SNP dominates Scotland again
by Frieda Park
The main headlines from the General election in Scotland were: The resurgence of the Scottish National Party (SNP); Labour’s poor performance; a decline in Tory fortunes; a small up-turn for the Lib Dems overshadowed by the defeat of their UK leader, Jo Swinson; and the failure of the Brexit Party to make any impact.
THE STATE OF THE PARTIES
The SNP won 48 seats out of 59, though one of their elected MPs had actually been suspended from the party for alleged anti-semitic comments. They reasserted their recent dominance of Scottish politics, increasing their tally of seats by 13 and gaining 45% of the vote.
The second party in Scotland, the Conservatives, lost 7 seats reducing their number to 6. However, it had been thought that they might have fared even worse after Johnson’s election as leader which had prompted the pro-Remain Scottish leader Ruth Davidson to step down.
Labour had another miserable electoral outing losing all 6 of the seats it had gained at the 2015 election, leaving only one MP, Ian Murray, who represents a well-heeled constituency in Edinburgh where he relies on Tory tactical votes aimed at keeping out the SNP. Overall Labour lost 8.5% share of the vote. In a number of seats it came 4th, lost its deposit in 6 (half the UK total of Labour lost deposits) and had double digit declines in 16 seats. Many of the worst results can be accounted for by tactical voting to defeat the Tories or Lib Dems where the SNP candidate was seen to have a better chance of winning. In some places the number voting Labour held up, but the SNP still did better because of the higher turn-out.
The Lib Dems only slightly increased their vote and retained the same number of seats. Though they won one from the SNP they also lost Jo Swinson in Dunbartonshire East. In a mini-referendum on her leadership 80.3% of the electorate turned out to vote there with the SNP taking 37.1% and winning by 149 votes.
The Brexit Party were irrelevant making no significant impact in any of the 15 seats they contested and achieving 0.5% of the vote.
The Greens achieved a modest increase in overall votes of 0.8%
We don’t know for certain why people voted the way they did and anecdotal feedback from canvassing found electors fairly tight lipped about how they were going to vote and why. Many were “undecided” but clearly voted SNP on the day, whether that had been their unstated intention all along or not. The result was not for the want of effort by Labour activists, particularly on the left, with people turning out in the most appalling weather to canvass. There were a number of good left-wing candidates with strong campaign teams, positive materials representing the party’s main policies, trade union and community support and local roots. At the end of the day this only made a marginal difference in some places. For example, in neighbouring constituencies; Glasgow South had a former leader of Scottish Labour as the candidate (very much a figure from the past), Johann Lamont, and in Glasgow South West, Matt Kerr, a Corbyn supporter stood. The vote share for Lamont fell by 7.4% and for Kerr by 5.9%.
It is a reasonable assumption that most of Labour’s lost votes went to the SNP. There was also a higher turn-out reflecting SNP supporters who had not voted at the last election doing so this time.
Why did this shift happen? Labour failed to build on and consolidate its very modest improved performance from the 2017 election, where, although it gained 6 seats, this was achieved by adding less than 10,000 votes and was mainly due to a decline in SNP support. Whilst the left has made progress in the party the right remains strong, with MSP Anas Sarwar in Glasgow and MP Ian Murray in Edinburgh trying to situate themselves as an alternative leadership. As in other parts of the UK, attacks from the right do not help the party win the confidence of voters.
In Scotland Labour was not only squeezed by Brexit, but also by the question of independence. In the EU referendum Scotland voted strongly to Remain 62% versus 38% for Leave. Whilst initially that may have led to some disaffection among Leave supporting SNP voters the SNP managed to pull off the feat of becoming the party of Remain in Scotland whilst also retaining many of those Leavers. If Scotland is, as Nicola Sturgeon endlessly repeats, “being dragged out the EU against its will”, then that boosts the argument for independence. It seems independence matters more to Leave voting SNP supporters than Brexit so they will vote SNP knowing that it’s Remain stance may bring independence closer. Since the EU referendum the SNP has made support for the EU a badge of Scottishness scooping up a big chunk of the Remain vote.
