From the shared futures of the UK & Scottish Labour to the RISE flop, 12 lessons from Scotland's plodding election

Labour should have stuck to plan A, but probably would have collapsed anyway. RISE sank. The SNP were dull but solid. The Greens managed to hold it together. And Scotland is still on the road to independence.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
14 May 2016
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Scottish party leaders, image, Adam Ramsay, CC2.0

I spent the Scottish election campaigning for the Greens, mostly talking to voters in Edinburgh and Dundee. With just over a week to digest the results, here are my thoughts.

1) Support for independence is a product of the collapse of Labour more than the collapse of Labour is the product of support for independence.

People often seem to forget that Scottish Labour lost the 2007 election, and lost the 2011 election badly before the independence referendum took place. In both of these elections, it was the Labour party, not the SNP, who talked about independence. Labour’s message was “don’t vote SNP, it means costly divorce”. The SNP talked about the centre-left programme from which they proposed to run Holyrood.

The rise in support for independence didn’t come until the final months of the referendum, and the swing seems fairly clearly to have come from people on the left being convinced that their progressive hopes could better be achieved through Holyrood than through Westminster. These are people who, in the past, had voted SNP or Green despite their support for independence, rather than because of it, and people who had voted Labour or Lib Dem, but lost faith in their parties.

The Labour party was, in other words, the glue holding the Union together. As it has come unstuck, so too has the union. This process is absolutely mutually reinforcing: as the Scottish left shifted in favour of independence, Labour’s brattish attempts to win it back reinforced how right the rejection was. But those who argue that Labour lost because of a rise in support for independence are largely getting egg and chicken the wrong way around.

I wouldn’t be surprised, therefore, if, long term, the further collapse of Labour in this election leads to a further increase in support for independence.

2) The SNP have confirmed themselves as the hegemonic party in Scotland, but won’t have an easy term

This is totally obvious, but it’s important. Labour only won two Holyrood elections: 1999 and 2003. The SNP have now won their third, with a thumping victory which was never in question. They’ve made the transition from insurgent to dominant force. But there is hegemony and hegemony. They are now the default ruling party. The choice ahead is whether they deepen democracy, or stagnate. Which path they choose, we shall see.

Most tricky of all, they face deep cuts to Holyrood’s budget and have tied their hands by promising not to use the new powers they have over income tax to raise more revenue. This means they are going to have to spend five years explaining why they are cutting public spending rather than taxing the rich more. That will get harder and harder, and provides big opportunities for those to their left.

3) But the campaign was as boring as hell.

The election was dull partially because it was always clear who was going to win. Debate about who gets to go first at First Ministers’ Questions is never as exciting as who gets to run the country’s schools and hospitals. But it was also dull because the parties collectively failed to inspire. And the SNP, as the dominant party, were particularly responsible.

Where the Scottish National Party message in 2015 was ‘fight austerity’, its message in 2016 was ‘Nicola Sturgeon’. Where their propaganda in 2011 was about hope and change, their line this year seemed to be ‘what the hell else are you going to do?’. Where in 2007, they promised to abolish tuition fees and end PFI, their ideas this year were largely less ambitious.

This was clearly the right strategy in that it succeeded. And, for most voters, they were the only viable government. But in the last few weeks, I met lots of people who wanted to see the party returned, but wanted to give it ‘a kick up the bum’, as one Dundonian put it to me. The SNP is back in government, but a couple of seats short of a majority. Perhaps that’s exactly what voters have done.

4) Labour should probably have stuck to plan A

When Kez Dugdale first was first elected leader, she announced that Scottish Labour MSPs would be allowed to campaign for independence. The party would continue to support the Union, but it would refuse to be defined by this. In an interview in the Fabian review, which I understand took place a few months before it was published, she repeated this sentiment, implying that, if Scotland were dragged out of the EU, she would be tempted to vote to leave the UK. Or, at least, that she would consider it.

During the referendum, a standard criticism of Labour was that it attacked the SNP for being nationalist, whilst exhibiting all of the traits of a UK nationalist party. For anyone who isn’t a Scottish or British nationalist, constitutional questions require complex answers about the appropriate locus of power. Johann Lamont and Jim Murphy’s Labour looked like a party which was British because it was British, and of the British establishment to boot. It never really convinced many that it believed in its often spurious arguments that working class solidarity is mediated by Westminster and the path to social justice runs up Whitehall.

By showing an open mindedness in her interview, Kez allowed us to glimpse a side of her and her party which genuinely isn’t nationalist – which is willing to think about constitutional questions in a practical rather than partisan way.

