I’m sure that in years to come, we’ll look back on the 2016 Parliamentary Elections as a key point in Scottish political history. It was expected to produce very few surprises but in the end... it produced a few surprises. Unexpectedly, the SNP lost its overall majority, although it got very close, while the Conservatives surprised everyone by comfortably overtaking Labour into second place. The Greens nipped into fourth, just ahead of the Liberal-Democrats, whose showing was nonetheless rather better than they might have feared.
Two general features emerged from the 2016 Election. First of all, it became clear that in 21st century Scotland, the leader’s personal image was at least as important as its policies. In addition, we’ve seen the myth that Scotland is in some ways more left-wing than the rest of the UK completely dispelled.
For Labour, the 2016 results were an unmitigated disaster. The party that only nine years previously had dominated Scottish politics was reduced to just 24 seats. It won only 3 seats by the first-past-the-post system; even the Lib-Dems managed more. It ran an incoherent campaign, completely confused by the similar lack of coherence from its UK parent party. It tried to take up a policy position to the left of the SNP (on income tax), but either its policy was unpopular or, more likely, nobody noticed. Its leader Kezia Dugdale tried valiantly to distance herself from her UK counterpart Jeremy Corbyn, to stake a claim that this was indeed a Scottish Labour Party, but nobody believed her. In that respect she was hardly helped by constant questions, and therefore undermining, from the Scottish media, especially on radion and television. It also has to be said that she herself failed to impose her personality on the campaign to anything like the same extent as any of her rivals. As we will discuss later, this was the first big photo-op election in Scotland, and neither Dugdale nor her campaign team showed any aptitude for that aspect of the contest. However it’s hard to see anyone challenging Dugdale for the leadership at present – who would want the job? – and in her defence she might well have been the right leader for Labour, just leader at the wrong time.
For the Conservatives – or, to be more exact Ruth Davidson – on the other hand, the night was a massive triumph. Davidson campaigned as herself, almost presidentially. The party appeared to take on the role of an American-style political machine, so that the Conservatives who were elected did so purely on her coat-tails. Eschewing almost any major policy statement other than to say that she supported the union with the rest of the UK, Davidson reached out to No voters from the 2014 independence referendum who felt unsure that Labour could provide an effective opposition to a second independence referendum. Like Labour the Scottish Conservatives completely distanced themselves from the UK party, keeping David Cameron as far away as possible from her campaign trail. Unlike Labour, the media both accepted and even applauded Davidson’s tactics. Davidson also handled the media spectacularly well personally. Instead of trying to suggest that her private life was private and irrelevant, she positively laughed – and invited voters to laugh at – her ‘lesbian kick-boxing’ image. She was photographed going to vote herself on election day hand-in-hand with her partner. Eccentric maybe, but a bright, ever-smiling, positive image throughout. She was young and fresh. How Labour must have wished it had a Ruth Davidson figure as its leader. It might even have run the SNP close.
The Greens had a very good night. Potentially it could have been squeezed, but it seemed to benefit from a strong core vote while it almost certainly collected some disaffected Labour voters with its continuing well-left-of-centre position. Once again it benefited somewhat from an effective leader: Patrick Harvie is easily the most established of the Scottish party leaders. Its candidates seemed strong individually as well, and well-known locally; Greens have a reputation for punching above their weight. However it still depends entirely on the Regional List for the election of its MSPs, so that ultimately the Greens are one party for which policies and principles are electorally more important than individuals. However, as the one other party in the Scottish Parliament that supports Scottish independence, it’s also likeliest to have the ear of the SNP administration at Holyrood.
Arguably, the Liberal-Democrats had a night which was almost beyond their wildest dreams. Led by the ever-cheerful and indefitigable Willie Rennie, their campaign was simple and clear – extra tax to pay for education. Personally I’m not sure that anyone much cares what Lib-Dem policies are, though; it’s the personalities who count, together with the fact that they’re not the other parties. The Lib-Dems seem to have returned to courting voters who might otherwise be tempted to vote Tory, a plan that served them well in past years. Whatever, the Lib-Dems have made an almost Lazarus-like mini-recovery and can look to the example of the Conservatives to see what might be possible in the future.
At first sight the SNP might expect to be disappointed to lose its overall majority in Holyrood, but it’s arguable that for Nicola Sturgeon the result is near-perfect. Despite the demands of party activists for a second referendum, Sturgeon is well aware that calling a referendum is not sensible unless and until a Yes vote is assured. The reality is that gaining an overall majority in 2011 cornered Alex Salmond into holding a referendum that Scotland wasn’t ready for, at least not for those who wanted independence. Even if the result were to be reversed a second time, what would that prove? Arguably, there could even be a case for a third referendum, as in ‘best of three’. There’s actually little evidence that the No vote is any less strong and secure in 2016 than it was in 2014; the independence campaign would simply be banging its head against a brick wall, a process that’s not only painful but is also hugely weakening to the independence movement itself. Referendums only really work well to ratify ‘by acclaim’ a previously-agree decision, and figures of 80% in favour would be a target figure. Not having (quite) an overall majority means that Sturgeon can potentially deliberately upset and unite all of its opponents to defeat the necessary measures to run another referendum. Another party can shoulder the blame.
