"The mood in Scotland appears to have hardened in a direction unfavourable to the nationalists"by Gregg McClymont / May 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
The post referendum re-alignment of Scottish politics continues, but there’s a little life in the old (Labour) dog yet. So went the local Government elections in Scotland.
The SNP comfortably won a plurality of the popular vote, a plurality of seats, and is the largest party in a plurality of town halls and city chambers across Scotland. For a party which has been in government for a decade this is no mean feat. Labour’s 20 per cent vote share, and the painful loss of Glasgow and North Lanarkshire Councils, obscures a stronger relative performance as compared to 2015 and 2016 in its west of Scotland former heartlands. But it remains in a poor second place to the SNP even in most of these seats. And nationally, Scottish Labour was beaten by the Conservatives for the first time in a nation-wide poll since dinosaurs walked the earth.
Indeed, the surge in Conservative support is the headline story from this particular round of elections. Across Scotland, Conservative support rose to 25 per cent, the party’s highest vote share in twenty years. But even more strikingly in parts of the country where there was once a Tory tradition the Conservatives roared back—winning the popular vote across North East Scotland and down into the central belt as far as Stirling. These regions, which turned to the SNP in the Thatcher years, now appear to be back in play. Mood matters in politics and the mood in Scotland appears for the moment to have hardened in a direction unfavourable to the nationalists.
This is not to say support for independence has fallen from the 45 per cent declared in the 2014 referendum. Polls suggest it remains about that level. It’s more that sentiment among No voters has become stronger. This makes them more likely to turn out and vote. For the first time in years enthusiasm was probably greater among non-nationalist supporters entering the local government elections (overall turnout was up close to 10 percentage points). Furthermore, the SNP has usually enjoyed some support from voters who did not favour independence: voters who historically backed the SNP in the West of Scotland as the only alternative to Labour in effectively a two party system, or in the North East and central belt where the SNP became the alternative for former Conservative voters. (“Tartan Tories” who saw the SNP as a vehicle for advancing Scotland’s interests inside the UK). With the constitutional question utterly dominating, split tickets of this kind are now disappearing.
The SNP’s vote share of 32 per cent—first preferences under the STV system—pales in significance when compared to the 50 per cent it polled in 2015’s General Election and the 46.5 per cent it won in last year’s Holyrood election. Lower turnout in local elections is probably a factor in the sharp drop off, one from which the SNP can take comfort. Younger voters heavily favour the SNP but older voters are more likely to turn out in local government elections. Independents took 10 per cent of the vote, which won’t be repeated next month. More widely, elections in which the Westminster system is the central locus play to the SNP’s strengths, as the party seen as “standing up for Scotland.” The realignment of Scottish politics along nationalist vs unionist lines works in the SNP’s favour electorally, so long as the unionist vote remains divided between Conservative and Labour. Votes lost by the SNP in competition with the Tories in North-East of Scotland (for example) are more than compensated for by votes won in the more populous West of Scotland former Labour heartlands. So there’s no danger of the SNP not “winning” Scotland in next month’s general election. But winning a second independence referendum currently looks a more difficult task.