It’s important to look at exactly what did happen behind the standout results of the Scottish parliamentary election on 5th May 2011 – and to use that analysis to sketch in what lies ahead for Scotland and for the various political parties.
In our seat-by-seat and list-by list analysis of the results – with some illuminating detail below, including indications of the consequences – we have made certain assumptions, some exclusions and have set our own baseline for what we considered significant:
- We excluded some constituencies where boundary changes made the results too difficult to read reliably.
- We assumed that no losses in the Conservative vote would go to Labour and vice versa.
- We ignored losses and gains in vote share below 3%.
A few nuggets
The SNP did actually suffer one instance of loss of vote share – in the Shetland Islands where it lost 4.5% along with an 8.4% vote loss by the Conservatives and the headline loss by (then) Liberal Democrat Leader, Tavish Scott’s of 19.2%. The beneficiary was an Independent who took over 30% of the vote.
The same pattern was seen in Orkney. There an Independent took 26% of the vote and the SNP gained 6.2%, both against losses from the the other three main parties: 11.8% from the Liberal Democrats; 10.4% from the Conservatives; and 7.5% from Labour.
Both seats were nevertheless held by the LibDems, against these two massive votes for locally focused Independents – the two biggest percentage voting inroads of the night.
The pattern of the vote in both constituencies indicates that these Independents were underlining disaffection with LibDems because of their Westminster coalition with the Conservatives.
It also lays down the clear sense that these two significant northern island groups are independent of mainland trends and set their own agendas.
While we’re still on islands, it’s worth recording that Labour’s single worst loss in vote share came in Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Western Isles), where it saw 13% vanish into the Atlantic.
The worst single loss suffered by the LibDems was here, in Argyll and Bute, where their candidate, Councillor Alison Hay, lost 19.6% of the party’s share of the vote. The additional grunt in this figure came from local anger at the Liberal Democrat councillors’ actions over proposed rural school closures. This should focus members’ minds in advance of the local authority elections to come in 2012.
Alison Hay was, however, keeping the best company in her party. A close second in the catastrophic loss stakes was (then) party leader, Tavish Scott in Shetland, who ran up a 19.2% loss on vote share.
The overall picture and the SNP story
The standout phenomenon was the direct shift in votes from the LibDems to the SNP, although this was not always a simple picture.
The underlying situation was that in 32 constituencies the SNP took votes directly from all three of the other main parties, the LibDems, the Conservatives and Labour. Within this figure are highly substantial shifts direct from Labour to SNP which, although they did not always result in seats changing party ownership, have nevertheless laid the foundations for the SNP as the party of the city and the industrial belt as well as of the coastal peripheries and the rural areas.
The SNP is now a substantial force in Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Stirling, Edinburgh and Glasgow. In both of the last two, it made sweeping gains in seats and in Glasgow it is breathing down Labour’s neck at close quarters in the remaining seats. In Edinburgh it should be noted that it also took a seat from each of the Conservatives and the LibDems.
The direct transfer of the majority of the dispersed LibDem vote, carries a key narrative for the SNP and for Labour.
What this means is that the newly homeless LibDem voters, when looking around them at where they might place their votes, saw the SNP as the one source they felt they could most trust to deliver competent government.
The Liberal Democrats are a unionist party and so it cannot be said that the majority of these voting transfers indicated any shift in interest in Independence.
It does indicate that the SNP have earned their success where it matters – on performance in office and in unprecedentedly difficult circumstances for two thirds of their first term, following the worldwide collapse in 2008 of the financial institutions.
This achievement has come from a minority administration walking a daily tightrope and faced with indiscriminate automatic resistance to everything from an ill-led Labour group.
It has been a thoughtful, policy-led, strategically informed administration, underpinned by the rock solid safe pair of hands of John Swinney in the counting house.
Of course the SNP’s first administration has not been flawless.
Transport has been a disaster with the roads infrastructure unspeakable. The crucial infrastructural development of the Scottish National Grid remains largely unaddressed. Marine Scotland has chosen often to be unnecessarily toothless. Offshore wind plans have sometimes been indiscriminate – as with Kintyre and Tiree. However, the government’s room for strategic manoeuvre here is undermined by the independent operations of the Crown Estate Commissioners. This is an early and announced target in Alex Salmond’s sights.
