Seeing as the latest YouGov poll didn’t address the question of the May local elections. one might imagine the answer to that question to be ‘very little’, but I was intrigued when James addressed the question yesterday – to the extent that I got my statistical hat on.
I’ve had a go at making projections for the May Council elections based on results in Council By-Elections over 2011, and came up with a few conclusions:
- The SNP are looking at a potential 100 extra Councillors;
- Labour and the Tories will hold onto what they have;
- LibDem representation in local government representation could be halved;
- The Greens and Others face a difficult election, with the Greens possibly losing their seats in Edinburgh;
- Independents will still control the three Island Councils;
- The SNP could end up controlling four Councils – Aberdeenshire, Angus, Dundee City and South Lanarkshire;
- Labour’s control of Glasgow and North Lanarkshire may well be even harder to end than many think.
Then came the reflections James made on the YouGov poll published this week. And it’s hard to disagree with the unease that James sets out: the SNP Constituency lead down to four points, with a six-point lead (and sub-40% share) on the Regional vote. And a twelve-point Labour lead for Westminster.
James raises the point :
Does Holyrood or Westminster voting intention offer the strongest clue to the likely outcome of the local elections? Given the results in recent years, it might seem obvious that the answer is Holyrood, but of course the last three sets of local elections have all taken place on the same day as Scottish Parliament elections.
All true, of course. This is the first set of stand-alone local elections since 1995, and there are all sorts of variables in play.
However, it might yet be possible to at least make an educated guess if we compare this poll not to the 2011 results (a comparison which causes an element of disquiet) but to the 2007 results, which co-incided with the last set of local elections. Then, we see a swing towards both the SNP and Labour, but the SNP’s gain is around double that enjoyed by Labour. Let’s run the simulation again:
- The SNP could gain more than 130 Councillors,putting it within touching distance of the 500 mark;
- Labour will be looking to gain at least forty Councillors;
- Instead of breaking even, the Tories could lose 35 seats;
- The LibDem decline could be even worse with at least 100 seats at risk;
- There’ll still be fewer independents, and the Greens could still end up with fewer Councillors than they had, but the losses won’t be as bad and Greens will remain in City Chambers in both Glasgow and Edinburgh;
- The Independents will still run the Islands;
- The SNP should have five Councils in their sights: Aberdeenshire, Angus, Dundee City, Moray and Renfrewshire;
- Glasgow and North Lanakrshire could remain solid for Labour (though the intervention of Glasgow First and the Herald’s report today that Labour are worried about their chances in North Lanarkshire call this into question) and could actually be joined by South Lanarkshire.
Of course, there are variables that no model can predict: the entrance of the SNP to the elections in the two Northern Isles Councils, and also defections. The defections of Martin Ford and Debra Storr to the Greens in Aberdeenshire spring readily to mind (Martin Ford could well cost the LibDems a further seat; Debra Storr was what we might call the ‘second-preference’ LibDem in her ward so will need to have spent the years since her departure from the Liberal Democrats building the much-needed personal vote).
But more than that, there’s the intervention of Glasgow First. On paper, Glasgow Labour’s travails look like the party is eager to hand control of the City Chambers to the SNP, but the splinter group of rebel councillors makes mathematicalprojections far more difficult than it otherwise would be: ordinarily, despite the wins in Glasgow last year,the SNP got its Council seats by just making the quota or by gaining transfers and exceptions where few and far between (though Baillieston is the most obvious example). So it would stake staggering swings against Labour for them to make the gains needed to actually win the Chambers (though it’s certainly possible for the SNP to hoover up votes and seats from disaffected LibDem voters and that looks like what will happen in May).
But with Glasgow First entering the fray, there are four possible outcomes for the SNP:
The best-case scenario: the in-fighting in Glasgow Labour turns voters in their droves to the SNP, who get the big swings needed, and can nip in for extra seats on the transfers after Glasgow First fail to get anywhere themselves but do stop Labour reaching the quotas needed – the result being outright SNP control;
The next-best scenario: the SNP make around ten gains on 2007 and the Glasgow First group make enough gains to prise Chambers out of Labour hands and see a SNP/Glasgow First administration take control, perhaps needing the support of the Greens.
The not-great scenario: following the old adage of Glasgow voters having been willing to vote for a monkey in a red rosette, it transpires that they were at least more interested in the rosette than the monkey and the rebel Councillors have only ever won seats because of their party affiliation rather than their personal qualities, so Glasgow First do nothing – Labour hold on but now have the SNP breathing down their neck;
The worst-case scenario: far from attracting dissatisfied Labour voters, Glasgow First turn into the SSP of the 2012 campaign and pull in voters who were going to vote against Labour anyway, but would have otherwise opted for the SNP – Labour loses a couple of seats tops and it’s the SNP who end up having to deal with the GF advance.
In truth, I don’t think either of the extreme scenarios are likely and I’ve noticed that when parties dosplit like this, it’s the rebels who tend to do well at first: Dennis Canavan and Margo MacDonald spring readily to mind, as does the group of former Labour Councillors in West Dunbartonshire who sought re-election as Independents following a split in the Labour Group just before the polls in May 2007 and then opted to support the SNP in administration. So the ‘next-best’ scenario looks like the most plausible, with ‘not-great’ emerging as a big possibility. In any case, the Leadership would be wise to keep expectations in check. Instead, all we hear is Glasgow, Glasgow, Glasgow.
And what will that mean?
The SNP could well get its 130 extra Councillors.
