Wednesday 11 May 2011

Scottish Elections - Whither the Unionist Parties?

The recent Scottish Parliamentary elections were a disaster for all three Unionist parties, with each recording their worst result ever.  Their leaders in Scotland have all announced that they will stand down.  So at the very least a new leadership is required.  However a much more serious root and branch review is probably needed.  Already, it seems that every Tom, Dick and Mary has jumped in with their tuppenceworth.  Not to be left behind all this fun, after all when better to kick someone than when they are down, here are some of my own thoughts on the future prospects for the Unionist parties.
From some of the forests of words already written by Unionist politicians and bloggers, one of the great dangers they face is that some of them are still not willing to face up to the scale of the disaster that overtook them last Thursday.  I have just read one Labour supporter claim that the lack of campaign money was the major reason for the scale of Labour’s defeat.   If the Unionist parties are to have a long term future in Scotland then they need to focus on four key issues - policy, mindset, structure and personalities.  
Policy is vital for any political party.  It is even more vital in Scotland where there are currently five parties represented in Parliament, and previously there have been six parties at Holyrood.  So to succeed you need to have a set of policies, or vision for the country, that is both distinctive and inspirational.   While negative messages have a place in any campaign I would contend that a party is likely to more successful if its distinctive message is primarily positive.  That way it is more likely to motivate people to come out and vote and more important to get people to talk to others about the party and their policies.
From a policy perspective while the Tories did as usual have their own right of centre message to offer, it clearly did not inspire many voters.  The LibDems and Labour on the other hand had very little in the way of a clear and easily articulated vision of what kind of Scotland they wanted for the future.  The most distinctive parts of their manifestos were pathetic, narrowly focussed policies - a non-mandatory but somehow mandatory policy on carrying knives for Labour and save the status quo of the current police structures for the LibDems.  Really inspiring stuff!  Neither party had anything constructive or positive to say about how they would make Scotland a better, more prosperous country.
A major problem for the Unionist parties in developing a coherent vision for Scotland is what I term their mindset.  They are after all Unionist parties and as such their prime focus is the UK as a whole.  This works doubly to their disadvantage.  Any vision they have for Scotland is constrained within the UK and the limited powers available to the Scottish Parliament.  While they are prepared to consider some limited additional powers for Scotland, they are all, with the possible exception of the LidDems, at least while in opposition, unwilling to give significant financial and economic powers to Holyrood.  So the most they can offer is to manage Scotland - a little bit of tinkering here and there.  In no way can they even begin to imagine how to transform Scotland - that would require real powers for Holyrood.  To make matters worse, faced with a resurgent SNP all the Unionist parties have retreated into a “save the Union at all costs” mindset.  The more they think about how to preserve the Union the less they question the value Union itself.  Thus every option they come up with has to be framed within the primacy of the UK.  It is this that surely explains why just about all Unionists continue to assert that Scotland is too poor to go it alone.  They are currently trapped.  If the Union is to have any chance of surviving they need to break free of this mindset and more or less start afresh.  Start from the perspective of Scotland first.  In the 21st century, with Scotland as a member of the UN, the WTO and the EU, what additional benefits does Scotland get from the UK?  What benefits could it get from a changed, reformed UK?  Unionists need to come up with some kind of coherent and inspiring answers - soon.
Linked to the mindset issue is the question of the structure of the Unionist parties in Scotland.  While all have the word Scottish in their title, this means little in practice.  Because they are primarily UK parties the word Scottish means nothing more than the location.  Thus the Scottish Labour party is no more than the (UK) Labour party in Scotland.   This of course is a major factor in reinforcing the mindset I referred to above.  It is most clearly seen in the Tory and Labour parties, neither of which has a Scottish leader.  Both Ian Gray and Annabel Goldie were merely the leaders of their respective Parliamentary groups in Holyrood.  Their is no overall leader of either party in Scotland.  In fact the real leader of their parties is their leader in Westminster.  The LibDems have mover furthest in separate structures, in that Tavish Scott, their leader in Holyrood, is also the leader of the whole party in Scotland.  However the Scottish LibDems do not exist as a separate party - they are when all is said and done merely the Scottish branch of the UK LibDems.  This was most evident last year after the UK general election.  The  Scottish LibDem MPs all worked more closely with their fellow MPs from the rest of the UK than they did with their fellow LibDems in Scotland.  Given what everyone knew was likely to happen to the LibDems in Scotland once the UK party went into Coalition with the Tories the question is would a separate Scottish LibDem party ever have agreed to participate in such a Coalition?  
Will any of the Unionist parties go along this route, sometimes dubbed the CSU model.  After the experience of the Christian Democrats in Germany, where in Bavaria the Christian Democrats do not exist as a party, but instead are represented by another party altogether - the Christian Social Union.  The two parties work very closely at the Federal level and have so far at least always presented a joint platform for Federal elections.  However the CSU is and remains primarily a Bavarian party, with no outside interference from elsewhere in Germany.  Once again it all comes down to the mindset of most Unionists.  At present their main focus is the UK.  Until they are prepared to change that and make Scotland their main focus, then little will change, whatever rearrangements are made on the deck.
Finally a word about personalities, and in particular the personal qualities of the leaders.  There are two aspects to this.  One is the public persona of the leaders.  Here there is no doubt that the SNP benefitted from having Alex Salmond as their leader.  After all, even their own supporters recognize that the phenomenal success of the SNP is due in large measure to the larger than life personality of Alex Salmond.  None of the other parties has as yet managed to find anyone of his stature.  Quite why is an interesting question and worthy of further thought.  However it is not only the public persona of leaders that matter.  Their own personal preferences and antipathies all come into play.  For example it is widely claimed that it was the personal hostility of Tavish Scott towards the SNP which prevented the LibDems from even entering into negotiations with the SNP after the previous Scottish elections.  So not only do political parties need to have a leader who can articulate their vision, assuming they have one, and motivate the electorate, they also need to ensure that their leader does not carry any deep seated personal baggage that may scupper their prospects in any coalition negotiations.  Back to the all importance of that mindset again.  Given the scale of the SNP victory last Thursday open hostility to the SNP and by implication the people who voted for them, may not be the wisest move to make.

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