Despite predictions (including my own) of this election being a rather boring shoo-in, credit is due to those who peppered it with upsets of pundit apple carts. Iain Gray increased a wafer-thin majority in the teeth of the SNP hurricane that tore through former Labour heartlands. Virtuoso agent Duncan Hothersall repeated last year’s Labour miracle in Edinburgh South by stealing a seat off the SNP. Credit also to Lib-Dems for reviving the Chris Rennard magic of focus where it matters and taking both NE Fife and Edinburgh West against heavy odds.
But the trail-blazing performance of the night was Ruth Davidson’s 610 majority in Edinburgh Central, catapulting the Tories from 4th place there into their first city win since 2007 with a 10% swing. So, major and historic though the SNP’s third term may be, the one thing they clearly hoped for had eluded them. And, supporter though I am, I find this good, even as they avoided making it better.
Back in the heady days of 2007-11, they pulled off what no-one thought possible; a stable government with a minority of only 47 members. They eschewed coalition but found common ground with other parties so even budgets went through smoothly (with one exception). Scotland found itself governed more imaginatively than in the plodding days of Labour’s Executive and—because most parties traded some concession from the government in exchange for support, a wider swathe of the public than just SNP supporters felt they got something.
After the 2011 landslide, this sense of consensus disappeared as the SNP found no further need for it and stuffed every committee chair with their appointees and the membership with an SNP majority. Run with imagination and good judgement, this might have worked well. But absolute power and self-realisation seldom coincide. Though the SNP Government was scarcely ill-intentioned, a sense of autocratic insensitivity not seen since the dark days of Thatcher grew in the minds of their opponents.
Their sense of progress, apparently confirmed by the surge in support in the wake of the Independence Referendum, encouraged the government to press on. The brick wall hit by Labour in last year’s Westminster election lured them further into thinking they had discovered political mother lode and could do not wrong.
And, since their main Labour opposition looked especially vulnerable, the SNP carefully constructed a policy platform to revisit on Labour MSPs this year the same whirlwind that ravaged their MPs last year. So the social programme was strengthened, all the free perks like concession travel, prescriptions, eye tests, etc were safeguarded, the NHS and its budget were held sacrosanct and any tax talk was rigorously ‘progressive’ so that it would not hit the lower-paid.
As a strategy to deliver a body-blow to Labour, it was effective. But it also opened a flank on the business side. All sorts of people: those leery of independence; those concerned the UK economy had not recovered; those who saw Scotland’s economy under-performing vis-à-vis the UK; even those who were simply scunnered with the SNP appearing to have everything their own way—all saw little hope in Labour. This left them few choices.
For once, the Scottish Tories shook off their now-traditional cringe in Scotland and fought a feisty, unabashedly unionist, business oriented campaign. They pitched themselves as raring to take on this uppity SNP. It proved to be a shrewd move, especially as they had managed to bring in a broad spectrum of younger non-politicians who offered a fresher appeal than the series of former aides and SPADs who had characterised new faces in many parties.
But, taking nothing away from Ruth Davidson and her team whose 31 seats represent the best Tory performance in 25 years, the result reveals a trend that bodes ill for the SNP. Yes, the SNP swept the country, barring a handful of hold-outs. Yes, they pushed the limits of the voting system, bouncing into a third term when they should, by rights, have been toiling. Yes, they managed vote swings against Labour across the Central Belt in the teens . Yes, they are likely to provide a better government than any alternative on offer.
But there are straws in the wind.
Firstly, the delight at the debacle of their arch-enemy Labour and the taking of their citadels should not distract how the Tories exploited their exposed flank while they were busy doing so. In some non-Central Belt seats the SNP took some time ago—Inverness, Aberdeenshire/East, Moray, Angus/South, Perthshire/South, Angus/North/Mearns, Banffshire/Buchan the Tories now threaten in second place. If their 20% swings happen again, heads will roll. Even capable, weel-kent faces like John Swinney suffered a 25% swing to the ever-optimistic Murdo Fraser.
Secondly, in many of those non-Central Belt cases, even where they made little headway against SNP incumbents, they were snaffling up wandering Labour voters, rather then those going to the SNP. Aberdeen/Donside, Stirling, Carrick/Cumnock/DoonValley, Cunninghame/North, Clacks/Dunblane, Linlithgow, Clydesdale are all good examples. Even where there was no Labour vote to mop up and the incumbent held their own, there were still prodigious Tory advances, like the 19% in Aberdeen/South.
And that was just the constituencies. The Tories played an even cleverer game on the list and boosting their seven FPTP seats by doubling their list members to 24 with 524,222 votes that took them well past Labour for a very economical 21,842 votes per list member. Even in South of Scotland, despite winning four constituencies, their 100,753 votes were not wasted as they added two list seats.
So, thirdly, Tory emphasis on receiving both votes was justified. Not so the SNP, who were adamant on the same point. This seems to have gifted their reviving Tory opponents an extra boost in doing so. The table below shows it took 288,397 list votes to elect one SNP list MSP but only 25,171 to elect a Green one (see above for what a deal the Tories got).
In six regions, 751,770 SNP votes were totally wasted. Worse, they could have been harnessed to the cause of independence. Rather than party discipline when there was no need, what if the SNP had publicly encouraged its supporters to vote Green on the list? Lets assume 25% were scunnered by this and didn’t vote, 50% ignored the request and voted SNP anyway, but 25% saw the logic and split their two votes.
Even that 1-in-4 would (except in Glasgow) have tripled the Green vote for one or two more Green list MSPs per region for a total around 19. Those would have come most from the Tories and Labour, with SNP and Lib-Dems losing one each. This would result in the following makeup of Parliament:
The SNP would still be in as strong a position to form a minority government. But if Nicola is serious about a working consensus, this scenario would make her job so much easier. Not only would she be facing Tories 2/3rds as resurgent but some hoary un-dead Labour opponents wouldn’t have slipped in through the back door.
She would face only 48 (instead of 60) hostile unionists in opposition. She would have a stronger similarly progressive ally committed to the same goal as she. That populist and similarly principled ally would soften the autocratic edges that cost the SNP votes and boosted the Tories for their promise to take that autocracy on.
That the SNP chose not to do this is regrettable by all who support their goal. It has boosted once-toxic Tories in a way they could scarce have dared hope. We’ll see just how green the SNP will become working with St Partick of the Harvie and his fewer untried troops. But so far, the waste of the greater opportunity—and of 751,770 of their supporters’ list votes—just makes them cabbage-looking.