And take control of the five Councils: Aberdeenshire, Angus, Dundee City, Moray and Renfrewshire.
Maybe it could snatch one or both of the Lanarkshires from under Labour’s nose.
It could win its largest-party target in Edinburgh and consolidate its new-found first-place in Aberdeen. It could go from third to first in the Borders, and in South Ayrshire.
It could win exactly half the seats in Clackmannanshire, East Ayrshire, Falkirk, West Dunbartonshire and
But if we don’t get Glasgow, all those good things will suddenly become a ‘disappointment’ in the papers the morning after the count.
Of course, it’s possible that Glasgow is indeed there for the taking: when Labour had a ten-point poll lead, canvassers were getting very different results and even they looked pessimistic compared with the actual result at the end – maybe the data in HQ points to the big swing needed, but Glasgow is just one Council out of 32, and while it might be the Big Story, it’s not the only story.
Focusing on Glasgow is a massive gamble. It might yet pay off, but when I place a bet, I try to think about the stake I’m wagering before I think about the winnings I’ll get. Obviously, this is a time for optimism and momentum, but I remember overhearing a delegate at the end of the 2007 Spring Conference in Glasgow, observing that “If we don’t win now, we’ll all be scunnered!”
Words as wise now as they were then.
* UPDATE: Turns out this isn’t correct: the Bathgate ward is getting an extra Councillor, andas this stage, it looks like Labour will be the chief beneficiary of that, so the SNP will have 16 seats out of 33, rather than 32 as now.
What a week! Of course the independence referendum has been on the horizon for some time, in the past seven days it suddenly became real, as the UK Government woke up to the reality of the SNP’s plan, and attempted to seize the initiative. Instead, it simply gave fresh impetus to the SNP, which recruited 800 members in five days, and saw support for independence climb to 40% in an ICM opinion poll against 43% support for the Union. A YouGov poll saw the debate even more polarised: 45% on either side in Scotland. The game is now very much afoot.
So how will the two cases fare? The way I see it, the arguments fit into three phases.
Phase One: Principles
Put simply, the question here is, do we want to consider the other questions? Is independence worth thinking about, let alone seeking? Both sides have their totem poles, with supporters anticipating a modern, forward-looking independent Scotland that can act solely in the interest of its people; Unionists believe that Scotland benefits from being part of a larger whole. Scotland free or a desert versus stronger together, weaker apart.
Both sides have to win the hearts and minds of the Scottish electorate, and it’s this phase of the argument which appeals to the heart. The problem is, the mind often gets abandoned and it gets mired in cliché and unfortunate language.
Take Joan McAlpine. There’s no doubt that the substance of her comments last week held water: despite continued and strong support for a referendum (even among people who would happily vote No), and despite figures – prominent figures – in the three Unionist parties arguing for a referendum, it’s taken years for the leaderships to get to where we are this week. First there was no call for a referendum – even when there clear was – then, it wasn’t the right time to discuss the issue – even though the same people arguing that would then list the reasons why their position on it was right in the next breath – then, when all else failed, they didn’t want anything to do with a referendum because it was Alex Salmond’s idea. Even now, the UK Government position started the week at formally transferring the power to hold a binding vote on independence to Scotland, but only if it held it in a manner approved by Westminster, which makes a mockery of devolution.
So there is, at best, a disconnect between the leaderships of the three Unionist parties and the Scottish electorate – even their own supporters. The middle ground is that there’s a mistrust on the part of those leaderships as regard whether or not the electorate will produce the ‘right’ answer. At worst, there’s an out and out contempt for the voters inherent in the assumption that they’d swallow such guff and tolerate the verbal (and in some cases, mental) gymnastics being performed by Unionist politicians.
But does that make them anti-Scottish? Even if it does, for Heaven’s sake, don’t say that! Instead of being forced to argue on the substantive points that Joan McAlpine was making, the Opposition managed to duck the issues altogether and merely protest in outrage at a perceived slight.
Of course, now that they have protested that slight, I’m sure that Unionists of all persuasions will back off from the spurious accusation of ‘anti-Englishness’ on the other side. Won’t they?
That’s the problem with this part of the argument: there is little substance and it’s all about sentiment – for good and ill!
Phase Two: Practicality
What makes the 2014 campaign different from the 1997 referendum campaign is that came with a White Paper which had been drawn up after years of deliberation on the part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention: we knew precisely what was being proposed and what mechanisms would be at work.
Now, the idea of independence is relatively straightforward – it’s tempting for supporters to ask in exasperation: “what part of ‘independence’ don’t you understand?”
But as we’ve already seen, there are questions about the potential outcome of the negotiations in the case of a ‘yes’ vote. The currency is the main question: Sterling? The Euro? The “Groat”?
Well, even this has subsidiary questions: would an independent Scotland be forced to adopt the Euro? Unionists argue that Scotland would effectively be negotiating for re-entry to the EU as a new member state, and would, accordingly, be required to adopt the acquis communautaire in full, with no opt out as the UK negotiated from the Single Currency at Maastricht. Nationalists counter by citing the precedent of Greenland, which on acquisition of new foreign policy powers, opted to quit the Common Market, but had to negotiate to withdraw, but wouldn’t have had to do so to remain. The truth is that we don’t know which is the case and won’t know until the outcome of the negotiations: as far as I’m aware, no EU Treaty has ever anticipated the secession of a constituent part of a member state, and the Greenland precedent doesn’t cover what happens if that constituent part then wants to remain within the wider European Union. It’s uncharted territory.
