Well, well, well - after a pretty miserable and uninspiring campaign we end up with the most unexpected and spectacular election result possible. Against all expectations the SNP win an absolute majority of seats in the Parliament. Something that everyone thought was impossible. Scotland uses a modified form of the PR system used in Germany and it was designed pretty much to prevent any one party winning an overall majority. Yet the SNP did. The map on the left shows the extent of this success. The yellow areas show the constituencies that are now SNP. Red areas are Labour, blue are Tory, while the two orange coloured islands to the north are all that is left of the former LibDem strongholds. What is even more remarkable about this victory is that in Scotland we have four major parties, five if you include the Greens, contesting elections. Such a stunning achievement is just way beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings that we still haven’t really got over the shock yet. To win 45% of the popular vote in a four/five party system is just amazing. I am of course absolutely delighted and wish the SNP well in their challenging tasks ahead. Once the dust has settled all sorts of experts will pick over the pieces of the election and try and work out how this all happened. Here are a few of my initial thoughts.
While the SNP did exceptionally well, the flipside is that all the other parties did exceptionally badly. Not just the LibDems, but the Tories and Labour. Even the Greens did badly. For Labour, Tories and LibDems these are the worst results ever for these parties in Scotland. Some Tories are trying to claim they came out not too badly. Not true, their share of the vote went down, while it went up everywhere else in the UK.
A major factor in the vote in Scotland was the collapse of the LibDem vote. Due primarily to their misguided decision to enter into coalition with the hated Tories at Westminster. While this might seem to suggest that this was an example of UK politics influencing the Scottish election, I do not think so. In the first place many LidDem successes in the past were due to gathering the anti Tory vote. This was certainly the case in North East Fife, where I used to live. Many people voted LidDem primarily to keep the Tories out. This was not just for UK elections but for all elections. Once the LibDems got into bed with the Tories, then their attraction as the anti Tory party went out the window. Secondly their actual voting record at Westminster and in particular their incomprehensible decision to vote in favour of raising tuition fees for students in England and Wales. The key here was that all LibDem MPs had signed a written pledge not to do so. To then so early in the life of a Parliament to break such a solemn pledge took away any credibility they had left. And of course if they could do this at Westminster then they could do it at Holyrood. The anti Tory vote had deserted them and you couldn’t trust them anyway. No wonder their vote collapsed.
A key question then is why did Labour not pick up any of these disgruntled former LibDem voters? This goes to the heart of Labour’s monumental failure to understand the election up here. Labour, no doubt buoyed by their success in last year’s UK election, tried to do a simple re-run of that campaign. Their main strategy was to focus on the core Labour vote and bring that out. Hence the initial focus on the Tories as the main enemy and bogeyman. And to a large extent it worked. The Labour vote did hold up in Labour areas. Unfortunately for them no-one else seemed interested in voting Labour. For this was not a re-run of the last UK election. People were electing a government for Scotland and Labour did not seem to offer much in the way of a positive and practical vision. One example of this was was the promise to introduce mandatory prison sentences for anyone caught carrying a knife in public. Widely dismissed by almost all the other parties and by experts in the field, including the police, this was however, probably very popular among core Labour voters. Alas it almost certainly put off any potential LibDem voters thinking of switching to Labour.
The final point about the election was that this was a Scottish election. This was another area in which Labour failed badly. Their initial tactic of trying to fight the Tory government at Westminster and their claim that a Labour victory would annoy David Cameron all gave voters the impression that Labour was more interested in using the election as a way off getting back to power at Westminster rather than presenting themselves as a credible government for Scotland. For throughout the campaign one message that kept coming up again and again was that most people wanted someone to stand up for Scotland, someone who would put Scotland first. And all the other main parties, excepting the Greens, are perceived to a greater or lesser extent as branch sections of UK parties. None of the UK wide parties have as yet fully adjusted to the realities of devolution. All of them need to somehow become more clearly Scottish.
What next? The stunning victory is a bit of a double edged sword for the SNP. Now that they have an overall majority in Parliament they can get any measure they want passed. Equally of course they will have no one else to blame to things go wrong. This will be most clearly felt in relation to independence - the raison d’être of the SNP. They have promised to hold a referendum on independence within the next five years. But when? As everyone knows only a minority of Scots are currently in favour of independence. How will the SNP go about trying to convince a majority of Scots to take that next step? And how will the Unionist parties react? All this against a background of weak economic growth and severe cuts in the Scottish budget coming from London. Politics has just got much more interesting.