Something interesting is happening in Scottish politics. The forthcoming elections were meant to see the return of Scottish Labour and normal service resumed. Instead, the SNP is pulling ahead, Labour is slipping back, confused and fighting an inept campaign, while in a sign of the times Murdoch’s ‘Scottish Sun’ has – unlike last time – just come out for the SNP, with a front page endorsement of Alex Salmond, “Play It Again, Salm” (The Scottish Sun, April 19th 2011).
This later story has got the Scottish political classes imagining what logic brought ‘The Sun’ to embrace the Scottish Nationalists, whether there is any kind of deal between Salmond and News International, or whether it is motivated in “a Tory, post-Tony Blair era” by wanting to undermine Labour.
Yet, the general blether about the Scottish elections is that it is a bit dispiriting, lacking in choice, and emblematic of much that is wrong with Scotland: a kind of Thatcher meets Blair meets Matthew Taylor view of the world.
There is truth in this account, but it is also caricature and cliché, and ignores the ways in which this is a fascinating, as well as frustrating election, whose outcome matters deeply in Scotland and across the UK.
There are several dimensions in which this election is being contested. First, there is the issue of who governs Scotland and who is seen as the most competent; second, the question of who is best placed to stand up and fight Scotland’s corner against the Tories; third, there is a general refusal of all Scotland’s parties to honestly address the age of austerity and coming public spending cuts, and finally, there is the epic next instalment of the Labour v SNP struggle.
The first contest has been the terrain of the SNP campaign, of telling a positive account of the last four years and emphasising its belief in the potential of Scotland. The second has been the ground of the Labour campaign – whose 96 page manifesto does not once mention the SNP – and even opens with the words, “Now that the Tories are back ….”
Barely three months ago the Scottish elections were a foregone conclusion. A January 2011 poll gave Labour 49% of the constituency vote and 47% of the list vote, and respectively 16% and 14% leads over the SNP. This was one of a host of polls predicting double digit or near double digit Labour leads. The Labour extended state in Scotland could not contain their anticipation at the prospect of the return of the patronage preferment world of shady deals, nepotism and clientism which has disfigured so much of public life.
These assumptions changed in February this year with one poll showing Labour and SNP neck and neck, and since the momentum has run towards the SNP and away from Labour. Why has this happened, what does this mean for the likely results on May 5th, and what then flows from that?
The Current State of Scottish Politics
The latest Yougov poll puts the SNP on 40% of the constituency vote and 35% of the list vote to Labour’s 37% and 33% respectively; this would produce a Parliament with 55 SNP, 49 Labour, 14 Tory, 6 Lib Dems and 5 Greens. Why this has happened is revealing. YouGov surveyed voters on what impact the SNP had in office across a range of nine policy areas such as health, education, transport and the environment. The results were ambiguous to put it mildly with not one area showing a majority or significant plurality believing the SNP had made things better in four years of minority government.
However, when we look at leader ratings Alex Salmond is pulling ahead of Iain Gray in who people favour to be First Minister, leading by 42% to 14% with Tory Annabel Goldie on 9% and Lib Dem Tavish Scott on 3%. When asked to choose between Salmond and Gray the figures are even more emphatic: with Salmond leading 52% to 27%. When people are asked to choose between Labour and SNP as a Government, the SNP are ahead by 47% to 39%, which reveals how far Labour’s Iain Gray is a negative compared to Labour generally.
The Salmond v Gray contest tells us a lot about their respective parties. 60% of voters believe Salmond stands up for Scotland versus 15% for Gray; 40% think Salmond intelligent compared to 18% for Gray. Only on being conceited does Gray have a positive advance: Salmond leading him by 32% to 10%.
Labour detests everything about Alex Salmond: his politics, his character, his style, everything about him. In the worst sense ‘the personal has become political’ to them, distorting their judgement. As one Labour candidate put it in today’s ‘The Times Scotland Edition’ (‘Labour hopefuls are seeing red over failure to combat ‘Salmond factor’’):
“We have simply not got to grips with the Salmond factor in this election. Some people in our campaign believe that if they hate Alex Salmond, everyone else should hate him … too many people in the party are at the stage of 2007. They have never got over losing to the SNP four years ago.”
