Election reflection

On 5th May 2015 there was a general election in the U.K. Contrary to expectation there was a decisive result: the Conservative party won an overall majority – a very small majority (five seats), but enough to form a new Conservative government in Westminster.

Pundits are indulging in an extensive picking-over of the results: why did the opinion polls fail to predict the outcome, why did the Liberal Democrat (Lib-Dem) vote collapse, why did the main opposition party (Labour) fail to unseat a widely unpopular Prime Minister, David Cameron, and fare so badly at the ballot box, what will the future hold for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), what are the implications for the first-past-the-post electoral system…? Far too many issues to address in a single blog. Here I’ll look at one dramatic feature of the election: the overwhelming success of the Scottish National Party (SNP). For those who don’t know the facts, here’s a summary. Scotland returns 59 MPs to the House of Commons. The distribution of these 59 seats among the parties has changed out of all recognition:

Election:                             2010                                   2015

Labour                                          42                                             1

Conservative                                  1                                              1

Lib-Dem                                       10                                              1

SNP                                                 6                                             56

The 2010 election result more or less reflected the Scottish electorate’s verdict over the past several decades. A large majority of Scottish voters opted for Labour; for the most part, Labour couldn’t command a majority in the House of Commons without that always-reliable Scottish vote. The Lib-Dems have traditionally held seats in the north of the country and the northern isles, plus a few in the east of the country and the Borders. Scottish Conservatives have never had much representation in the U.K. parliament. And the SNP would always pick up a handful of seats.

So how can the SNP landslide of 2015 be explained?

Most pundits have sought one or at the most two explanations. I think they’re being simplistic. It seems to me that a number of factors have worked synergistically. My opinion is based not only on my knowledge of Scotland (I lived and worked there for many years) but also on a recent (post-election) visit to old friends in that country, whose explanations are well-informed and constitute a reasonable consensus.

First, there’s the effect of the recent independence referendum. A decisive but not overwhelming majority of Scottish voters opted to remain part of the U.K. – the proportions were more or less 55% anti-independence and 45% pro-. Obviously the SNP, which is in power in the Scottish parliament, campaigned for the ‘pro’ side, and the other three main parties joined forces to campaign for the ‘anti’ side. After the referendum, the Scottish Labour Party elected a new leader, Jim Murphy. I don’t doubt Mr Murphy’s sincerity and political commitment, but he was and remains an ardent and outspoken ‘anti’ campaigner and – crucially – his public persona is widely considered unattractive. Many Scots, irrespective of their politics, distrust him. These considerations are likely to have influenced at least some voters to abandon their traditional Labour affiliation and support the SNP, not least because the SNP government in Edinburgh is popular in many parts of Scotland.

Second, the 2010 election led to a coalition government in Westminster, comprising around 80% Conservatives and 20% Lib-Dems. Inevitably, given the numbers, it was a Conservative-led coalition, something the vast majority of Scots disliked – not least because its ‘austerity’ programme had serious effects on poorer people throughout the U.K., including Scotland. Although the Lib-Dems can be credited with promoting several progressive policies that mitigated the worst effects of ‘austerity’, they’ve been perceived as propping up an unpopular Conservative government. Also, they campaigned against independence at the time of the referendum, which has cost them friends in many parts of Scotland. Therefore they’ve lost nine of their ten Scottish seats.

Third, Mr Cameron, the Prime Minister seeking (and in the event achieving) a return to office, attacked the leader of the Labour opposition by asking him to deny that if he were in a position to form the next government, he’d have to do so in coalition with the SNP. (The opinion polls were more or less right about the SNP surge.) The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, failed to answer Mr Cameron’s challenge convincingly, and Mr Cameron exploited this weakness by spreading fear of the SNP among the electorate: they want to break up the United Kingdom by forcing another independence referendum, they want to scrap the Trident submarine defence system, and if you vote Labour you’re going to let these disasters happen. In England, and possibly in Wales, this fear of Scottish independence worked. I heard many people in my part of England express fear of SNP influence on a Labour government, so they voted against Labour, i.e. for the Conservatives. No one seriously doubts that this played a significant part in Mr Cameron’s electoral success. But his attempted fear-spreading had a contrary effect in Scotland. Afraid of the SNP, are you? Well, we hate you, so guess how we’re going to vote!

Fourth, the SNP leadership has used a clever political tactic. Scottish Labour voters are mostly what is now called ‘Old Labour’, in other words democratic socialist, and they were never truly reconciled to the ‘New Labour’ of Tony Blair’s government post-1997. Indeed, rumblings of discontent about ‘New Labour’ grew louder as the years passed, and although Labour continued to hold most of its traditional seats in Scotland in 2010, the solidity of the Labour vote had been undermined. As First Minister of Scotland prior to the referendum, the SNP leader, Alec Salmond, was aware of this change and began to exploit it. His successor as First Minister and leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, has done so more or less openly. Under her leadership, the SNP has more or less taken over the policies of Old Labour. Ms Sturgeon, a formidable and forthright debater, has openly campaigned for increased public spending, an end to austerity, and an emphasis on social justice and equality. The popularity of this political stance in her country is guaranteed.

Fifth, Ms Sturgeon has a well-earned reputation for straight talking. When political leaders are faced with challenging questions in a debate, they typically fail to answer: they dodge and hedge, or they trot out the official party line. Ms Sturgeon answers questions without prevarication. She also tends to wipe the floor with her political opponents during head-to-head confrontations. This earns respect, admiration and positive liking – not only from Scottish voters but from all the U.K. Many of my friends in England said “I wish Nicola Sturgeon could stand for election in this constituency – I’d vote for her!” (No wonder Mr Cameron described Ms Sturgeon as “the most dangerous woman in Britain”.) Of course, as First Minister of Scotland, Ms Sturgeon couldn’t be elected to a Westminster seat, but there isn’t the slightest doubt that the 56 SNP MPs now elected to the House of Commons are her people. And one of those 56 is Alec Salmond, her predecessor as First Minister, who is sure to be a thorn in the new government’s flesh; a very sharp, deep and effective thorn.

Five reasons for the SNP landslide? My analysis might not be exhaustive, but I believe it goes a considerable way towards explaining what happened in Scotland during the 2015 general election. As for the consequences: a Conservative majority of five in the House of Commons, determined to hold the U.K. together and prevent Scottish independence, and 56 SNP members on the opposition benches… Interesting times lie ahead!

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