Another election in Scotland, therefore another yellow spring tide, right?
The Westminster and Holyrood elections of 2015 and 2016 saw the SNP successfully converting Yes voters into SNP voters, and the results were spectacular. 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats returned nationalist MPs. The SNP saw a tiny uptick in their constituency vote share in 2016 vs 2015’s first past the post share, but were unable to repeat their 2011 feat of a Holyrood majority. That aside surely the council elections of 2017 would see the SNP, as they put it in their local election appeal leaflet, “complete the set”?
Well, kind of. But certainly not in the manner they expected, or wanted.
That the SNP won the council elections in Scotland is not in doubt. They won the most seats, and are the largest party on more councils than any other party. This is being touted as a “clear and emphatic” victory. But the mood yesterday, especially on Twitter where the SNP dominate with their spinners and cybernat activists, was very different. There was little of the triumphalism that accompanied the crushing election victories of the two previous years. Instead, a sense of frustration and a touch of salt could be detected. By the early evening, some blistering attacks on fellow Scots were being tweeted. In this respect sadly, some things haven’t changed. The SNP won, they will have enjoyed a few drinks to celebrate but I suspect behind closed doors there will be some serious analysis of their strategy.
I’m sure SNP expectations were high – very high. Why wouldn’t they be? When you batter the opposition twice in two years, especially your ancient and traditional enemy (that’s Scottish Labour, by the way, not the Conservatives) then you’re surely entitled to serious optimism about your prospects. The big prize for the SNP – the jackpot, three bars on the puggie – was Glasgow City Council. Confident boasts that ‘the Red Citadel will fall’ were left looking a little overdone as the results started to filter in. Early indications from around Scotland were that the SNP were treading water, Scottish Labour were putting up a surprisingly decent fight, and the LibDem fightback seemed to have stalled. The biggest news of course were the Tory gains, which unusually were not limited to rural areas.
In the end, the big winner was NOC – no overall control, which turned out to be the result for every one of Scotland’s 32 councils (unless you think Independents is a party). The SNP supplanted Scottish Labour as the largest party on Glasgow City Council but did not secure overall control, and even more surprisingly they lost overall control of Dundee as a result of Conservative and LibDem gains. Given these two cities voted Yes in 2014, that surely came as a blow. Expectation management seems to have been a little bit off. The usual flood of infographics from official SNP Twitter accounts was absent – the impression given of a triumphalist narrative being hastily discarded whilst a positive spin was sought for an unexpected result. Sturgeon eventually hove in front of the cameras to proclaim victory, stating that the Conservatives “did well entirely at the expense of the Labour Party”. A closer look at the numbers however shows this to be not entirely accurate. Labour lost out to both the SNP and the Tories, and SNP gains from Labour in urban areas were balanced by a swathe of lost SNP seats in their rural heartlands. The Tories did the damage, becoming the largest party on six councils.
Personally, I’m surprised the SNP didn’t do better. The last council elections in 2012, held way before the independence referendum and yellow surges of 2015 and 2016, saw them win 425 seats; after boundary changes in this election they won 431 seats. This time there was no yellow surge. If you insist on the tidal metaphor then this was no more than a neap tide which shifted hardly any sand. Psephologists would grimace at comparing First Past The Post, Additional Member System and Single Transferable Vote voting percentages, but it does feel like there is a change in the air. I would hope that many voters will have looked at the shameful spin the SNP and Greens used when passing Holyrood’s budget earlier this year, when they slashed council funding by £170 million but described it as extra cash compared to their originally planned cut of over £300 million. But I suspect I hope in vain; like everything in Scottish politics just now the constitutional question overrides all. It’s clear that the strong unionist element of the No vote is throwing its weight behind the Conservatives. And Brexit overshadows everything, providing potential opportunities for both sides. Here too the Tories have been more consistent in their approach, despite the obvious irony of Remainers May and Davidson throwing their weight – and messaging – behind making Brexit a success. The SNP by contrast have been inconsistent on their desires for our future relationship with the EU, pivoting from full membership to single market agreement and back again. They can’t long continue with this approach before voters start to query their sincerity.
It is way too early to entertain talk of “Peak Nat” having passed, but the council elections have thrown the SNP a curveball. The results in Aberdeenshire, Moray, Perthshire and East Lothian will have a few SNP MPs looking over their shoulders as we count down to the general election in June. I’m sceptical that Tory success in the council elections will translate into Tory MPs, as FPTP is a different animal to the STV system. They will likely gain a couple of seats in the Borders and Aberdeenshire, but many SNP MPs are defending sizeable majorities and will enjoy the benefit of incumbency. Some of the names at potential risk however will be a concern for the SNP. They will be forced to spend money campaigning to defend seats they may have assumed were safe, for a few more years at least. Sturgeon will not want to lose her Westminster leader Angus Robertson the MP for Moray, one of the few SNP MPs who is an accomplished Commons performer. (She might not, however, shed too many tears if the Tories were to relieve her of the persistent embarrassment that is Pete Wishart, despite his majority of nearly 10,000).
The backlash to the Tory advance has already begun, with the Sunday Herald first out the gate. Instead of a triumphant front page of, say, SNP councillors standing in front of the imposing Glasgow City Chambers, they gave it over to a disgraceful smear attempt linking the Orange Order to voters and the councillors they voted for. West of Scotland politics has been trying for decades to drag itself out of the sectarian gutter; this regrettable move by the paper’s editor reflects more on his character than voters who turned out to perform a civic duty or the councillors they elected, regardless of party. Nationalists were quick to criticise the use of the term Ulsterisation when it was mooted by journalists Aidan Kerr and David Torrance, yet here the sectarian card is being played by the Nationalist press during an election campaign. The vast majority of Scots have shown they are above lazy attempts at othering, and I suspect this will be viewed unfavourably by folk on both sides of the constitutional debate. It ought to be.
Just as bizarre and no less desperate was the concerted attack by SNP and Yes activists on Patrick Harvie, for having the temerity to announce his Green candidacy for the Glasgow North seat in June’s general election. The sitting SNP MP Patrick Grady has a majority of over 9000, yet well kent Yessers such as Lesley Riddoch and Carol Fox weren’t happy. Accusations of it being “counterproductive” and “splitting the Indy vote” were levelled at Harvie. The message was clear – eat your cereal Patrick, until we say so. Democratic principles, Green principles, are secondary. Independence transcends everything. If I was a Green, I’d be heartily pissed off. To his credit Harvie has taken the brickbats and more or less ignored them. As for the SNP, their activist reaction to Harvie’s candidacy has been a revealing example of just how brittle they really are at the moment.
And of course the BBC got it in the neck. The SNP’s desperation to deliver a positive spin on their somewhat Pyrrhic victory saw them take exception to the Beeb’s attempt to compare apples with apples as regards the number of seats won. The Beeb crunched the numbers and found that, based on the same boundaries as 2012, the SNP result translated to a loss of seven seats. Of course the SNP weren’t having that and insisted that apples be compared to oranges. Something that those who studied their economic pitch during the indyref will be very familiar with…
What of Scottish Labour? The rose has shown in the council elections it still has thorns. There is life yet in the fallen giant. They will hope to hold on in Edinburgh South and might give the SNP’s George Kerevan a run for his money in East Lothian. They continue to set their course firmly on a policy driven basis while all around focus on the constitutional divide. This approach hasn’t yet borne any fruit – whether it will or not in the future depends on how quickly Scots tire of constitutional politics, if we do at all.
We await our next trip to the ballot box in June. Bring it on.