The Winner Doesn’t Take It All: Phoney War or the Beginning of a New Era?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 10th 2017

Scotland’s permanent political campaign continued last week with the local elections. These were important for who runs Scotland’s 32 councils, local services and what passes for the remnants of local government, after decades of centralisation under Labour, Tories and SNP. But the stakes were higher than usual with the impending UK general election.

Everybody could claim some spoils. The SNP ‘won’ – finishing with most votes and seats. The Tories made significant gains in votes and seats. Labour while enduring a kicking showed glimmers of life. The Lib Dems had some local successes and the Greens increased their footholds in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Yet the campaign hype and its aftermath distorted the main political actors and their cheerleaders. The Daily Mail and Daily Express could hardly contain their excitement at Tory gains and evidence of Ruth-mania. Many Tories couldn’t stop getting things out of proportion with David Mundell, Secretary of State for Scotland, tweeting that ‘There is only one winner today’, inviting much ridicule and parody.

The Scottish Nationalists weren’t averse to getting carried away with the sweet smell of success and over-selling it. ‘More seats, more votes, more councils won’ wrote SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell. Except it wasn’t really that simple.

The SNP script was the party had won 425 seats last time and 431 this time – and hence gained a net six seats. The problem with this was boundary changes which meant the SNP had an estimated 438 seats in 2012 – producing a net loss of seven: eighteen gains and twenty-five loses. SNP campaigners went to town on media outlets such as the BBC who dared to suggest the party had made a net loss, but it is more remiss when the party’s chief executive misrepresents the party’s fortunes.

More seriously, was the nuanced national picture which the local elections presented. Scotland last week voted SNP 32.3%, Tory 25.3%, Labour 20.2%, Lib Dems 6.8%, Greens 4.1% – representing a change from five years ago of SNP no change, Tories +12.0, Labour -11.2, Lib Dems +0.2 and Greens +1.8. Thus, the SNP have won the second successive local elections with one-third of the vote, when they had expected, and hoped for, a more emphatic victory.

This confirms the SNP’s place as Scotland’s dominant and leading party. But at local government level at least it isn’t as secure as elsewhere. Its one-third vote is nowhere near Labour’s peak local government performances of 45.7% in 1984 and 43.8% in 1995 which were obviously under First Past the Post.

SNP supporters will claim elections are different under the Single Transferrable Vote and this is true but only to an extent. Local government polls conducted in February and March this year put the SNP on 46% and 47% – much higher than how it ultimately performed.

Then there is the thorny question of Glasgow. ‘We won Glasgow’ said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the day after polling. Except the SNP didn’t win outright. Labour lost the city and the SNP have become the biggest group with the choice of minority administration or a pact with the Greens. Saying ‘We won Glasgow’ sends signals that the SNP doesn’t know how to speak to non-SNP Scotland and when the First Minister leads the charge it contributes to how parts of sceptical Scotland see her as ‘that bloody woman’.

This public face is what SNP insiders tell themselves too. One SNP campaigner who worked on the Glasgow campaign told me: ‘We won Glasgow. Susan [Aitken, leader of SNP Glasgow Group] is forming an administration’ and when I pointed out the SNP were the largest party short of a majority, he commented: ‘You know perfectly well that STV is designed to stop overall control.’ This conveniently ignores that Labour had managed to surmount this hurdle, winning the city twice under the STV voting system in 2007 and 2012.

All of this isn’t meant as SNP knocking. The party are a success. It is just that they are a relative success and need to talk and act upon that. They are the biggest popular minority in the country by far, but something in their DNA makes them feel they need to over-stress and over-sell their dominance and popularity. Ultimately that feeds into bad politics if it continues because the party, even though it doesn’t realise it, is basically saying it is not listening to the nuanced signals people are sending them, and in effect, knows better.

Local elections are usually affected by low turnout and defined by who turns up at the polls and who doesn’t. These elections had a higher than expected turnout at 46.9%, up 7.3% on 39.6% five years ago: which while a big improvement has to be seen in the light of 2012’s turnout being the lowest since records began.

Low turnouts are always likely to aid the Tories who have a significant elderly vote and to a lesser extent, Labour, and hinder the prospects of the SNP. What SNP strategists don’t seem to have factored in to their calculations is the ‘soft Nat vote’ – those who don’t tend to turn out for local and European elections and only come out for the really big contests.

This is reinforced by the party’s continual inability to manage expectations: a pattern which is now evident across a whole series of contests where they have underperformed versus what the party leadership itself set out. For all the mythology of SNP campaigning and organisational prowess the party has underperformed in the 2012 local, 2014 Euro and 2017 local elections. It lost its majority in the 2016 Scottish elections and in the 2014 indyref, Alex Salmond and much of the Yes official campaign, actually thought they would win. This leaves the SNP much vaunted machine only really delivering in three critical contests in the last decade: the 2007 and 2011 Scottish elections, and 2015 Westminster contest.

