England is sodgers, as you point out, and defence infrastructure more generally. Britain’s nuclear deterrent is parked just up the water from me in Glasgow. I am not sure how the citizens of London would feel about having Trident in the Thames.

      But I think the biggest issue is psychological. Scotland is the “last colony”, and if it became independent, England would have to come to terms with the fact that the Empire is over. Ironically, Scottish independence would benefit the Tories (because Labour needs Scotland to win Westminster), but the psychological impact of a reduction in Britain’s “greatness” would affect them most.

      Also, the English upper class like having a hinterland, a wilderness that belongs to them – all the shooting estates and so on. Post-independence, most of Scotland would belong to large landholders – lairds – many of them English. The Scottish Government would probably institute land reform.

      If South Africa had the calibre of politician the SNP has, we’d be a very different country. They have managed to combine good policy with vision, which is a rare skill.

      • Doug permalink
        May 10, 2011 10:29 pm

        Enough with the poorer partner thing.
        Scotland is not a third world backwater. Scotland is a modern, vibrant, forward looking European country. You should come and see it sometime, it’s beautiful and the craic’s rare. :-)
        If you take into account the oil, and more importantly the whisky, revenue Scotland could more than pay it’s own way. We also wouldn’t have to pay for expensive, unnecessary and brutal military adventures in far away places if we were a separate country. Let the English upper class establishment pretend to still be a world power if they want, leave the Scots out of it please.
        The sodgers thing was maybe true 250 years ago but makes no sense today. Modern armies don’t need manpower and god knows the Ghurkas and the north of England would provide more than enough bodies if they did. As for the Nukes, I look forward to hearing the English justifications for holding on to these weapons of mass destruction when the United Kingdom ceases to exist.
        As far as the psychological argument, there is the blow to England’s pretension to greatness to consider, but the flip side of this is a lack of confidence in Scotland that the Scots could survive without England. 25 years ago this was a huge barrier. However, slowly, slowly, in the sensible way of a mature democratic electorate, the Scots are taking gentle steps towards independence. They may never get there, and for the folk in England who would be condemned to perpetual Tory government I would bet it is their fervent hope they never do.
        “England is my favourite foreign country”, said Iain Hamilton QC once and I agree. I really wish the best for the English people, and if the North of England would like to be part of a greater Scotland they’d be more than welcome to come with us!
        However, given the Tory government in Westminster I think the easiest, best, way to ensure a progressive future for my country is through independence.
        Hospitals, schools, the environment, jobs, social justice, all these are more important than lines on a map, but if a line on a map can give me and my children a more just society, then bring it on!

  8. Jenny permalink
    May 12, 2011 9:28 pm

    Great post – really like your analysis and your style. And I completely agree this should present an opportunity for once progressive forces like the Labour Party to regroup – I really hope so. I say this as a Labour supporter who was really dismayed by the national campaign, and is desperate for the party to find its radical voice again.

  9. April 28, 2012 6:37 am

    Thank you for the good writeup. It actually was once a enjoyment account it. Glance complex to far brought agreeable from you! By the way, how could we keep in touch?

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