Equally, we don’t know the state of the Single Currency come 2014 when the decision will actually be taken. Euro-pessimists might openly question if there might even be a Euro by then for Scotland to be a part of; Euro-optimists might cite that the Euro’s infancy was troubled as its value on the international currency market plummeted, but it survived and regained a measure of credibility until the onset of the current crisis. They would argue that by 2014, membership of the Euro might not look so bad after all.
So the answer to the currency question hinges on a legal position we don’t yet know, and circumstances we can’t yet predict. Now, things will become clearer with time, but some things – like the final currency position, and doubtless defence and foreign policy infrastructure – wouldn’t be settled until after the vote, after negotiations had been concluded.
That gives an advantage to the Unionists, but it’s not a full one: they have to answer what the alternative is. The Scotland Bill? Devo-max? Just as we need to know what independence means in reality, we also need to know what Scotland’s place in the Union would look like after a vote. As the possibility of a second question on devo-max seems to be receding for the moment, and as the Scotland Bill has been well and truly overshadowed by events, it’s no longer obvious just what a No vote means. By contrast, the No campaign in 1997 had a clear (if unappealing) idea: Direct Rule, and the continuation of the Scottish Grand Committee. The status quo, in other words. Now, a No vote will just open up a new debate.
Phase Three: Policy
Again, the 2014 campaign contrasts with the 1997 campaign: did those who voted know that they were voting for a Parliament which would abolish Section 28 before Westminster? That they’d overturn tuition fees? That bridge tolls would be abolished? I’m not sure they did. I suspect that everyone understood that had a Parliament been in place ten years earlier, the Poll Tax would never have happened, but beyond that, what were the policy discussions?
This time, we have a better understanding of what politicians in an independent Scotland would do. We know that the preference is to remain in the EU; we know that the preference is to get rid of Trident. But just as the debate in 1997 was framed against the Tories’ policies between 1979 and 1997, so the 2014 debate will largely be framed against UK Government policy.
And given the unpopularity of the Coalition Government, it’s advantage independence. On most if not all reserved policy, the Tories and LibDems are relentlessly criticised, so if the campaign is framed as a Scottish Government versus UK Government contest, the Yes campaign can win: just look at last May’s elections. The Scottish Government’s party left Session 3 with 47 MSPs and entered Session 4 with 69. The UK Government’s member parties left Session 3 with 33 MSPs between them (counting Alex Fergusson as a Tory seeking re-election as a Tory) and entered session 4 with just 20. Meanwhile, Labour, as the Opposition in both Parliaments, is cut out of the debate unless the Labour Leader in one Chamber or the other (or possibly both) looks like a shoo-in for Government come the next election. That means that Labour has to find either a personality or a replacement for Ed Miliband at Westminster, and Johann Lamont has to get her policy slate together by 2014 – including her policy on the constitution! If the Scottish people think that a Tory Government is the likely outcome of the 2015 election, or if the politician in the key position to argue against independence – the Leader of the Scottish Opposition – has no clear vision of what Scotland still in the Union should look like, independence looks like the clearer, safer option. That the No campaign doesn’t even have a clear leader or structure yet makes finding that structure, that narrative of a post-referendum Scotland in the Union that much harder.
So given that first principle debates result in a no-score draw with each side only appealing to its own supporters, it all comes down to the terms of the substantive debate: do we focus on the practicalities of the negotiations – in which case there are enough variables to make people uncertain about independence – or do we focus in what policies Scotland would be a part of in either case – in which case independence becomes more tangible and attractive?
More than likely, each side will fight on its stronger foot: the pro camp going for what an independent Scotland would be able to do, and the anti camp highlighting all the pitfalls on the way.
Let’s see which case engages the voters more.
…I haven’t fallen down a hole. It’d need to be a pretty big hole for me to fall down it without getting stuck anyway!
But I thought that following Stuart‘s post, I’d better stick my head above the parapet, in an attempt to a) just chip in my two cents and b) upstage him. In any case, much as I’m grateful to Stuart for describing my absence from the Total Politics blog list as ‘unexpected’, I have to disagree: I somehow managed to miss the whole thing! I have no idea how it passed me by but it did. But in any case, I never campaigned (or even publicly acknowledged, as I never wanted to look like I was canvassing) for a place on the lists, so ignorance of the process is no excuse: not posting since July probably has more to do with it.
But that’s really the point of this: the Notebook is a failed experiment. It was a reaction to changing circumstances, right enough, but the changes are sufficient that bloggery just no longer features the way it did.
It was supposed to re-kindle my interest in putting my thoughts on screen – it hasn’t.
I was supposed to get by blogging mojo back – I haven’t!
I keep thinking that I should post about the Tory Leadership election (and the existential crisis that has really come about a decade later than it should have done), or the Murphy/Boyack Review (which seems eerily similar to the Sanderson Report with Murdo Fraser is now proposing junking), or the LibDems apparently blazing a trail in opposition and winning over the commentariat while the opinion polls show Willie Rennie’s approval to be lower than Tavish Scott’s. But I keep not blogging about any of it!
So long story short, the blog’s dead and as I always argued, that hardly matters: it’s not going to leave a vacuum. I can always chip in on Twitter, on the comment pages, on forums and the like, but honestly, it’s time to finally yield the floor. As I used to sign off the Roundups back in the day:
So that’s it, then. A 168-year-old newspaper has been closed and more than 200 jobs will be lost over the phone-hacking scandal. Those that generated the scandal in the first place – by approving and committing the acts – remain in post. That much, we know.