This brings us to the Tories who are, finally for some, coming back in from their long pariah status in the margins. The 1980s just as the 1930s previously did have to eventually become part of the backdrop of our history and collective memories. Maybe the phenomenon of ‘shy Tories’ is slowly declining, and even in places it is becoming permissible, even fashionable, to vote Tory.

The slogan ‘No means No’ while offensive in the context of the Tory rape clause cuts through in a divided country on independence. It has potent resonance, illustrated by how annoyed SNP supporters get about Tories continually attacking the SNP for going on by independence by going on about independence, even in the local elections.

The Tory upswing to 25.3%, finishing first in ten out of 32 councils and a mere 7.0% behind the SNP shouldn’t be dismissed. Tories have a momentum behind them, and an SNP which never won a single national election until 2007 should know all about the power of minorities – even losing ones – and minorities with a purpose and wind behind them. That after all was the story of the SNP for most of its recent history until 2007.

These were poor results for Labour. The party lost Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire and was left, as expected, without overall control of a single council. But while it lost a painful 133 seats, it finished a mere fourteen seats behind the Tories, and didn’t see its vote fall off the cliff as some in the party had feared. While it was painful to lose Glasgow, Labour wasn’t wiped out and finished with 30.2% of the vote and 31 councillors, a mere eight behind the SNP on 39 seats and 41.0% vote. They weren’t good results for Labour. They were bad but many had feared much worse. Some in Labour may hope this is as bad as it gets, once they get past the June election.

There is a big picture evident. Once upon a time the SNP were the upstarts and outsiders of politics who railed against the Labour establishment and Westminster. Then they won office and slowly became the new insider class: such are the unavoidable consequences of success. The question is always how do you deal with such pressures.

Part of the SNP success story has been aided by Labour decline, but now a significant segment of opposition to the Nationalists is beginning to coalesce around the Tories. Under Ruth Davidson they have spoken in a tone that is less apologetic and more populist than for years and which is capable at times of making the political weather. The Tories are even daring, with the SNP so well entrenched in Scotland, to position themselves as the new challengers and usurpers, and despite there being a Tory Westminster Government to position themselves as the party of rebellion against the SNP hegemon and independence.

The SNP by their popularity have become the party of the domestic status quo. They are forced to not only defend their record in office, which is what any party does, but also pretend that everything is fine in Scotland in public services and public spending, when clearly it isn’t.

This isn’t the same as the SNP being trapped by devolution, which was the old Jim Sillars charge, but in effect the party is reduced to a Harold Wilson-like managerial mantra of reciting shopping lists of technocratic achievements, without addressing the fundamentals. The consequences of this are two-fold: first, the party loses any radical or cutting edge it has about the inequities of modern Scotland, and second, as its rhetoric of ‘everything is fine’ decouples from reality, fewer and fewer people rate the party’s performance in government as can be seen in recent surveys.

There is an element of commonality between this and the experience of Labour in Scotland and how it became trapped and diminished in its fifty-year reign of the country. This is a warning for the SNP and any political party which achieves electoral success and dominance. Labour are still perceived in Scotland as a party of the status quo, one of insiders looking after themselves, and a party which went from claiming the noblest aspirations to one of self-interest and self-preservation. Once you gain such a reputation it is hard to shake it off.

The SNP’s approach post-indyref has been a curious one. The party has ridden a wave it doesn’t quite understand, but also claimed to speak beyond the appeal and constituency it has: with all the ‘standing up for Scotland’ and ‘SNP 56’ hyperbole. While this is usually portrayed as arrogance, there is also a distinct strand of anxiousness and nervousness.

This is influenced by the experience of the SNP tribe being one which came in from the cold of being outsiders perhaps too quickly for them to fully adapt. They haven’t had the time to fully adjust or even believe their own luck, such as the sheer incompetence of some of their opponents: Labour post-2011 being one example. This dichotomy of appearing all-controlling while it masks a pensive self-doubt isn’t that unusual in politics, being one of the main characteristics which hindered New Labour at its peak and prevented it ever considering a less manipulative politics.

Knowing how to win, present yourself and be appropriate when you are the biggest and most powerful minority in the land is a careful balancing act which few can get right. If you want to look for an example of how it is done look at Theresa May and the Tories who may not be perfect, even on their terms, but know how to command a winning mandate and potential landslide – as well as the critical issue of managing expectations of what counts as a convincing victory.

Scottish politics is in a major state of flux the endpoint of which we don’t yet know. This may be an interregnum and phoney war before the real balloon goes up. Or it may not. This may be the beginning of a new phase of Scottish politics. The SNP have shaped politics here for at least the last two decades and dominated it for the last decade. The basis for its last decade of strength and popularity is slowly coming to an end. The party will have to adapt, learn new slogans and soundbites, and show more of an interest in government and policies than it has hitherto shown any interest. Otherwise the voters will make the decision for them.