There has been evidence of innovation as a driver of development across the spectrum – from the Saltire Prize for tidal energy generation, to the Scottish Futures Trust, to the willlingness to interrogate sacred cows like the enterprise agencies and the role of local authorities in delivering national services.
Institutional Scotland, the source of determined vested interests in the status quo in all things, never believed that the SNP would get a second term. Consequently, it simply sat out the four year term in covert subversion – as in the COSLA/ADES backstairs agreement with senior civil servants to scupper the core purpose of the 2010 Schools Act.
The true stance became increasingly and overtly belligerent as election day approached, positioning itself to earn credit with what it imagined would be an incoming Labour-led administration.
Too many public sector bodies, including local authorities and their lobby organisation, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) are the lump of retrogression, deliberate obstructions to positive change in Scotland.
In our view, it is time that a forward-facing administration begins what will be a long and careful – but irreversible – process to institute the reform and regeneration of local government. There is new and big thinking to be done and this looks like the government to do it. It has the authority.
The SNP’s first administration has been a breath of fresh air for Scotland and it has been marked by a degree of grace in its lack of interest in settling scores and in vindictiveness. The First Minister in his post-election address to the nation spoke of governing ‘with a heart to forgive’ and his administration has shown that already.
The Labour group has been foolish in late and blanket opposition to the national budget, among other issues like its irresponsible confounding of the will to enact a minimum pricing of alcohol.
A less forgiving administration would have stuck this attitude to them in excluding them from input to the final budget proposals – which, with the support they had from other parties, they could have done.
The SNP showed they understood the damage that can be caused by what we call ‘Bad Fairy syndrome’. No one, however badly behaved, has been excluded from the round table. This has been government with a degree of pragmatic and spiritual generosity – a modus operandi that will be even more important in avoiding any trace of unpleasant triumphalism in this second term with its historic overall majority.
The SNP currently has a shedload of political asylum seekers onboard. They may be transients but they can be valuable residents if they are offered the right accommodation and employment opportunities.
It can afford now to be relaxed about the issue of Independence. This election demonstrated in neon signage that the spirit of independent thinking, a pride and excitement in what Scotland is doing and a wish, above all things, for competent government, have all already been generated.
Gerry Hassan, the academic analyst and chronicler of the Scottish political scene, was on television last night with Gordon Brewer, talking on the Independence issue. He spoke instead of ‘Scottish Statehood’.
This may be a concept that, within some federal arrangement, might create a political home people of both unionist and separatist views could inhabit together in some comfort.
Such an eventual outcome would positively address the constitutional discrimination against England which has been the neglected case since devolution. The democratic deficit faced by the English is the most serious in the UK. The devolved nations are best placed to understand how important it is to see this inequitable situation changed.
The Labour story
The LibDems may be the headline roadkill, but Labour is, as a major political force, effectively the main loser in the election.
Its core problem is that it was, on the evidence of past performance in government in post-devolution Scotland and of the blanket negativity of its style of opposition, simply not trusted with government again.
When the LibDem boll weevils set out ‘just a’lookin’ for a home’, a modest percentage of them engaged autopilot and headed for Labour – but the significant majority scruitinsed the current reality and took shelter with the SNP.
They’re not looking for Independence and they won’t vote for it but they do want to see an expansion of capable government for Scotland. They will want to see the necessary fiscal powers for Scotland added to the Scotland Act. They will want to see the quick repatriation of Scottish rights and assets held in the Crown Estate.
Of concern must be the fact that Labour did lose a share of its vote directly to the SNP in its touchstone constituencies of Glasgow and the west of Scotland, in central Scotland and in the cities of Edinburgh, Dundee, and Stirling. This is a viral attack on its vital organs and this, more than anything – often not leading to changes in seat ‘ownership’ – may signal an attitudinal shift in voters that Labout may find irreversible in today’s different world.