We know that politicians who have spent years grovelling at the altar of Murdoch now line up to stick the boot in.
It looks like a seven-day Sun will replace the News of the World. But we do not yet know how this will affect the News International takeover of BSkyB. Indeed, the working theory is that the paper has been closed to protect that move.
What we can discern is that if Vince Cable hadn’t opened his trap to the Telegraph undercover journalists last year, it would have been him presiding over the decision to permit (or not) that takeover, not Jeremy Hunt. He might not have won his ‘war on Rupert Murdoch’ outright, but could have scored some significant battles. Instead, the decision falls to a far more sympathetic Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who has opted to spend the evening not discussing the fate of a major part of the country’s media, but glad-handing at the Harry Potter premiere.
So what now? Ed Miliband will be feeling quite smug tonight – he’s scored a hit against News International, in a week where his handling of the phone-hacking row was perceived to be far superior to his reaction to last week’s strikes. A major battle won – a scalp claimed. His leadership safe, perhaps?
Perhaps not. The reason politicians went grovelling to the Sun was that they didn’t not want to make an enemy of it – they remember that 1992 front page and they don’t want it to be their face in the lightbulb at the next election. If Miliband does claim a victory today, they’ll do what they can to stop him claiming a far more important one in 2015.
Unless. Rival titles may well scent blood at this time, especially as Rebekah Brooks – the then editor who presided over the phone-hacking – is still in position at News International and the Murdoch empire has acted to save its own skin. If it can pull the plug on the News of the World – as it did on the unprofitable Today newspaper 16 years ago – then don’t expect it to be sentimental about the Super Soaraway if it ends up becoming the story. Moreover, there are inquiries into the whole phone-hacking culture on the way. This is going to get uglier before it lets up.
One last thing: the Sun dominates the tabloid market in England, but in Scotland the picture is clouded by the presence of the Daily Record, whose circulation the Sun has only recently overtaken. Moreover, the football season in Scotland begins far earlier than in England: on 23 July. And Sunday tabloids love their football coverage, going out of their way to promote it in the hope that it will reel the punters in.
That means the Sun has two weeks to get a seven-day edition out. Otherwise, the Record’s sister paper, the Sunday Mail, has the field to itself, and can grab the NotW’s Scottish readership on the first weekend of the new season. If the Record’s managers are smart, that edition of the Sunday Mail will be packed to the gills will offers for the weekday paper.
So this might not have that much impact in the long run in England: the Sun might soldier on for seven days a week, preparing for vengeance against Ed Miliband, Chris Bryant and Tom Watson. But in Scotland, this could turn the tide in the War of the Tabloids. Could the Record, in decline for years, its journalism (at least, in the political column) getting ever more ludicrous and detached from reality in its attempts to defend Scottish Labour, and itself having to shed 90 jobs to keep going, have the last laugh over everyone?
We shall see.
The Result: Labour hold
Labour 15,118 (53.81%, down 2.16%)
SNP 9,280 (33.03%, up 15.50%)
Conservative 2,784 (9.91%, down 2.09%)
Liberal Democrat 627 (2.23%, down 11.12%)
UKIP 288 (1.03%, down 0.13%)
Depending on who you listen to, this was either a good night for Labour and a bad night for the SNP, or a good night for the SNP and a bad night for Labour. Apart from that, everyone wants to talk about the LibDem collapse. Again. So is this really the start of Labour’s fightback, or is momentum still with the SNP? Is there anything worth saying about the Tories, and are the LibDems really as knackered as the result suggests? And are UKIP flogging a dead horse?
On the face of it, this was a good result coming so soon as it did after the Holyrood election and following a campaign where it was thought that the best Labour could hope for was a win of about 1,500 – so a win of almost four times that is something to be cheered, surely?
Scratch the surface. Yes, Labour picked up 15,118 votes, and yes, that was almost 3,000 more than in the (albeit smaller) Greenock & Inverclyde constituency two months ago. But it’s almost 6,000 fewer than Labour picked up in the Westminster General Election last year. In the space of just fourteen months, Labour in Inverclyde has lost more than a quarter of its Westminster polling day support.
The figures are get more damning: the decrease in Labour vote share against 2010 is greater than the Labour 2007-11 Holyrood Constituency Vote decrease both nationally and locally. In other words, Labour’s position is actually worsening and the result is more a testament to Scottish Labour’s underlying strength in a Westminster contest than anything else.
And it’s that strength that will see them through: the swings seen at Inverclyde would – if a General Election were held tomorrow – see Labour unseat Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire, but lose Gordon Banks in Ochil & South Perthshire, and Eric Joyce in Falkirk. A net loss of one seat on a more adverse swing than that which delivered the Holyrood Constituency wipeout – a wipeout that, let’s not forget, Greenock & Inverclyde resisted.
Labour won in a contest where they tend to do well, in an area where they still do well: it’s fair to say that this is not yet the start of the Labour fightback. But even if it were, that’s what they said about Glenrothes in November 2008 – in June 2009, the SNP won the European Election. That’s also what they said about Glasgow North East in November 2009, and six months later Labour were able to recover their By-Election losses and hold out where other parts of the UK saw the party’s support wilt. But this was Iain Gray’s springboard into Bute House, and history will record that he fell off the springboard and got his ankle trapped in it. Labour have a long, long way to go yet.