The contours of this election are clear-cut. Labour thought it had this election in the bag, buoyed by its powerful Westminster showing last year. Ever since Labour lost office to the SNP in 2007, and more so since Iain Gray took over from Wendy Alexander, Labour took the easy route back to power: bashing Tories, engaging in a populist knee-jerkism against the SNP, and engaging in no real soul searching, party reform or honest reflections on the inadequacies of Labour Scotland.
The SNP campaign as in 2007 has been professional, focused and sure-footed so far. Many of their policies are as superficial and populist as Labour’s, but the SNP’s are framed in an upbeat optimistic story about Scotland’s future. In this the Nationalists seem to have refound their raison d’être: their positive mindset which was such a powerful and defining factor in the 2007 election, and which Salmond seemed to misplace post-bankers crash. If they can continue to articulate this approach in the campaign and beyond, the SNP will be in an increasingly strong position.
Labour on the other hand have not had their problems to seek. One Labour insider said, “We don’t need a miracle – a message would do.” Another commented that, “we need to give our voters a reason to come out with either a strong policy initiative or a positive leadership message. At the moment both are lacking” (‘We must be more positive, Labour insiders warn as poll ratings collapse’, The Times Scotland Edition, April 18th 2011).
The Shape of Things To Come and Scotland after Polling Day
Where this takes us is a Scottish Parliament election in which the momentum is with the SNP, while Scottish Labour have been disorientated after taking for granted that they were going to win. The way things look, with just over two weeks to polling day, it is more than likely that the SNP will finish ahead of Labour in votes and seats – and deservedly so. Something unexpected will have to come along to change this.
What lessons does this offer for Scottish politics and beyond? First, Scottish Labour shows the enduring nature of the politics of Labour entitlement: a rather unattractive, ungenerous, tribalism: you are either ‘one of us’ or ‘against us’. It is still playing the politics of ‘the base’, of an older, authoritarian politics which goes down well with parts of its working class politics, but which isn’t about the future or all Scotland. There is a law of diminishing returns in all of this.
Second, there are huge implications in this for British Labour who saw the Scottish road back as offering hope. Jackie Ashley was only testing out this thesis in ‘The Guardian’ on Monday: that a Lab-Lib Dem coalition north of the border was suddenly a reformist dream, destabilising the coalition, and offering a glimpse of a different Labour and centre-left politics. Alex Massie sees things in a similar Westminster light when he imagines that “an SNP win at Holyrood is good for the Tories”. All of this tells us more about the narrow political bandwidth of the Westminster village. And the world through Labour v Tory considerations despite everything.
Third, is the nature of the SNP, a party continually misunderstood and misinterpreted by Westminster commentators. The SNP has driven a large part of Scottish politics for the last two generations; it has adapted to devolution and become a populist centre-left party which has, in Salmond and a whole generation of capable politicians – Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell – developed an effective statecraft. Scotland may not have been transformed by the SNP being in office, but the Nationalists themselves have been transformed into a serious, credible party of government. That’s quite a change that Labour hasn’t yet recognised.
Finally, what does all this say about the future of Scottish politics? The stalemate of the last few years, the long siege warfare between Labour and SNP tribes, and with it the narrow bandwidth of what is permissible and possible in public Scotland is about to be challenged. The incremental caution, conservatism and stasis of much of Scottish institutional life is slowly coming to an end; given that Scotland is not away to embrace a marketised, privatised society the question is still open what will come next. The Scottish Parliament is where a large part of this will be played out, whereas the Westminster orientated commentary draws succour from the fact that what really matters is the UK elections and that those are the big boys’ league that Scottish Labour will continue to win. This ignores that the contest for Scotland’s future will be decided in Scottish elections, and not at Westminster.
Who can give voice to a new agenda for Scotland? Will we see a different kind of politics and society emerging after Scottish Labour’s old and now discredited ‘managed’ order, which isn’t the Cameron-Clegg vision unfolding south of the border? Can Alex Salmond and the SNP after four years of minority government that has given them experience but not yet the necessary vision, now reshape Scottish politics for a generation or more? Or will it take a green Scottish Labour leader, clearly not Iain Gray, to have the courage and ability to remake the political weather?