However, it made substantial gains in vote share in 8 constituencies in Edinburgh and environs and in North East Fife (although it lost share substantially in both Falkirk constituencies).
It saw an 8.6% rise in its vote in Aberdeen Central, 5.8% in Caithness Sutherland and Ross, 6.5% in Edinburgh North and Leith and 9.5% in Glasgow’s Eastwood, where boundary changes may have had an impact.
It made solid vote share gains above 3% and many in the mid to upper 4% range – and it made them across the country from Caithness in the north, to Dumbarton in the west, to Dumfries in the south west, to Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire in the Borders.
In total, it lost vote share of substance in 22 constituencies but gained vote share of substance in 14. (As noted at the start of this article, we arbitrarily assigned 3% as the threshold of ‘substantial vote share change’ for this analysis.
It may seem perverse, but a combination of the loss of the experienced party stalwarts alongside the coming to authoritative maturity of the SNP, creates the ideal circumstances for Labour in Scotland to redefine and refocus itself.
Had the veterans still been around, there would have been far less opportunity for the sort of fresh and radical thinking that will see Labour, over time, re-establish itself as a modern and very necessary part of the political spectrum.
No one is going to expect much of it for some time. It should use this moratorium for profound revision and for the effective professional preparation of new blood.
The Conservative story
Second to the headline collapse of the LibDem vote, may not be the Labour performance but the Conservative one. Much of this is disguised in the finer detail of changes in vote share; but looking at this issue across the constituencies – and looking at it relative to other parties’ peformances – produces a picture of serous decline.
The Conservatives lost vote share of substance in 29 constituencies (relative to Labour’s 22) and gained substantial vote share – at the modest end of our scale – in only one (relative to Labour’s 14).
The problem with the Conservatives is that there is little sense in them of the urgency of their situation. With the exception of Annabel Goldie, they seem, in their clubbable way, content to observe the overall political scene with some amusement and a degree of disdain – but with little evident engagement.
The proof of this is that for the past four years they have been a constructive, imaginative and responsible opposition. This is a neat trick. But the party has either not bothered or been unable to turn this to electoral advantage.
Its focus seems more on internal feuding and plotting. The reality is that if this party doesn’t shape up, it will soon find itself shipped out.
The Liberal Democrat story
The facts of this are as daunting as it gets. The Liberal Democrats in Scotland saw substantial losses of vote share in over 71 constituencies and no gains at any level anywhere.
They lost 25 deposits and 11 seats, leaving them with 5, only two of which are constituencies and both of those are as peripheral as it gets – Orkney and Shetland. This means that any regeneration of their position in these seats will go unnoticed because of lack of contiguity with other constituencies.
Their three seats from the regional list vote are also spread widely apart, with one in North East Scotland, one in Mid Scotland and Fife and one in South of Scotland.
It is hard to see how on earth they can get some critical mass rebuilt on this pattern of dispersed and singular representation and none of it rooted in a constituency.
They have also lost their leader, with a visibly chastened Tavish Scott announcing his immediate resignation yesterday. He would have been advised to take time to think responsibly before taking such a premature decision. It’s not as if there’s a leadership contest in the offing. There are only four options, since Mr Scott will rule himself out.
The systemic problem with a fall of these dimensions, is that it leaves the party without the recruiting serjeants of achievement in opposition; and what organisation – the crucial heat-exchanger from parliament to votes – can survive such a rout?
A suggestion for the LibDems
For Argyll has a constructive solution to offer.
It is widely accepted that the root cause of this collapse has been the degree of alienation of members from the party’s decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives in Westminster.
Without considering at this point, the strategic validity of this move, the issue is that the party in Scotland is looking at a serious political infection bequeathed by the main UK party in London.
The party in Scotland is effectively without the means to regenerate itself. It will need external help and, appropriately, it is now time for the London HQ to come to the aid of the party in Scotland.
The LibDems in government should use their position to press for their senior partners’ to let them front the concessions that will have to be made in the Scotland Bill. Danny Alexander is Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Michael Moore is Scottish Secretary.