Scottish Labour adopted a position in advance of the election of supporting Remain and a second referendum. This seems to have had little impact on how it fared. This was different from the UK position which added to Labour’s confused message on Brexit. To make things worse it shot itself in the foot by failing to have a clear stance on independence, with John McDonnell at the Edinburgh Festival blithely conceding that there should be a second referendum if it was the will of the Scottish people. The further qualifications and lack of clarity on what that meant made Labour look weak.
The Scottish media give the SNP an easy ride. Despite scandals including the forthcoming trial of former leader and First Minister Alex Salmon on charges of attempted rape and sexual assault and the resignation of the Lord Provost of Glasgow who maxed out her expenses on clothes and shoes nothing seems to stick. Their record in government is appalling, with incompetent Health Secretaries presiding over declining standards in the NHS and the cover up of child deaths in the new gigantic flagship hospital in Glasgow. Educational standards continue to head downwards and services are falling apart.
Whilst there was a glimmer of hope opened up at the 2017 election that Labour might win at Westminster that hope had weakened in 2019. There was a widespread belief in Scotland that voting SNP was fine because it would be supportive of a Corbyn government anyway. But as the prospect of a Labour defeat became more likely, Scots opted for what they regarded as the safe anti-Tory vote – the SNP. This was influenced by Brexit, opposition to austerity and support for independence. Ironically, however, the vote for the SNP in Scotland makes the defeat of the Tories harder as Labour is weakened and will struggle to return enough MPs to form a government. Unfortunately, voters in Scotland tend not to see this, regarding Labour versus the Tories as something that is happening in a different country.
SALTIRES, UNION JACKS AND RED FLAGS
The SNP now claims that it has mandate for independence based on its success at this election. But it is not at all clear that voters were endorsing that, as they were also voting on other issues. The sense on the doorstep was not that people were voting SNP to through a strong belief in independence. However, the SNP will certainly use this opportunity to build support for independence so that needs to be robustly countered. The left needs to more effectively frame its arguments and policies in class terms and expose the SNP’s failing New Labour-style policies. Over the years, increased powers over domestic policy and tax have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, yet the best that the SNP can say about our declining economy and welfare provision is that we are not as bad as England. On this evidence, independence provides no solution to the urgent problems facing the Scottish working class.
Tragically Labour’s defeat in Scotland has given rise to the opposite approach by some on the left of the party. This is partly a reaction which accepts the line that people in Scotland want another referendum, and partly it stems from the strand of nationalist sentiment which has a long history in the party and the labour movement.
Some leaders of the Scottish Trades Union Congress have long been in the pocket of the SNP. It gets more than two thirds of its income from the Scottish Government and its (retiring) General Secretary Grahame Smith holds a number of paid positions on public sector boards as well as sitting on the Nicola Sturgeon’s standing council on Europe. It is unsurprising then, but still depressing, that he is now openly backing a second referendum on independence. Monica Lennon, Labour Shadow Secretary for Health and Sport, has called for a separate Scottish Labour Party, making its own policy and being self-financing. Given Scottish Labour’s weakness this seems like a remedy more likely to kill than cure the patient.
In the short term there is no chance of Johnson’s government granting the Scottish Government the power to hold another referendum. This suits both sides nicely as they can continue to argue about constitutional matters distracting voters from other, more important issues. The left should not get caught up in this. In the first place it is not clear that supporting a second referendum will be massively popular. Secondly focusing on constitutional arguments and falling in behind another referendum will only serve to make Labour a support act for the SNP, which would truly call into question the logic of its existence. Labour would be increasingly marginalised and, without solid arguments opposing the SNP’s agenda, independence would be more likely. Voters need a distinctive reason to support Labour. It needs to be different from the SNP. The SNP is the party of nationalism. Labour cannot be a leftish version of that and thrive. Labour needs to be the party of Socialism - something the SNP will never be.