A reality check? Perhaps. Tails were up, and the predictions were that the SNP could reduce Labour’s majority from almost fifteen thousand to about a tenth of that. That wasn’t to be, though the gap was more than halved. And while the SNP picked up 11,876 votes in the smaller Holyrood constituency in May, it only managed 9,280 this time.
Again, scratch the surface. In the space of fourteen months, SNP support in Inverclyde for a Westminster contest has gone up by almost 50% – 6,577 last year to over 9,000 on Thursday, with a vote increase of 15.5%, more than the party notched up two months ago, and were this to be repeated at that mythical General Election To Be Held Tomorrow, the SNP would go from six MPs to 14: gaining Ochil & South Perthshire and Falkirk from Labour, and a further six LibDem seats – Argyll & Bute; Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross; Edinburgh West; Gordon; Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey and West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine. Meanwhile, opinion polls seem to put the LibDems on 13 seats across the UK, so it’s now a possibility that the SNP could displace the Liberal Democrats as the third largest party in the Commons.
Nevertheless, we all know that the LibDem/SNP battle is a red herring: at Holyrood, a swing smaller than the one seen at Inverclyde ushered in an SNP majority, as the party had managed to convince people that they offered the best solutions, best representatives and best Government for Scotland. The former strongholds of Donald Dewar, John Smith, Robin Cook, George Robertson and even Gordon Brown all turned yellow. But at Westminster, those swings would be enough to hand only two Labour seats to the SNP – that marks out the gulf there, and the SNP absolutely has to change perceptions: Labour won because it was seen as the best best for a Westminster election. The SNP still has to show that voting for their candidates at Westminster will get them somewhere – and somewhere good. It has just under four years to find and develop that narrative.
Has anyone even acknowledged that they were on the ballot paper since the result? Talk has been about the first, second and fourth placed candidates – the Tories have been skipped over completely, and I suppose from a publicity point of view, that makes the result disastrous for them most of all. At least the LibDems are getting mentioned in the papers.
Anyway. It’s worth noting that have somehow managed to lose nearly two thousand votes in just over a year, and saw their vote fall by 2.09% against 2010. On the other hand, they found 750 voters that they didn’t pick up in May – though they could have simply been living in Kilmacolm, the part of Inverclyde not found in the Holyrood seat, and, most notably, part of the only ward in Inverclyde to have elected a Tory Councillor. Still, the 2.09% swing is considerably better than the 4.1% decrease they experienced in the Holyrood seat so it looks like the Tory core vote has now been marked out and things, at least, aren’t getting any worse.
Plus which, they kept their deposit, which isn’t bad going for the third horse in a two-horse race. Still, it’s the mark of a strong third party that their vote can hold up during a By-Election, and the last third party to achieve that in a Scottish Westminster By-Election was the SNP in Dunfermline & West Fife. The Tories worst days may be behind them (well, by ‘may be’ I mean ‘maybe’) but actual improvement? Not yet, I’m afraid. Once again, the party has done just enough to prevent humiliation. When does ‘just enough’ become not enough?
What to say, other than “Ohhhh, dear…”? Do I even want to intrude upon private grief? Yep.
Let’s not forget that in 2003, the LibDems won control of Inverclyde Council. Eight years on, and they’ve now lost their deposit in Inverclyde. Against 2010, their vote share has fallen by 11.12%, worse than the fall they experienced in the apocalyptic result they received in May, and over fourteen months, they’ve lost more than four thousand voters. Indeed, in the past two months alone, they’ve managed to lose at least 1300. Two months ago, I said that the swings seen at the Holyrood election could happen again at Westminster and the LibDems would lose only three MPs. If the Inverclyde swings happened at a General Election, they would lose seven. Argyll & Bute – gone. Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross – gone. Edinburgh West – gone. West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine – gone. East Dunbartonshire, and the Scottish LibDems’ Deputy Leader Jo Swinson – gone. Gordon, and the President of the Scottish LibDems Malcolm Bruce – gone. Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey, and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander – gone.
So the troubles facing the LibDems are actually getting worse when we thought they couldn’t. And if the candidate, student Sophie Bridger (and how the hell can a university student be a LibDem candidate after their betrayal on tuition fees?!), was the ‘breath of fresh air’ that the party’s leaders proclaimed her to be, then boy oh boy, the rest of the party must be stale beyond belief.
The blame game has begun: Ross Finnie has blamed the Coalition, saying that voters simply can’t trust the LibDems ever again. Nick Clegg’s office has blamed the Scottish party for trying to tell voters that the Coalition is nothing to do with them, when the electorate knows better than that.
In a sense, they’re both right: the Coalition and its actions have hurt LibDem voters far harder than Tory supporters. The latter are, in the main, getting most of what they wanted, even if, in places, it’s been watered down. The former are, in the main, getting the opposite of what they wanted: a tuition fee rise their candidates pledged to vote against; a VAT increase that was made part of the “Tory VAT bombshell” on LibDem campaign posters; electoral reform killed off by a referendum on a system once dismissed by Nick Clegg as a “shabby little compromise”. So when Ross Finnie identifies the disappointment that former LibDem voters must feel, he has to be listened to. On the other hand, Nick Clegg’s people also have a point: they look to the Welsh party, that didn’t try and distance itself from the Coalition every time it was brought up, and whose decline in vote share two months ago was around half of that incurred by their Scottish counterparts (they only lost one AM: the Scottish LibDems lost 11 MSPs). Moreover, it’s impossible for Scottish LibDems to distance themselves from the Coalition when there are four Scottish LibDems in the Government: Lord Wallace, the Advocate General; Alastair Carmichael, the Deputy Chief Whip; Michael Moore, the Scotland Secretary; and last but by no means least, Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and one of the so-called ‘quad’ at the top of the Government – Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Alexander. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Scottish LibDems can’t distance themselves from the cuts when one of their own is running with the scissors.
