The Glasgow Effect (and the Strange State of Scottish Democracy)
May 5th 2012
This is a seismic weekend for politics and democracy. There is the French Presidential election and the Greek parliamentary election; therefore we need to put the UK and Scottish local elections in a bit of humble context.
Saying that these were fascinating and complicated elections: Labour’s decent polling, the kicking of the Lib Dems and the narrow triumph of Boris over Ken. In Scotland the first mainstream media reaction has been to emphasise Labour’s performance, question the Nationalist momentum, and talk up the battle for Glasgow.
‘The Herald’ declared, ‘Historic win for Labour as it resists SNP push’ (1); ‘The Scotsman’s’ front-page that, ‘Labour revival as it takes major prizes’ (2). John Curtice, appearing in both these papers and ‘The Guardian’, wrote in ‘The Scotsman’ that, ‘Unionists may conclude that results show the peak of Mr. Salmond’s popularity has passed’ (3).
In the war of spin post-election Labour clearly emerged as the victors, but this disguised that Labour merely did better than the expectations people had, and the SNP less well. To understand what happened we have to look beyond the simplistic media assumptions which are nearly as bad and more reinforcing than the political spin. These elections tell us a number of things about the state of Scottish politics and more broadly our democracy.
The Long Revolution of Scottish Politics
In most accounts we have Labour ‘gaining’ Glasgow, a city they continuously held for 32 years from 1980 until earlier this year when they managed to lose the city from themselves. And the SNP walking into the trap of believing their own hype and believing that their supposed electoral juggernaut would carry all before it.
Labour performed well in Glasgow, became the largest party in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, gained overall control of West Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire, and made big gains in Fife. The SNP won overall control of Dundee and Angus, and even managed gains in Glasgow and Fife. The SNP won most seats upon which basis they claimed they had ‘won’ the elections; both SNP and Labour gained seats, respectively 61 and 46 seats; while it looks likely that as in 2007 Labour finished narrowly ahead of the SNP in the national vote.
Over-simplistic analysis dominated the immediate post-election environment. This is Iain Martin in ‘The Daily Telegraph’, ‘The real story is that Labour is back not only in Glasgow but in Renfrewshire and Edinburgh too …’ The Salmond surge of last year was now in reverse, ‘Some of those who voted for him last year, but who were not natural Nats, are clearly suffering a spot of buyer’s remorse’ (4). On twitter Martin boiled this down to the following pithy soundbite, ‘’Overall Labour majority in Weegieland. Eck pretending he’s won. Great night for Labour and union’ (5).
Hamish Macdonell put it in a more balanced way, ‘The SNP has not had a bad election’, and, ‘Both Labour and the SNP have risen but Labour has done the better of the two – particularly given that Labour was expected to suffer at the polls this week at the hands of the SNP’ (6).
Two factors. The first is that these elections, their context and post-event hype are all part of Labour’s and the SNP’s struggle for Scotland’s political soul. This is aided by the Con-Lib Dem UK Government and both of these parties now being objects of Scots dislike. In parts of urban Central Scotland, this has happened at the happy conjuncture where voters have nearly run out of Tories to kick.
Second, there is the Glasgow effect. This has several dimensions. One of them is for people to think Glasgow is Scotland, a mini-version of the ‘London is the UK’ perspective. This has been a Scottish election dominated by Glasgow: a city which has only 12% of Scotland’s population.
More crucially is that historically the Nationalists have had a Glasgow/West of Scotland problem. Until 2011 the SNP never broke through in the West, episodic by-elections apart. A critical factor in this has been the mosaic of the West of Labour voting bloc (public sector, more Labour middle class, Catholic vote), all of which weakened in the 2011 elections.
The Nationalists won in 2007 despite only winning four constituency seats in the whole West of Scotland, but this seemed to vanish as a factor in the 2011 landslide. Then the Nationalists outpolled Labour in Glasgow, and numerous Labour citadels fell. Now we don’t know whether 2011 was an exception, and we are back to Labour ‘business as usual’, and that this year’s election are a return to the previous pattern. The reality is I suspect much more complex.
What we do know is that Labour’s hold over its ‘heartlands’ in the long view is weakening. First, take turnout. Glasgow’s turnout was 32%. The lowest voting wards were Anderson/City with 23.6%, followed by Calton at 26.03%’ the first elects Labour leader Gordon Matheson, the second has the worst male life expectancy in all Western Europe.
Six of Glasgow’s 21 wards had turnouts in the 20% range; the highest turnout was Pollokshields with 42.7%, the area that elected the city’s sole Tory, David Meikle. Looking at these ward votes the real pattern of the city becomes clear. In 2007, Labour’s successful candidate in Pollokshields won 2,575; in 2012, 1,828; the SNP’s victorious candidate won 2,057 votes five years ago; now 1,657; interesting Meikle, the solitary Tory won 1,435 in 2007 and 1,674 now.
What this overall tells us is that Labour’s triumph in Glasgow was based on getting more of its vote out, not winning new converts or friends. It got less of its vote out than five years ago, but proportionately more than the SNP. In 2007, Labour won 43.3% in Glasgow to the SNP’s 24.6%; in 2012, both Labour’s and the SNP’s vote in the city increased percentage wise, but in actual voting numbers, both parties saw their support fall.
Some will say Labour’s vote is down compared to five years ago in actual numbers because these are the first stand-alone local elections since 1995. However, the larger picture informs us that something deeper and more significant is going on than the results of one election. Several years ago, James McCormick and Jane Saren looked at the politics of Labour’s support in its heartlands. They found in seat after seat voters were increasingly disconnecting and that in what at first appeared safe seats, Labour were winning with smaller and smaller shares of the electorate. They concluded that there was a ‘fading’ heartbeat in what were seen as Labour’s traditional heartlands (7).