It feels to me; and I can’t prove this, that if her party had stuck to this line, and articulated it better, then it wouldn’t have faced wipe-out in the election. Specifically, on election night, their various commentators gave a fairly simple diagnosis of the campaign: they had tried to move the debate on. Voters weren’t ready.

Usually, in campaign messaging, I’m an advocate of ‘show, don’t tell’. But I think to succeed in their attempt to move the debate on, they would have needed to have told us that that was what they were doing. With a slogan like “Let’s move forward together”, I suspect they would have done a little better, attracting ‘yes’ and ‘no’ voters alike. But instead, they chickened out of this strategy the first time the Tories attacked them for being ‘soft on independence’, and ran back into their unionist bunker. Competing with Tories on their own turf was always going to be a disaster.

5) But it probably would have been a torrid night for Scottish Labour anyway

During the independence referendum, I was repeatedly asked if I really believed that the Scottish electorate was really more left wing than the English electorate. My usual answer was ‘no. On most issues, the English electorate is just as left wing as the Scots’.

To understand the difference between Scottish politics and English politics, it’s important to remember that huge numbers of voters choose the party they do for reasons which have little to do with policy. In England, lots of people who believe in taxing the rich much more, capping rent and renationalising a huge swathe of the economy vote Tory. And in Scotland, lots of people who are clearly on the centre right historically voted Labour.

This has particularly been the case since 2011, when the party lost a chunk of its working class base, but saw some of the drama of this collapse masked by their ability to attract urban, middle class Lib Dems. But just as that swathe of the English urban bourgeoisie switched to the Tories in 2015, in part because of Tory fearmongering around the SNP, so their equivalents in Edinburgh switched to “Ruth Davidson’s MSPs” in 2016.

Labour was relying on a precarious coalition of working class and middle class Scots, split between passionate Yes voters, those who had felt bullied into voting No, and angry Unionist No voters. In 2011, their support was temporarily and artificially inflated as Lib Dems switched to them. In 2016, many of these better off unionists went Tory, put off a Labour party doing its best to soften the working class and independence-tempted voters it alienated during the referendum.

A lot of this is driven by internal organisational dynamics too. With the loss of 40 MPs last year, they lost a huge resource of researchers, collective expertise, and Short money. Their campaign this year bore the hallmarks of a once large organisation coping on a radically reduced budget, best summed up by this tweet, from the co-convener of the Green election committee.

Oops. My letter from Labour telling me to vote for Kez Dugdale arrived this morning. A week late.

— Peter McColl (@PeterMcColl) May 12, 2016

6) And it isn’t all bad news for Labour

Part of Scottish Labour’s problem has long been that no one thinks they believe anything they say. Taking hits for proposing something which is widely seen as more principled than populist – like a 1p rise on the basic rate of tax – is a good way to change this in the long term. Whilst they failed to make clear what they would spend it on, in part because of their late manifesto launch, the proposal itself makes them look like they believe in something for the first time in years. I hear that their internal polling shows around a quarter of SNP supporters would now consider voting for them once more; much more than six months ago. It may be that there just isn’t space for a large left wing unionist party in Scotland, as Scotland’s left settles in support of independence. But they are doing roughly what you would need to do to rebuild one, and Dugdale is an effective advocate for this strategy.

7) None of this has anything to do with Jeremy Corbyn

I didn’t speak to a single voter who mentioned Jeremy Corbyn positively or negatively. He seemed about as relevant as Michael D Higgins or Bernie Sanders.

8) The Tories only got 23%

The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, who promoted themselves in the election only as “Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition”, and “Ruth Davidson’s MSPs” and “Ruth Davidson”, did do well to corral nearly a quarter of the Scottish electorate behind them. And the fact that they came in ahead of Labour is extraordinary. But they still only got 23%. Reading the papers in the last few days, as Mike Small has said, it’s easy to forget that.

9) It’s important to see both halves of the Tory strategy

The Tories are trying to turn themselves back into the old Unionist Party: a centrist national party for “definitely No” voters. During the TV debates, they repeatedly talked up how much they agreed with the SNP on questions like tax, much to their opponents’ discomfort. They managed this strategy when placed under minimal media scrutiny. I suspect that, as the opposition, and with a clatter of new MSPs with little experience, this image may soon evaporate.