Is it worth mentioning UKIP? In Scotland, it failed miserably to attain a single seat, reflecting the facts that immigration is less of an issue in Scotland, and that David Coburn was a singularly unpopular leader who was only in post because the MEP was the only elected UKIP politician in Scotland.
What Happens Next?
It’s hard to see how Labour can progress from here. Kezia Dugdale may not have performed well but there’s no appetitite for a leadership contest this time – who else would want the job of leading a party on such a serious downward spiral? But in 2016, Labour is in terrible shape, lacking quality leadership north of the border and any sort of credible assistance from the south. Jeremy Corbyn may be popular with Labour party members but he’s yet to convince voters generally. That uncertainty, together with some unwelcome contributions from union leaders and media coverage, will continue to undermine Dugdale’s efforts, yet she seems to have little control in any of these areas. It’s hard to see any way that Labour can be influential in Holyrood now and there is a serious possibility that the party might disappear altogether. For long enough its bedrock support was propped up by a strong anti-English element that has now most definitely moved over to the SNP. That will be Dugdale’s – or her successor’s – biggest task.
For the Conservatives, Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives are in a good place. Unlike Labour, and untainted with previous Scottish administration failures, they have a clear place in Scottish politics – unionist, and opposing the SNP administration. Davidson will look to score some early successes, targeting, for instance, the SNP’s controversial Child Guardian proposals. Her principal problem should be the possibility of being tainted with association with the Conservatives at Westminster but her own radically different personality is likely to keep that at bay for now. However it’s also possible that this might be a high-water mark for the Tories.
Neither the Lib-Dems nor the Greens will have particular power in Holyrood. Arguably, as the only other pro-independence party in Parliament the Greens should be natural allies but SNP and Green policy has been quite divergent on many other issues in recent years, especially ecological ones. The Greens are likely to operate as a ginger group, whereas the Lib-Dems are more likely to try to present themselves as “reasonable, thoughtful individuals”. Neither appraoch is really a recipe for giant electoral strides over the next five years, but both are likely to punch slightly above their weight.
Finally, for the SNP the biggest problem will be managing expectations. Nine years after taking control of Holyrood, it can be argued that it’s actually done remarkably little but somehow got away with it. Sturgeon has deflected questions about a second referendum with a personal commitment to improve education. However she may be sitting on a time bomb there; the Curriculum for Excellence that she’s staked so much on is actually openly despised by the majority of the teaching profession as meaningless and time-consuming. Its results will be measurable in the lifetime of this parliament and Sturgeon is in big trouble if real tangible improvements don’t show – and fast. Education is a dangerous minefield for politicians (and Jeremy Hunt in Westminster is discovering that health is, too). Silence is usually golden. She doesn;t want a referendum that she can’t win, but she might yet wish for a No vote in teh Brexit referendum to allow her the chance to deflect attention from domestic issues. The SNP now has to carry the can for the use of income tax evenues but it’s a huge step to make radical diversions from general UK policy. The Scottish Parliament has had the power to raise tax by up to 3p for 17 years but has never had the courage to use it. And sooner or later the SNP will shoulder the blame for cutbacks or tax rises in Scotland; blaming Westminster won’t work for ever. Sturgeon is almost certainly aware of all of this, though, and her approach, lacking Alex Salmond’s bombast, will help her.
In summary, the election was a triumph of personality over policy in Scotland, assisted considerably by media coverage focus on the leaders themselves. That doesn’t look likely to alter any time soon and is merely in line with trends elsewhere globally. Secondly, Scotland’s 2016 results demonstrated that, once the SNP vote was stripped away, support for the other parties broadly matched the proportions south of the border. The exceptions were that there was more support for the Greens and much less for UKIP, understandable given the relative importance placed in each county respectively on the value of a beautiful environment to the economy, and on immigration. This observer is unconvinced that the SNP’s attraction is that it’s particularly left-wing; personally I believe that voters are projecting their own beliefs onto the SNP and the SNP has so far intelligently let that happen. It’s managing to be all things to all men (and women). So long as it continues to perform this balancing act – the ultimate test of a mass party with broad appeal –as successfully as it has done until now, I see no reason why it should suffer significant losses in 2021.
© Gordon Lawrie 2016