Glasgow has been the outlier in this and the dynamics of this are deep rooted and long term. Analysing voting figures in Glasgow across the entire post-war era, in a forthcoming study of Scottish Labour out next month, a distinct pattern emerges. Between 1951-2011, in actual votes, Tory support in the city has collapsed and is now a mere 4.7% of its strength sixty years ago; that story is at least familiar and well-known. What is less known is the long term atrophying of Glasgow Labour, whose vote now is a mere 23.9% of its 1951 peak. Part of this is that the city’s electorate is smaller, but the biggest factor is turnout collapse, 81% in 1951 and 41% in 2011, while greater party competition is also a factor (8).
Don’t Believe the Hype! Beyond Binary and Linear Politics
The recent Scottish elections have illustrated the perils and pitfalls of buying into immediate, knee-jerk, following the crowd analysis, rather than engaging in actual voting figures, and placing in a longer historical context.
Scottish Labour was never completely dead, but nor does its current performance answer its long-term crises and challenges. The SNP are not the all-conquering vote winning machine of myth. This tells us two important points. Politics isn’t simply binary. Despite the Labour-SNP contest taking the centrestage of Scottish politics, there is more to life north of the border than two parties. Importantly, we are not in a simple win-lose environment between the two; because there are other players, namely the Tories and Lib Dems, both of the big parties can gain or lose. We should also note the permanent fixture of the Scottish Greens who achieved a record 14 councillors on Thursday.
Second, politics never operate in a simple linear pattern. We have been here before with such simplistic expectations; when the SNP won the Glasgow East by-election in 2008, media and popular expectations prepared to anoint the Nationalists in Glenrothes, only for the SNP bandwagon to be halted by a successful, populist Labour campaign. It was always too simple to read the 2012 local elections as Alex Salmond’s next triumph, just as it too much of a caricature now to read them as voters coming ‘home’ to Labour.
These are complex, unpredictable times with voter intentions sometimes difficult to predict; that is hardly surprising given the times we are living through, the challenges and the limits of our political debate. Four observations follow from these elections. First, Labour may have shown signs of life, but its traditional ‘fighting’ talk of opposition won’t take it very far. It is a language of a declining Scotland which will comfort the base and work in elections which can be won speaking solely to your own constituency. Labour still have to confront what has been called, ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland;’, namely, not the death of the party, but of the traditional politics which inhabited a vision of society, ‘Labour Scotland’.
Second, the alternative political prospectus, ‘The forward march of Scottish nationalism’ is just as partial as Labour’s vision was at its peak and problematic. The SNP’s constituency’s sense of the tide and power of history blowing behind them and sweeping all before them, doesn’t explain the realities of Scottish politics and most voters. The Nationalists are going to need a more subtle, pluralist and generous strategy if they are to build a majority for independence. They are also going to have to develop a politics which goes beyond talking about constitutional change, think about poverty and social justice, ending the ‘Big Tent’ politics, and making positive choices about which Scotland they speak for.
Third, the state of Scottish democracy. We have to address the ‘missing million’ Scots voters from the Scottish Parliament elections. This part of our nation are generally poorer and younger voters, more connected to Simon Cowell’s ‘The X Factor’ than voting Labour or SNP. The Anderson/City and Calton ward voters in Glasgow and their disconnection is a product of many factors, of long term deindustrialisation, the party as machine politics model, and changes in political and popular culture. Yet this sad world of the truncated democracy, of the electorate reduced to affluent and older voters, the Americanisation of politics, isn’t inevitable; we are away to see this weekend a French Presidential election turnout of 80%, last seen in the UK in the 1950s.
Finally, a wider and perhaps more controversial point. British politics may be broken, its political classes covered in ignominy, and its state in crisis and under the influence of the neo-liberal leviathan, but we cannot assume that Scotland is automatically morally superior. Scottish politics and debate has until recently existed in a culture of ‘undemocracy’, of the managed society and autonomy of the great and good who knew how to keep the populace in place. The transition of Scottish politics from the managerial Scottish Office to Scottish Executive and now Scottish Government has seen the transformation of our public realm and government, but if we are to have a serious debate about the challenges we face, let alone self-government and independence, then we are going to have to bring the democratisation debate centrestage.
That will require talking about the culture of ‘undemocracy’ which still permeates parts of public life, and address the inequalities, exclusions and silences which disfigure too much of our country. Some of the party politicians successful on Thursday and much of the media commentary seem to be content with life in the bubble of the truncated, atrophied democracy, but ultimately this is a world of diminishing returns and participants. We need to aspire to having a more mature, nuanced debate and politics and challenging the orthodoxies and limitations of our age.
1. The Herald, May 5th 2012.
2. The Scotsman, May 5th 2012.
3. John Curtice, ‘Labour wakes up to greet the arrival of a bright new dawn’, The Scotsman, May 5th 2012.
4. Iain Martin, ‘Ed Miliband has won a stunning and unexpected victory on Scotland. This is good news for the union’, Daily Telegraph, May 4th 2012, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/iainmartin1/100156262/ed-miliband-has-won-a-stunning-and-unexpected-victory-in-scotland-this-is-good-news-for-the-union/
6. Hamish Macdonell, ‘Labour succeeds in slowing Salmond’s advance’, Spectator Coffee House, May 4th 2012, http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/7825463/labour-succeeds-in-slowing-salmonds-advance.thtml
7. Jane Saren and James McCormick, ‘The Politics of Scottish Labour’s Heartlands’, in Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas, Edinburgh University Press 2004, p.91.
8. Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw, The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, Edinburgh University Press 2012 forthcoming, p. 209, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Strange-Death-Labour-Scotland-Hassan/dp/0748640029/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1336230378&sr=1-3