10) In general, Greens ran a solid campaign, and reaped the rewards

The Greens made the sorts of mistakes you’d expect of a group of people, 8/9 of whom are new to the organisation. I have my gripes, and most activists I have spoken to do too: gripes which, if ironed out, would have probably meant two more MSPs. And, not just any two, but co-convener Maggie Chapman and the excellent Sarah Beattie Smith: two would-have-been stars of this parliament for the activist left. But given this is a party almost all of whom have never been through a serious election before; the fact that the Greens managed to turn their (our, I’m a member) membership surge into votes is a positive step for the party.

Specifically, the party benefited from two things. Ahead of the referendum, many senior party figures thought it was likely that the Greens would be destroyed by the campaign for independence: the belief was that, whilst the party had supported independence since its foundation in 1990, most of its voters disagreed. The Scottish Greens decided to campaign for a Yes vote well aware that the choice could cost it dearly.

In fact, the opposite happened: the campaign convinced much of the Scottish left to support a Yes vote, including most traditional Green voters; and the party reaped the rewards of its bravery.

Secondly, the referendum gave the Greens an opportunity to talk about the sort of society that the party wanted to see, rather than being pigeon-holed as a narrow environmentalist group. The party, in which the left was already ascendant, grabbed the chance with two hands.

11) RISE was never going to happen

The most important thing to understand about the radical left grouping RISE is that they had a talented team who ran a better air campaign than you could have expected a group of people their size to have run. I repeatedly saw SNP supporters complain about how much coverage they were getting. That was because the party gave journalists interesting things to write about. While they clearly didn’t have the meat on the street to managing serious leafletting or canvassing efforts in most of the country, and seemed sometimes not to realise how much elections are won on the blistered feet of a thousand door-knockers, those people they did have brought energy and ideas to the election. In particular, their candidates were impressive and impressively diverse, and included a wider range of young BME people than I think any other Scottish slate has presented.

This means that the best explanation for their brutal result (0.5%) is not their tactical failures, but their strategy. In other words, there isn’t the space in modern Scottish electoral politics for another left party. It has been filled by the Greens. Where Tommy Sheridan and Robin Harper clearly came from different political traditions in 1999, the same probably can’t be said of RISE’s Cat Boyd and Green Zara Kitson; RISE’s Sarah Collins and Green Sarah Beattie Smith; RISE’s Connor Beaton and Green Maggie Chapman. And while land reformer and new Green MSP Andy Wightman and Scottish Socialist Party co-convener Colin Fox do perhaps come from slightly different historical traditions, is there anyone who voted for the latter who isn’t pleased to see the former elected?

Likewise, while RISE can point, quite rightly, to the Greens class problem, the breakdown of their vote across Glasgow shows they did best in the most middle class areas. The day after the referendum, I tweeted that any new left formation in Scotland would soon find that the early adopters of any new party tend to be the middle class. This general rule seems to have held.

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RISE list vote by Glasgow constituency

What that means for the future of the party is hard to tell. I suspect that many in the Scottish Socialist Party, which formed a large part of the coalition, will be tempted to walk away. It’s not clear to me where to. And this leaves the rest – essentially, the core organisers of the Radical Independence Campaign – with some tricky decisions to make. It’s easy for Greens to point out that that their activism could have been enough of a contribution to send another Green MSP or two – specifically, probably, Maggie Chapman and Sarah Beattie Smith – to the parliament. But there are reasons they chose not to join the Greens in the first place.

12) Scotland is still on the road to independence

Possibly the most significant line of the whole election went entirely unremarked upon. During a TV debate on tax, Labour’s finance spokesman and former leader Iain Gray said, of Scotland’s policies protecting against tax avoidance, “they are stronger than in the UK”.

No one at the time commented, but this tells us two things. Firstly, the simplest and most powerful argument for independence is the case that Holyrood is better than Westminster. Part of Scottish Labour’s problem is that they have to at once accept the obvious truth of this, whilst at the same time making the case that, despite this, Westminster should be allowed to retain serious power over our lives.

Secondly, the words “than in the UK”, rather than “than in the rest of the UK” whilst I’m sure accidental, were a Freudian slip. Increasingly, Scotland feels like a different country. It just went through a fairly dull, managerial election in which the country discussed, fairly calmly, how much tax it should pay. Voters were presented with a range of options, and made their choice. The locus of politics in Scotland is increasingly in Edinburgh, rather than London. Holyrood is “the wee pretend parliament” no more.

Just as Corbyn wasn’t really relevant, The Tories too managed to detach themselves from the UK Conservatives, perhaps more than ever before. This was necessary for them. But it similarly shows the extent to which Scotland is a different country: even arch Unionists, whilst shouting about their loathing of independence, had to assert their independence.

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