As landslides go the 2011 Holyrood election was huge. Scotland has been shaken to its political foundations as voters again voiced their contempt for the Tories, their coalition partners the Lib-Dems and New Labour. The Scotsman described Thursday’s result as a ‘victory of hitherto unthinkable proportions’ for the SNP. Even The Scotsman can be right some of the time!
In truth the extent of the victory surprised even the SNP. They emerged with 45% of the vote [their largest ever], 69 seats [out of 129] and the first overall majority in Holyrood’s history. At counts across the country SNP candidates arrived expecting third or fourth place and walked out hours later ‘as the newly elected MSP for the said constituency’. The front page of Saturdays Edinburgh Evening News said it all. It led with a photograph of the newly elected MSP for Edinburgh Southern emerging from a bookmakers with his £750 winnings after he put £50 on himself to win at 14/1 just a fortnight ago. That former Lib Dem seat was, according to all received wisdom, Labour’s for the taking.
It is impossible to underplay the scale of the SNP victory. Even the ‘certainties’ of the D’Hont PR system employed to distribute Holyrood seats were swept aside. So many people voted for the SNP on Thursday that after wining all the constituency seats in some regions they also got MSPs on the same regional list! Legends are made of this. The SNP’s message, albeit deceitful, that ‘the list vote elects the First Minister’ brought them huge dividends.
The SNP’s sophisticated, multi-million pound election campaign, with its navigational tools for activists and social networking operations completely outstripped the once powerful Labour machine. Pollsters YouGov report that 80,000 Labour voters across Scotland switched to the SNP in the final 36 hours in disgust at its increasingly negative campaign and incessant targeted mail shots. When they had constituency activists on the ground Labour knew when to leave people well alone!
BELEAGERED and BELABOURED
Can it really only be a year since every Labour MP in Scotland increased their majority? This time the all-conquering Labour Party of Lowland Scotland fell to pieces like a Laurel and Hardy car. If definitive and final proof were needed that people vote one way in Westminster elections and another for Holyrood this is it.
In Labour’s Central belt ‘heartlands’ its seats toppled like ninepins. And comparing Thursday’s results with the notional results from 2007 [itself a bad night for Labour] does not sufficiently explain the scale of their collapse. A better comparison would be to look at how Labour’s five figure majorities from last year poured into the SNP corner.
Labour imagined the Lib Dem protest vote would go to them, so why didn’t it? The answer is that Labour like the Con-Dem Coalition also support public spending cuts and tuition fees. They offered no real alternative. Former Lib-Dem voters were also seduced by Salmond’s claims of managerial competency at Holyrood. These SNP’s achievements in wooing disenchanted Liberals should not be regarded lightly. There is little love lost between the two parties, but on this occasion the support the SNP won from the Lib-Dems was the difference between winning and winning an overall majority.
As it turned out even the so-called ‘rogue’ poll of April 21st ,which first suggested the SNP had an overall majority, underestimated their support. And let’s not forget that Labour started this election campaign with a 15% lead!
The fact is Salmond attracted votes not just from disaffected Lib Dems, but also Labour, Green, Tory and SSP supporters too.
EPHEMERAL OR EARTH SHATTERING
The central question is how much of this change is ephemeral, a one off, a freak result, and how much of it has broken the political mould?
Those who tentatively suggest the former must reckon with the 5-year term the SNP majority now has in this Parliament. That’s certainly not superficial. Neither is the scale of Labour’s collapse.
On the other hand those who suggest we are now in permanent new territory must ask how can the SNP keep seats like Edinburgh Pentlands and Edinburgh West when they have virtually no activists there and little natural support as its political opponents wait to pounce? And what will be the consequences in next years Council elections after a year of public spending cuts?
There are those of course who argue that the result on May 5th illustrates a certain ‘political promiscuity’ by voters who voted for Labour in huge numbers last year and opted for the SNP equally emphatically this time. This demonstrates, so it is argued, an inherent volatility in politics because there are no ideological differences between the 4 establishment parties. And this is certainly true if you examine Alex Salmond’s economic programme, his business plan, or international policy in regards to say Libya or Afghanistan. And the public spending cuts which he delayed until after this election sit in his in tray awaiting his scissors.
Above all it is the issue of the cuts which will now test Salmond’s popularity most. Popularity levels like his can only go one way. Ask Nick Clegg! And the SNP has very difficult choices now to make during continued economic stagnation. It faces making severe public spending cuts. And it has as a party no compunction in voting for them, unlike the SSP. It votes through cuts every day in Councils across Scotland and it will do so again at Holyrood. Of course Salmond will try valiantly to pin the blame on Cameron and Clegg. And rightly so, but in the end he will not fight the cuts, he will make them. That brings huge public opposition and with it huge opportunities for the left.