What is the point of going into coalition to get power, influence and authority if you cannot use it when your party needs it as badly as it does just now?
The Liberal Democrat element of the Westminster administration needs to be seen to admit and proactively enable the addition of the necessary fiscal powers to the Scotland Bill. Similarly they need to be the visible movers in mobilising the repatriation of the Scottish rights and assets in the Crown Estate.
Such initiatives from such a source would put some of ‘the oxygen of publicity’ in the system of what’s left of the party north of the border. The job there would be to mobilise the Scottish organisation to be ready to capitalise on the positivity of such a move.
Call it political mouth-to-mouth but this is now a life or death situation for the party in Scotland.
Four years of a re-energised SNP administration, with an overall majority and not short of ideas to do with it… What is a rump of five LibDem MSPs going to do, geographically scattered from the south to the islands in the far north?
It has to be time for the London end to make reparations.
The LibDem reality
This is a ‘get real’ moment for the LibDems.
When they went into coalition they rightly said that they would be deeply unpopular for their association with the depth of the cuts to come in the task of financial recovery. They predicted that the English local authority elections of last week would be a nadir. They acknowledged that it would take time to recover from the inevitable low of this.
The new five year fixed term for UK governments was specifically set to cover the anticipated timescale of this slump in popularity and the recovery from it.
Well guys, this is what unpopularity feels like. What else did you expect?
You have four years ahead of you and you are in an honourable enough contract to deliver. Get on with it. If you make it, you won’t be home alone, If you can’t – who else, these days, gets four years notice of losing their jobs?
A 9-10 year administration?
The SNP will now have to plan strategic economic development and governmental reform for an 9-10 year administration. The post-election picture of Holyrood makes it impossible to imagine any competent alternative administration being available by 2016, when the next Scottish election will take place. This has been postponed for a year because of the Westminster administration’s decision to move to fixed five year terms, the first due to end in 2015. It is possible that the terms of devolved administrations may follow this new stance.
Labour are down to 37 MSPs, 16 of whom are first time rookies and most of those little more than placemen – a dated patronage any serious party intending to govern well should never contemplate. The calibre of those MSPs with experience and still in place is also erratic, so the opportunity for ‘schooling’ is not encouraging. Of the 37 MSPs, only 15 have won constituency seats, the powerbase for re-election.
The Tories have 15 MSPs, only 3 with constituencies. This is not a picture for internal regeneration or external recruitment.
The Liberal Democrats have 5 MSPs, only 2 with constituencies, both in the northern isles and with their three List MSPs spread across the mainland.
Moreover, the strong rumour is that the former party leader, Tavish Scott, who stood down immediately after the results were known, is testing the water for putting himself forward as Presiding Office for the Scottish parliament.
Scott is the holder of one of the party’s two constituency seats – Shetland. He is the only one with governmental experience. Were he to become Presiding Officer, he would keep his seat but would have no role in the politics of the parliament over which he would preside. This would reduce the LibDems to 4 MSPs, taking them below the threshold figure entitling them to be part of the process of deciding on parliamentary business.
That the leader of the party until a couple of days ago is even contemplating putting his personal financial interests above those of his party may be unappealing but is certainly evidence that he has written off its recovery – and must know that this move would accelerate its decline.
Overall, the question is what achievements any of these parties will have to flourish before the electorate in 2016? What experience in increasingly sophisticated government will they have to offer at that stage? The SNP would have to make a total pig’s ear of the next five years, – and that is unlikely – to be exchanged in 2016 for anything else available. At the earliest, the next real electoral battleground here will probably be in 2020.
This is what Westminster is looking at. This is one of the main reasons why the transfer to Holyrood of the necessary fiscal powers and the repatriation of the Scottish rights and assets held in the Crown Estate will simply have to be effected.
The story of this election is not just the degree of trust in the SNP to deliver good government for Scotland, it is the depth of the challenge to regenerate that is now faced by all three of the other main parties. It is, too, the re-calibration of attitude that will be necessary at Westminster.
The photograph at the top shows the debating chamber in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh. It is by copyright holder Jamieli and is reproduced here under the GNU Free Documentation licence.