Having said that, both Ross Finnie and the DPM’s mystery apologist are both wrong, in that they’re pegging this to the Coalition. The reality is that the party’s current difficulties go back further.
In Glasgow East (was that really three years ago?!), the LibDems came fourth, lost their deposit and their vote fell by 8.3%.
In Glenrothes four months later, the LibDems came fourth, lost their deposit and their vote fell by 10.1%.
In Glasgow North East a year on, the LibDems came sixth and lost their deposit. There was, luckily for them, no comparison against 2005 as they didn’t field a candidate then.
So Inverclyde is actually part of a three-year By-Election trend for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. You can’t blame the Coalition (or the Scottish party’s handling of it) for that. Also, let’s not forget that while England and Wales were tuning into Cleggmania last year, in Scotland, the LibDems were the only one of the Big 4 parties to see their vote fall. The Dunfermline & West Fife By-Election seems to have represented a zenith for the party and it’s been downhill all the way since then. The party will be hoping that this comes to represent the nadir, but right now, I’m not sure how, when or even if the decline will be arrested.
One other thing to consider: for them, the start of the campaign was hit by the untimely passing of their Deputy Director of Campaigns, Andrew Reeves. If it was possible to keep him down, I never found out how: he was occasionally shameless (and his blog would generate some fairly stormy posts from these quarters, particularly at election time) but he was indefatigable. Were he still around, doubtless on Friday morning he would have posted on his blog, hailing the hard work of activists, expressing his disappointment but defending his party and geeing his people up for the next campaign, wherever and whenever it might be. Frankly, he struck me as the sort of person that the LibDems will need now more than ever.
It’s worth acknowledging that they had a candidate – as acknowledge him was all the media did. We keep assuming that for full-on, red-blooded, meat-eating Tories who are hacked off with the Coalition, UKIP is the natural destination for a protest vote. They must be few in number in Inverclyde as the party managed to lose a third of its support in 14 months. Granted, that only equated to the loss of 145 voters and a 0.13% drop in vote share, but still, that shows that the party which is looking for that protest vote didn’t find it at all here, and Marta Andreassen’s criticisms of the party’s failure to develop any credible forward momentum is, on this showing, correct.
Of course, when you realise just how unpopular the Conservatives are in Scotland, you also realise that a party trying to be more Tory than the Tories is pretty much destined to fall flat on its face north of the border. Still, after the good start afforded to them in the Barnsley Central result, UKIP’s 2011 has stalled: only nine Councillors in England, no AMs, no MLAs, and not even reaching 1% of the vote at Holyrood. This is supposed to be their golden opportunity, and they’re blowing it.
So in short: the SNP might have reason to feel a little disappointed but the general trend is still very positive; Labour can allow themselves a brief moment of relief but are far from being out of the woods yet; the Tories avoided disaster but will find very little to celebrate; UKIP have nothing to shout about at all; the LibDems do have plenty to shout about, but only shouts of distress.
So onto the next challenge – just ten months to go until the local elections…
With four weeks having passed since the Scottish Elections which slashed LibDem representation from sixteen MSPs to five, and with the Committees having now been established, this looks like a good moment to see how the party is faring with its new found status – and how this compares to other groupings of a similar size in Chambers past.
The new Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, has determined a formula by which the Labour Group Leader always gets Question 1, the Tory Leader gets Question 2 and is followed by an urgent constituency question, and a contrived process for Question 3 whereby Willie Rennie will ask it two weeks out of every three, and the third week will be given to what the PO judges to be the ‘best question’. I might have to start looking into how that works, but is this a good deal for Rennie?
On the face of it, no. The LibDems are a recognised group so Rennie is a recognised party leader – surely he should get a pop every week, as his predecessor did? John Swinney went from 33 SNP MSPs before dissolution in 2003 to 26 when the first FMQs after that election took place and saw no change in status; that had become a group of 25 by the 2007 dissolution but when Jack McConnell became Leader of the Opposition with 46 MSPs, he got the same deal, and Iain Gray gets the same deal again having gone into the election leading that group of 46 and now only leading a group of 37. Is it more about position than population?
Not quite. That 2003 Election, from which six recognised groupings and no fewer than four clear opposition parties emerged did have authorities wondering how to handle the Greens, with their seven MSPs, and the SSP, with their six. In the end, they alternated: the Greens would ask Question 3 one week; the SSP the next. Then the Independents formed a group and joined that rotation; following its implosion, the SSP ceased to be recognised as a group and lost its place. So at the point when there were only two parties in the pattern – one group of seven and one of six – the most frequent shot they managed was once a fortnight – 50% of the time. In a six-week cycle, these groups – both larger than the current LibDem group – would get three questions. Willie Rennie, with only five MSPs, gets four in that same cycle. Tricia Marwick has gone against the precedent and that’s worked in Rennie’s favour.
