What the Scottish parliamentary election told us - and what it didn't

(Photo: BBC) 

Another Scottish parliamentary election is out of the way and probably the most surprising thing about it is that there were no real surprises. Everything changes and yet, at least as far as the outcome was concerned, very little did.

For the Scottish Liberal Democrats, there is no denying that this is a disappointing result, and the loss of a single seat has far-reaching consequences in that we will no longer be recognised as a “party” in the Scottish parliament. A party represented by fewer than five members has no automatic right for the leader to ask a question at FMQs and, perhaps more importantly, there are implications for funding parliamentary staff.

It’s important to acknowledge how bad this result is for the party. Nothing will be gained by either denying it or glossing over it. However, I’m not going to engage in a detailed examination of where the campaign went wrong for several reasons. The first of these is that I haven’t directly been involved in it. The second is that I don’t feel the day after results have been announced is the right time for such an examination.

What I would say is that I feel for the candidates, activists and supporters who have put so much into this campaign for very little reward. I am proud of them and their efforts, even if I am bitterly frustrated by the result.

I think it is important that any period of introspection involves more than the formal review of the campaign we’ve seen after the last two elections. Assuming they were intended to ensure an improvement in subsequent elections, it’s quite obvious that previous reviews failed to have the desired impact. If we’re honest, the outcome is not simply the product of poor campaigning (although that may well have played a part) but more fundamental problems that go back many years. I actually thought that the campaign this time was far more positive than five years ago, and I suspect the fact this didn’t translate into a better performance at the ballot box is due in no small part to these historical factors. I could elaborate, but won’t: I’ve written enough over the last decade that highlights what I believed were misplaced strategies or poor decisions,

I’m not offering a detailed analysis of where the Lib Dems went wrong - at least, not yet. But I would like to reflect on what this election has told us, and what it hasn’t. What does it mean for Scotland, the UK, and even our political parties?


a) The Liberal Democrats have become the party of a handful of constituencies.

I cannot be sure why this is the case; whether the party doesn’t know how to use the d’Hondt system to its advantage, whether we assumed that there would naturally be an increase in the regional vote or whether we’ve accepted that the regional list is not fertile territory for us.  What has become clear is that our appeal to the nation is limited. Outside of the four constituencies we won, plus Caithness, Sutherland and Ross where Molly Nolan’s impressive campaign reduced the SNP’s majority to 2,591 votes, it was a familiar picture of lost deposits and further decreases in vote share.

The messaging at this election was much better and Willie Rennie came across well in the televised debates (especially the last one). Public perception of the party has changed, at least in the sense that the outright hostility that was so palpable in 2011 has subsided. However, positive messaging and personal affability matter for little if most voters have long ago ceased listening to us. Great ideas about mental health, education and federalism naturally go down well with party members, but they haven’t helped improve the problem we’ve had for the last ten years – that of being a party fighting for relevance. If the Scottish Liberal Democrats were to cease to exist today, would anyone other than party members care?

Our campaign was successful in one key respect – building up thumping majorities for Willie Rennie and Alex Cole-Hamilton, largely on the back of encouraging tactical voting from supporters of other anti-independence matters. Rennie emerged from his fight in North East Fife with a majority of 7,450, while Cole-Hamilton recorded a majority of almost 10,000. Amazingly, Cole-Hamilton’s vote of 25,578 in Edinburgh Western represents the most votes ever cast for a constituency MSP in the history of the Scottish Parliament. That’s impressive, but perhaps the incredible effort expended in setting new records like this may have been better used to appeal to the wider country. Inspiring 8% of the voters to support us across the regions would have won us more seats than persuading 55% of voters in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western to give us their votes. The near 30,000 votes the Lib Dems polled in the Lothians list would have secured Cole-Hamilton a seat anyway, so was the intense campaign in Edinburgh Western really necessary? 

For whatever reason we’ve become a party focused on the constituency vote. This wouldn’t be so concerning if we had realistic chances of election in more than five constituencies. Unless we learn how to win regional seats we’re never going to be able to gain the kind of representation we once took for granted. For two successive elections now we have finished behind the Scottish Greens, a party famous for concentrating solely on winning regional seats. In the last three Holyrood elections we have secured fewer seats than the Scottish Socialist Party won in 2003. That should give us some food for thought.

