Amidst the settling dust from last week’s local elections, a number of things are becoming clear. YouGov have conducted their usual regional poll around the UK and, while it shows little that is surprising, it does continue to show some trends.
First, the popularity of the UK Government continues to decline and the rot seems to be spreading South. Whereas Scotland had consistently shown the worst disapproval rating (generally hovering around -50) that dubious honour now goes to the North of England where 70% of voters now disapprove of the UK Government.
Secondly, the disintegration of the Lib-Dem vote continues apace, with only 25% of those who voted Lib-Dem in 2010 still intending to vote that way at this point and the rate in Scotland half of that in the rest of the UK. But, thirdly, the most interesting statistic appears to be that, of the 75% of lost Lib-Dem votes, 44% have drifted to Labour—almost twice those remaining loyal to the Lib-Dems.
That certainly seems to bear out what appears to have happened in the Scottish local elections. Whereas, in last year’s Holyrood election, the disintegrating Lib-Dem vote went largely to benefit the SNP, this year those same voters appear to have voted Labour instead.
While it is probably foolish to speak of any group of voters as if they were solid and homogeneous, there appears to have been a historic development of floating voters since the 1970’s. Prior to that, the UK had an almost US-style two-party polarity. Governments were formed and lost on the pendulum left-right swing between Labour and Tories; third parties were rare and frequently crushed between the two giants.
Labour’s industrial nightmare of the seventies laid the foundations for Thatcher and the muscular Toryism in the 1980’s that cleared the centre for the rise of the Lib-Dems and SNP. Voters deserted Foot’s principled but unelectable Labour in droves. But as the Tories ran out of ideas, they were seen as more extreme and Blair’s obvious reforms beguiled millions of newly propertied consumerist Tories into supporting his social democratic spin.
But not in Scotland. Scots had never given up on Old Labour. So, when the great Blairite phase came down around Irn Broon’s ears, the main beneficiaries of these floating voters were the SNP. Thousands of them—accompanied by many Labour voters fed up with little sign of life in moribund Labour heartlands—overturned decades of voting-for-donkeys-with-rosettes Labour across Scotland.
The clear beneficiary was the SNP, who swept into majority power in Holyrood against all statistical likelihood and—truth be told—their own forecasts. They became the current roost of this growing flock of floating voters, whose numbers have been growing for four decades.
But these voters, impressed as most were by the SNP’s deft underdog performance in its first term, did not thereby become nationalists, nor were they solidly behind independence. In fact, the whole idea of independence made a third of them at least nervous and another third residually hostile to the very thought. Most savvy SNP activists realised this. Whereas their original core vote was solid, this rapid rise of support over the last couple of years came from a different stock altogether.
In 2011, Labour was caught with its political pants down by believing polls three months out that said they were in the lead. That all changed in the last eight weeks so that the now-marginal Tory and Lib-Dem votes highlighted the shape of the election as purely a Labour-vs-SNP contest. Given that Scottish Labour had avoided much of the modernisation that Blair’s reforms had wrought elsewhere (and actually prided itself in this fact) their business-as-usual grump that passed for opposition played poorly against an SNP with its tail up and a dynamic message to convey. They were duly gubbed.
Spending longer than either of the other opposition parties to sort out a new leader, Labour seemed to have been stuffed. External observers seemed agreed on that—few campaign initiatives, problems with heartland councils, especially Glasgow, ill-tempered handling of those tools available like the Scottish Affairs Committee, right up to and including Johann Lamont’s doughty but hardly virtuoso handling of FMQs.
Whether it was deliberate or not, it wasn’t a bad impersonation of a predator who feigns injury to lure their prey closer. Because people in Labour like Douglas Alexander, Margaret Curran and her son Stephen were not only alive to the danger but quite prepared to step on toes to do something about it. For once, London Labour and their dour Scots colleagues appear to have agreed on joint action, staff were sent North and something approaching a real plan was hatched.
That did not include much by way of new ideas, change of direction or even of tactics. This suited Scottish Labour’s somewhat creaky structure. But there was both a readiness to start listening to punters and much more of a backbone organisation that put candidates back on doorsteps talking to people and harnessed new and enthusiastic activists to support that by leafleting, etc. It was no rocket science but it was work that Labour had become careless about doing.
Other than the walking-dead Lib-Dems, this campaign saw more active candidates, including Tories where they thought they had a chance, following this old-time religion than ever before.