Verdict: Good deal
Well, the Standing Orders have not been kind to the LibDems! Parliament has agreed the Committees and the LibDems go home empty handed, with no Convenerships and no Deputy Convenerships. Now, again, we go to our 2003 precedent, when the Greens and the SSP were given a shot at a Deputy Convenership. The Greens got Environment, and gleefully took it, with Eleanor Scott, then Mark Ruskell, then Eleanor Scott again taking the post. The SSP were allocated Subordinate Legislation, and refused to nominate anyone, so the post reverted to Labour. And that’s the key: in a gesture of magnanimity (well, dumping SubLeg on the SSP isn’t really a magnanimous act, but there you go), the Labour party gave away a couple of its Deputy slots. There was no entitlement, just an attempt by Labour to recognise the new reality. Then again, in 2007, the Greens got a whole Convenership with just two MSPs: they clearly broke the mechanism, but the reason is well known: they got one of the SNP’s Convenerships, and in exchange, voted for Alex Salmond for First Minister and his preferred Cabinet.
So the mechanism was bypassed on two occasions: once out of – and I choose this word for want of a better one – charity, and once from a deal. Now, there was no deal worth doing with the LibDems this time – they weren’t needed, and had nothing to offer in exchange for a Chair. Similarly, the difference between the 2003 results for the Greens and SSP was that theirs were breakthroughs – going from one to seven and one to six respectively. They had, for the first time, won their place, and were the next big thing. Conversely, the LibDems went from sixteen to five: not a breakthrough, but a breakdown. They were the big losers, yesterday’s people. Why show them anything, when they used to have it by right?
So you could say that the LibDems, while unlucky, got precisely what was coming to them, which is absolutely nothing, and it was sheer good fortune that gave the Greens their positions and would have given them to the SSP as well had they bothered to take it up.
But it might not be that simple. The SNP have eight Deputy Convenerships to Labour’s five, and one Tory completes the line-up. Had a clear proportional system been used, the Convenership allocations would be the same – nine SNP, four Labour, one Tory – but there would be only seven SNP and four Labour Deputies, with the Tories having two and one LibDem completing the line-up.
But that’s not what happened: the most authoritative ruling I can find on the matter is Rule 12.1.5 in the standing orders, which states that in proposing the Conveners and Deputies, “the Parliamentary Bureau shall have regard to the balance of political parties in the Parliament“. What does that even mean?!
It seems like the rules are sufficiently vague that they have enabled the shafting of the LibDems (and, indeed, the Tories): a Deputy Convenership might not be much in the grand scheme of things, but it would be something to put under LibDem belts and they probably deserve one. But they haven’t got it, despite a vague Standing Order maybe saying that they ought to, and previous deals in the past serving as a precedent, and it’s a testament to both parties that they opted not to kick up a fuss in the Chamber. I’d be curious to know what went on in this week’s Bureau meeting to deliver this outcome, but no Minutes for Session 4 are up yet.
Verdict: Awful deal
The Corporate Body
This is the last of the key indicators, I suppose: it comes with some prestige and has enough importance that its Membership is one of the first things determined by the Parliament. And the LibDems do have one member, with their five MSPs; the SNP have one member, with their 68. It seems strange that when we talk about balance, a group with less than four per cent of the seats in the Chamber should take 25% of the posts on the Corporation, and that a party with more than half of all MSPs should also take only a quarter of the vacant slots.
But then, the SPCB has always been something of a cartel between the Big 4: every time, each party has nominated one – and only one candidate for the positions, and the only time there was a competitive vote was when Margo MacDonald attempted to break the consensus with the backing of the Greens, SSP and other Independents in 2003. Needless to say, she wasn’t successful. The parties opted to stick with the status quo, and this has worked in the LibDems’ favour. By a proportional mechanism, the SNP would have at least two members – three if d’Hondt had been used – Labour would have one under any calulation and the Tories would get one if someone did a straight calculation of dividing the strength of each group by 128 and multiplying by four, but nothing under d’Hondt. Whichever way you look at it, the refusal to abide by mathematics may have deprived the LibDems of a Deputy Committee Convener, but it’s the reason they’re still on the SPCB.
Verdict: Good deal
So all in all, the LibDems haven’t done too badly: the election result meant they just hung onto Bureau representation; they kept their place on the Corporation and they managed to secure a better FMQs deal than leaders of larger groups got in the past. It’s only on the Committees that they’ve been shafted, and even then, what they’ve lost out on isn’t that big in the grand scheme of things. Things could be a lot better for them, but then, they haven’t been left behind completely, so they could be far, far worse as well.
It’s been almost three weeks since the SNP managed to break a system that was designed to prevent outright majorities. I still don’t quite know what to make of it. After all, how do you account for a double-digit defecit turning into a double-digit lead in just three months?
As was noted even in those difficult looking polls, the SNP vote still looked like it was going to increase regardless of whether or not Labour managed to overtake it (even that isn’t easy for an incumbent government), so for the vote to shoot up as high as it did was nothing short of stunning, and so it was that Alex Salmond became the first Holyrood leader to cross that elusive finish line of 65 seats, as well as the first MSP to be elected First Minister at the start of two Parliaments.