We are not a national party as we have no real appeal to the nation. Arguably this has always been true; our success was always largely confined to specific constituencies but the pool of winnable seats has significantly diminished. When we cannot keep a deposit in 75% of the seats in which we stand and cannot find a way to win a single regional seat we’re in real trouble. Holding four fortresses (three of them convincingly) is all good and well, but how do we advance from those strongholds?

The election raises real question that the party needs to answer, especially in regards the reliance on tactical voting. Do we know how to campaign in any other way? The real question for me is whether a greater public awareness of knowing what the Liberal Democrats are actually for would result in greater electoral success. It's a question to which I don't have the answer, but it’s probably our best hope for the future.

b) Labour’s woes continue – at least for now

My initial impressions of Anas Sarwar are broadly positive. His attitude and approach seem refreshingly different to those of his immediate predecessors. He comes across well and I very much doubt that any blame should be attributed to him for Labour’s further decline – a loss of two seats – when he has only recently taken office.

What the election has made clear is the scale of Labour’s problem. It has never recovered from the catastrophe of 2011 (when it won 37 seats, widely seen at the time as the point at which things could only get better) and has lost seats at every subsequent election. The indications from recent elections in England – the 2019 General election, the Hartlepool by-election and this week’s local government elections – confirm Labour’s long-term problems. It’s in the midst of an existential crisis, just at the time when both Scotland and the UK need a strong opposition.

At UK level, Labour’s underlying difficulties, evident to any objective observer for a decade or more, show no sign of being either resolved or understood by the party leadership. What about in Scotland? Will Anas Sarwar be different? Will he be brave enough to speak out with boldness on constitutional issues – for example, in the way Mark Drakeford has done – and say that the UK is unfit for purpose? Will he be able to forge a new, progressive identity for Scottish Labour? Will he be successful in giving the electorate a reason to vote for his party?

I don’t know. What I do know is that the scale of Labour’s difficulties cannot be argued away (as some Labour activists are attempting to do) as the product of the “vaccine bounce”. Labour’s problems are potentially terminal and it will take a visionary leader to turn their fortunes around. Whether Anas Sarwar is that leader is too early to say.

As I’ve said, the country requires a strong opposition – and that isn’t Douglas Ross’s Conservatives. If there were only two political parties - the SNP and the Conservatives - and it was decided to create something new to fight them, I can guarantee that whatever emerged would look nothing like either the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats. There lies the problem: to use a Biblical analogy, new wine cannot be contained within old wineskins.

c) The SNP remain very much the dominant party

It would be churlish not to acknowledge the SNP’s stunning achievement. To secure 64 seats – just one short of an overall majority – under a system that makes majorities near-impossible is remarkable enough. To do so after having been in government for 14 years is truly astonishing.

The SNP are the dominant political force in Scotland and there are no indications that this is set to change any time soon. Nothing seems to damage them, whether it’s the fallout from the Sturgeon-Salmond saga, the Margaret Ferrier case, failures on education or the ongoing ferry fiasco. There are a myriad of reasons for this, but the most obvious one (something reinforced during the election) is that the SNP are the only credible party of government. The SNP have also been very fortunate in their opponents.

Nothing highlights this more than the way most constituencies were abandoned to the SNP. In the vast majority of Scotland’s constituencies the opposition put up no serious fight. Where they did, we saw a binary contest between the SNP and the party perceived as best placed to beat them. This may make some sense for parties such as the Conservatives, confident in their ability to secure seats via the regional list, but for Labour and (especially) the Liberal Democrats it looks like an admission of defeat.

The SNP continue not only in government but also to set the political agenda. For many, the SNP seems unstoppable and that’s largely because there is nothing that seems capable of stopping them.

d) The regional vote is less easy to manipulate than some were suggesting

The abandonment of constituencies to the SNP by the opposition parties was consistent with predictions that few constituencies would change hands and the real battles would be fought in the regional lists. We saw, in the creation of new parties such as All for Unity and Alba, cynical but entirely legitimate and predictable attempts to play the system. What was interesting for me was that the media largely went along with these parties' narratives, giving credence to their claims and reinforcing the suggestion that regional seats can be won easily with limited support.

Many were outraged at Alba’s “gamesmanship” and blatant attempt to “distort democracy”. I wasn’t so convinced and it turns out I had good reason. The fact is that the regional vote is not as easy to manipulate as some would have us believe. Electorates exercise their regional votes intelligently. These votes have to be fought for, with voters generally looking for something other than self-described “big hitters” such as Alex Salmond and George Galloway begging for their second votes.

 e) High turnout doesn’t necessarily lead to significant change.