Salmond must make £3bn of cuts over 5 years and these will be severe and unpopular. A shrewd and cunning political operator he might be - look at the way he announced his five year Council tax freeze for example at the same time as he unceremoniously and largely unnoticed dumped the SNP’s commitment to an income based alternative- but he will make them nonetheless.
Neither will an SNP Government confront the employing classes or redistribute the great wealth of Scotland. Salmond may be a populist but he will defend the interests of big business in Scotland as mercilessly as anyone else.
The message from the people of Scotland to Alex Salmond however remains unequivocal - these cuts are utterly unnecessary and indefensible and he must fight them! The economic crisis wasn’t caused by the greed and recklessness of working people and the poor after all.
‘The SNP has been good for Scotland’ boasted Salmond defending his 4 year record at Holyrood. But which Scotland does he mean? The 200 businessmen who endorsed him on polling day? Sir David Murray? Sir Jackie Stewart? Sir Tom Farmer? The Scottish Sun and News of the World whom also blessed him with an endorsement? The Scottish Sunday Express? They all believe the SNP has been good for them and that’s why they backed Salmond on Thursday!
‘Alex Salmond has been good for Scotland’ they said in unison ‘That’s why we support his re-election as First Minister.’ John Swinney welcomed their backing and said ‘Captains of Industry have benefited from the SNP.’
The Sunday Times Rich List came out at the weekend and what’s remarkable about the table of Scots billionaires and millionaires is the number who came out last week in support of the SNP. As New Labour found to its cost you can support the millionaires or you can support the millions. Getting it wrong has devastating consequences electorally.
So there’s the rub. Millions of Scots voted for the SNP to fight the cuts and to stand up to the Tories but the SNP now supports a regressive council tax freeze, cutting corporation tax and cuts in public services, jobs, pay and £3.3bn off the budget over the next 5 years.
Undoubtedly the most profound impact of last weeks astonishing is made on the likelihood of a referendum on Independence. The SNP did not present the Bill in the last Parliament they said because they had no majority. Now they do. Independence just took a great leap forward as Mao might have said.
There is no doubt that the case for independence took a battering during the election campaign itself as the SNP leadership barely rose to its defence whilst the unionist parties, sensing a weakness in the SNP’s armour, poured endless cold water on it. In these circumstance its little wonder the polls show support now down below 30%.
Supporters of Independence like the SSP therefore have a huge task on our hands to win the argument for Independence outside Holyrood in the pubs, clubs, community centres and workplaces across the land. But it can and must be done. The case for independence must be won before the referendum is called.
This offers an unprecedented opportunity for the left. The SNP is incapable of delivering a majority for independence on its own and to be fair it has acknowledged this frequently in the Independence Convention which the SSP joined.
It remains our job on the left to outline the alternative vision for independence. The alternative to neo-liberalism, warmongering, privatisation and profiteering. How many of the 69 SNP MSPs for example will protest at having to swear the oath of allegiance to the Queen? The party favours independence with the Queen as Head of State.
Alex Salmond is undoubtedly a shrew politician who closely courts popularity but he also supports the NATO attacks on Libya and the British occupation of Afghanistan. He also supports the monarchy and cutting corporation tax for employers and retaining the unfair Council tax. The SSP are better able to persuade progressive Scotland of the case for Independence.
Given the huge swing to the SNP which swept all before it, taking dozens of seats from Labour, Liberals, Tories and Greens [polls suggested the Greens could get 8 seats] alike it is hardly surprising the left’s vote was squeezed on Thursday. We were also entirely eclipsed in the way the media covers this big money election.
The left was never at the races. In Glasgow George Galloway got 6,500 votes but never looked like winning and he has gone back to where he came from leaving nothing behind pretty much as usual. The Socialist Labour Party got the biggest left vote with 10,000 but they have been unable to coalesce the left in Scotland up to now and that will not change. The SSP vote [8,722] was also disappointing and down from 2007. This was inevitable after the fiasco of the Sheridan trial in January. Solidarity, as expected, were the biggest losers given their disgraced leaders incarceration for lying.
It is also true that nowadays the left’s resources are minuscule compared to the millions spent by Labour and the SNP and this disparity makes an uneven contest all but impossible.
For the SSP and the left as a whole the task must be to build up support for the socialist case again and to act with others to establish new fresh ideas and a potent political base of support in communities, workplaces and amongst those fighting the cuts There will be many opportunities presented to us in the weeks, months and years to come. We need to roll up our sleeves and take the socialist case to new generations of political activists.
The electoral plain is but one of many in politics and the 2012 Council elections offer an opportunity for a breakthrough. But as SSP Councillor Jim Bollan put it to me during the election you have to lay foundations before you put up the walls and take your seat. This time last year I met the team behind Green MP Caroline Lucas’s success in Brighton and asked them what they put their victory in getting Britain's first Green MP elected- down to. They each said ‘25 years hard work at ground level’. After last Thursday, the Greens are the biggest Party on Brighton and Hove Council.