So how did it happen? Clearly, Labour’s poor campaign and the LibDem implosion helped, but something pulled disaffected voters towards the SNP, rather than just putting them off voting altogether (though as usual, many were put off from voting altogether), and the SNP mantra, “Record, Team, Vision” was the key: as the Government, they had a record to defend, and they set about defending it (as evidenced in the What has the Scottish Government ever done for us? PPB), in stark contrast to the Labour campaigns of 2003 and 2007, where instead of celebrating free public transport for senior citizens, free personal care, the deferment of tuition fees and the smoking ban, the Labour mantras were Then What? and Break Up Britain, End Up Broke respectively. And the ‘Team’ helped: much was said about the promotion of Alex Salmond, and the campaign to re-elect him as First Minister, the ‘personality contest’ extended far beyond the Salmond/Gray angle as SNP supporters invited voters to compare the respective merits of Nicola Sturgeon with Jackie Baillie; Kenny MacAskill with Richard Baker; Mike Russell with Des McNulty; John Swinney with Andy Kerr, so it’s no surprise that all of them were re-appointed to the Cabinet, which saw new faces brought in through its expansion from six to nine (though I wonder if Adam Ingram, the former Children’s Minister who now finds himself on the back benches, is as royally pissed off as I would be, to be the only member of the Government not to get re-appointed).
And the vision? Well, it’s notable that in difficult times, people opted for the most optimistic message rather than the negative one. When did a Government last do that? In 2010, Gordon Brown invited voters to “take a fresh look at Labour, then take a long, hard look at the Tories”; in 2007, Jack McConnell mused that he used to believe in independence, but also used to believe in Santa Claus; in 2005, Labour released a poster of Michael Howard’s face superimposed on a flying pig; in 2003, the campaign depicted Scotland literally breaking apart from the rest of Britain and swinging about aimlessly; in 2001, a morphed face of William Hague and Margaret Thatcher was Labour’s way of warning us to “Get out and vote, or they get in”. And the Tories were no better: in 1997 they depicted Tony Blair as Helmut Kohl’s ventriloquist dummy, and in 1992 they warned of “Labour’s Tax Bombshell” and in 1987 depicted Labour’s policy on arms as a soldier surrendering, and also released a campaign criticising the Alliance (while having the gall to describe voting Conservative as “the positive direction”!). I could go on, but you see the point: Governments don’t usually campaign positively… this one did, and won.
So what now? Clearly, the By-Election win in Aberdeen, making the SNP the largest party there is evidence that momentum is at least with the party, but the next immediate test will be the Inverclyde By-Election. Now, under normal circumstances, expectations should be low – it’s a Westminster By-Election and Greenock & Inverclyde was one of the few seats not to succumb to the SNP landslide at Holyrood. And yet, and yet. Momentum is indeed with the SNP, just as it was in Glasgow East, where the party was similarly written off. Could another shock be on the cards? With the right candidate (and I know who I would want the candidate to be), it’s not impossible. Difficult, but not impossible.
But the next nationwide test comes next year, with the local elections. These will have a new significance: the first stand-alone local elections in Scotland since 1995. At the moment, levels of morale and momentum are such that Labour figures are worrying that they may even lose Glasgow, one of the few councils to maintain a majority-controlled council after the introduction of PR (sound familiar?).
And there’s the referendum – whenever it will be held. Again, the odds look difficult for a ‘Yes’ victory, but had anyone forecast this election result just three months ago would have been carried out of the room. Even three years ago, when SNP tails really were up, no one would have believed it possible. Three years from now? Anything is possible.
So the big question is, is this the SNP’s peak? Its plateau? Or just another stopping point on the treacherous path to the ultimate goal, the SNP’s own Mount Olympus – independence?
That will, of course, depend on the SNP’s performance – opposition leaders, have tried to claim some sort of victory in the result by saying that the SNP no longer have any excuses for not delivering on its promises. I’m sure Alex Salmond is already kicking himself at having been so easily lulled into a true sense of security. Nevertheless, it is true that the SNP no longer has any Parliamentary obstacle to its programme, and is constrained only in the Budget available to the Government and the powers afforded to the Parliament.
So I’d say that the Government will probably be re-elected in 2016: the sheer strength of its position now makes it very difficult to unseat, but the margin of victory will depend on lots of other factors. Obviously, how much it’s lived up to expectations will be the first factor, but also what state the opposition (particularly Labour) are in, voters’ opinions of Alex Salmond at the time, and the set of policies up for debate by then.
That’s the bizarre thing: the SNP face the most immediate certainties: the party has won, and won outright, and so is in control (theoretically, at least) of the Scottish political agenda for the next five years; but in the long term, it has the most variables. Can it carry forward this performance to Council chambers up and down the country? Can the Government deliver? Can an independence referendum be won? Can the opposition remain so weak? Can Alex Salmond retain his political mojo for five more years? Can the first place in the last European Election be retained in 2014? Can there finally be a breakthrough at Westminster?
So many questions – but I’m looking forward to finding out the answers.
PS I missed a discussion on Twitter the other night about the continuation of the Sunday Whip or otherwise, and I couldn’t help but smile at the tongue-in-cheek comment that a weekly post of “the SNP won the vote” would be considerably less interesting than what the last four years brought. Given how much of a knife-edge things were on for most of that time, a record of how the parties (and individuals) behaved at Decision Time was. I felt, a useful feature and I’m not sure that it would be as useful this time around: party alliances mean less, an MSP can press the wrong button, get stuck in a lift or wage a personal hate campaign against his or her own party leader and it won’t be all that significant anymore. I’m tossing around a few ideas of what (if anything) should follow the Whip, and something will emerge, I’m sure. Maybe a focus on one debate, or Question Time, or Committees, or legislation, or even Members’ Debates. Perhaps even casting the net wider? I have a few options and something will doubtless come to me at the weekend, especially now I’ll have less football to distract me.