The turnout was very good, particularly impressive in the context of the pandemic. Usually the assumption is that higher turnout will have a meaningful effect on the outcome in one way or another, but that was simply not the case in this election.


a) The failure to secure an overall majority is a disaster for the SNP

To listen to some prominent figures within the opposition parties, you would think falling one seat short of an overall majority was a disaster for the party of government. It is nothing of the sort, and only highlights the degree to which “stopping the SNP” was all-important to parties that have little else to offer Scotland.

This is the second best performance (in terms of seats) by any party since the formation of the Scottish parliament. It was also the best performance, in terms of constituency vote share (47.7%) by any party ever. To suggest this is anything other than a major win for the SNP is ludicrous.

b) The SNP has a mandate for a referendum

No, it does not. The conversation surrounding this, including from supposed experts within the media, has been frustratingly ignorant of a simple reality.

The SNP now has a mandate to form the next government.

Parliament has a mandate, with 72 pro-independence members, to seek to hold a referendum should it decide to do so.

Opposition parties should feel free to vote against it if they like. They may even feel they have an obligation to, based on their manifesto commitments. I understand that. What I will not understand is how anyone can claim to be a democrat and deny the Scottish parliament the ability to ask the question.

Personally, I wouldn’t want an independence referendum at the moment. I tend to agree with those (including within the SNP) who feel that there are more immediate priorities for the Scottish government to address. However, it is not for Westminster to bind Holyrood’s hands and tell us that we can’t have a referendum.

c) Indyref 2 is dead

This is something Jackson Carlaw claimed on twitter last night. The official Scottish Conservatives twitter account has been suggesting much the same thing. The logic, of course, is that the SNP requires an overall majority in order to put its manifesto promises into practice.

This argument is devoid of any intellectual merit, and would appear to suggest that minority and coalition governments have no mandate for anything. It’s desperate stuff from Carlaw et al and should be ignored.

Make no mistake – Indyref 2 is very much alive.

d) The SNP’s success is only due to the First Minister’s profile during the Covid-19 crisis

This claim was made by several people – including former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and many within the Labour Party. It has some basis in reality, unlike Jackson Carlaw’s absurd claim above, but under examination it doesn’t really hold water.

It is undeniably true that the pandemic has given the First Minister (and Messrs Johnson and Drakeford in England and Wales respectively) increased visibility and a platform to speak for the country. This has unquestionable advantages, although it also brings leaders under greater scrutiny. I would agree that the First Minister has taken the opportunity to emphasise her leadership of the nation.

However, to suggest that incumbency during the pandemic is either the principal or sole factor behind the success of the SNP in Scotland and that of the Tories in England is to deny reality. I understand why people may want to feel this way, especially when it comes from Labourites in denial about their party’s longer term decline (the results in England and Scotland told us little new and merely confirmed an ongoing trend) – but it’s fundamentally untrue. The argument supposes that, were it not for the pandemic, Labour would have been a potent force in these elections and the SNP would have seen a downturn in their fortunes. I simply can’t accept that. What we’ve seen this week has been a re-affirmation of what we learned from the 2019 General Election.

Unfortunately, the belief expressed by Mr Farron and others is as fundamentally dangerous as it is doshonest. It assumes that these results are an abberation and that, if we carry on as we are, "normality" will resume at the next set of elections when we'll naturally see improvements. I can see nothing more certain to guarantee further irrelevance than continuing to do what we have for the last decade. 

Labour’s inability to cast itself as a credible opposition in Scotland, or to give voters anywhere much of a reason to vote for them, has little to do with pandemic incumbency. Similarly, the SNP’s position as the dominant party in Scotland has been unchanged for ten years and I cannot see that this would be different without the health crisis.

The SNP’s success is due to the inescapable reality that it knows how to win elections, aided to some extent by the disarray of their opponents. 

e) Independence is now the settled will of the Scottish people.

This is equally as ridiculous as Jackson Carlaw's assertion that the cause of independence is dead. This election settles very little, although it may eventually prove to mark another step on the long route to independence. Nothing is assured other than that this issue will continue to loom heavily over this parliament as it did the last. How this will all pan out is far from certain and, however good an election result this is for the SNP and the Greens, opinion polling on independence leaves little room for complacency. With the inevitable constitutional wrangling to consider, it should be clear to everyone that there's a long way to go yet.


Jenny Blain said…
Spot on, Andrew - on all points. Thank you for this analysis.