Why, How and What Now: the SNP
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.