Granted, it was a pure local election so national media coverage was dimmed in comparison with either 2010 or 2011 because they saw little outside of Glasgow that was at stake. Savvy local organisers knew that, as well as not turning people off with saturated coverage, this was an opportunity to fly under the media radar.
Buoyed up with momentum from the 2011 result enhancing the 2007 sense of solid progress, the SNP saw no reason to alter its tactical campaign. Indeed, being confident that positive advance would be maintained so soon after last year they effectively launched the referendum campaign in the form of public consultation, heightened discord with Westminster and an internal roadshow to prep the troops.
Had Labour stayed moribund, this might have worked. As it was, the SNP, despite now being a national party, with coast-to-coast representation at all levels, is still a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs. And those amateurs have had many of the best and brightest either creamed off to serve as MPs/MSPs and their staff. It takes time for the flood of new members to turn into activists, especially experienced ones.
With a small (as compared to UK parties) staff, SNP HQ has little ability to reach out into the field with support. Professional organisers out there who could take local charge (which the Tories have always had and Labour woke up to this time) stayed off the priority list. Theoretically key posts like Local Government Convener, National Organiser and Association of Nationalist Councillors officials were all unpaid and each of them engaged in being re-elected as a councillor themselves.
What seems to have remained unappreciated in the SNP was the continued disparity between their formidable heartland campaign organisations all across the North East and well intentioned ad hoc ones staffed with newbies that characterises the Central Belt. This latter have still to learn much about effective campaigning.
In 2007 and 2011 they worked hard and won. But the win was as much due to a national tide raising all boats; that tide did not run in 2010 and no-one seems to have asked why. The reason seems to have been that the former two elections were purely about Scotland and the SNP have made huge strides in convincing people that they, more than any other party, stand up for Scotland.
In 2010, it was not about Scotland—it was about recession, international affairs and how badly both would affect people’s pockets. While no disaster, it was a disappointment for the SNP. And, while it is foolish to read too much into comparing elections at different levels, it appears that this 2012 election had something of the same disappointment for the SNP. Why? What happened seems to have been:
- Expectations were poorly managed. Talking up the chance of Labour losing Glasgow made the actual solid advance made there seem a disappointment.
- Focus was diffuse. While the local troops were out doing their best, the phalanx of former activists now in and associated with Parliament were preoccupied, understandably, with other things
- Media was not managed. Whereas parliamentary members have media support, local campaigners and councillors have none; when exposed to TV especially they came across as a series of shots from the hip
- Intelligence was used poorly. Early canvass results indicated voters getting markedly nervous about independence now that the prospect had come closer. Nothing was done to counter a ‘this is a stepping stone to indy’ perception.
- SNP is now the Establishment. Whereas even parliamentarians have played the underdog and evoked support for taking on an uncaring colossus, that ploy has less traction when SNP can and do make laws with no cross-party support.
- Unreasonable expectations from the public. All parties in power run into this as the media hunts for the least flaws. Disagreement with The Donald or association with the discredited Murdoch affair do unavoidable damage. For the SNP, this is new.
- Labour got its act together. After several elections of poor campaigning, they made the breakthrough of stopping sulking, admitting to people that they needed to listen and translated this into the first campaign with real traction on the doorsteps.
Since the next—and biggest—political step is the referendum, how that is launched from this point will be crucial. A smashing and decisive romp in 2012 that carried on the momentum of 2011 would have been perfect. But to grimly hang on to this result as if it were that would be a mistake by looking like numbers mattered more than people.
Yes, by all measures, it was a win. But politics is three parts perception; go to the 80% of voters who are not wedded to any party and they are unlikely to agree it was a win. They may see a referendum in 2014 as given. But most have misgivings what independence might mean and are staring sullenly at the ground just now. As usual, they are looking for a voice they can trust in uncertain times.
Labour pulled off this sleight of hand simply by telling people it had changed and was listening; they still had no message of substance beyond “mea culpa” and “don’t listen to the nasty nats”. Until they concoct their own vision for Scotland, they’re ambitious political wolves, whether they wear sheep’s clothing drag or not.
The SNP’s success to date has been built on positive vision, a prosperous, egalitarian Scotland that takes it place in the world among the exemplarly small countries that have led the way. Appearing to cling to statistical victories, historic irrelevances or scoring tactical points in politics is what led all three opposition parties to the sorry pass in which they find themselves. Honesty, courage and selflessness are not what Scottish voters are used to in their politicians.
To win, all the SNP has to do is prove them wrong.