Monday, 23 May 2016

Mac-New Labour

You know, until recently I hadn’t realised that I hadn’t blogged about the SNP’s New Labour tendencies.  Even though it’s a phrase that I’d used before, possibly in the comments section of either the Better Nation or Planet Politics blogs.  With the SNP having won three elections in a row, now looks like the perfect time to look at the similarities between the current SNP and the New Labour project.

I had coined the phrase to describe the SNP under Alex Salmond.  Their canny (and successful) attempt to marry centre left policies with right wing pro-business and economic policies was the catalyst for this phrase.  However, the longer the SNP hold the keys to government, the more I suspect that this isn’t just simply an attempt at big tent politics, that both Salmond and Sturgeon are at the head of a party putting into practice it’s own New Labour-esque project.

New Labour itself was a conscious attempt to redefine big tent centre ground politics.  Yet for all that there was a groundswell of believers who occupied the right wing of Labour, the bright young things from Scottish Labour like Dewar, Robertson, Cook & Brown were all rooted in a social democratic version of the party, it was the Roy Jenkins influenced Blair who would become the figurehead of that movement.  Indeed the influence of the ill fated SDP wouldn’t stop with Jenkins as the likes of Andrew Adonis and Roger Liddell found new homes back in the Labour party as influential policymakers.

Where New Labour… failed… is that it did not offer a true balance of left and right policies.  The genuinely left wing policies came at the start of Blair’s time in office and were not nearly as ambitious as trailed, for example the minimum wage. These left wing policies gradually dried up as well as New Labour became a byword for centre right policymaking.  That policymaking, whether the rightward drift was intended or not, was itself driven by ideals and values of something dubbed “The Third Way”.  This thinking came from the advisors and political minds surrounding the American President, Bill Clinton.  “The Third Way” of thinking no doubt influenced Blair and Brown when they visited Washington in 1993.

What no doubt helped New Labour in the early years was being led by the most pragmatic and politically attuned politician…  probably since Harold Wilson.  Peak Blair, it could be argued, would be between his election as Labour leader in July 1994 to his run in with the Woman’s Institute and the Road Haulage industry in September 2000.  In that time, he was unsurpassed in his political acumen and tactical nous.  I say that as someone who always thought of him as the best leader the Tories never had.  What isn’t in doubt is that the way they, as a nominally centre left government, operated provides a template for other centre left parties around Europe.  By accident or by design, the SNP look as if they’ve been at least taking notes.

Where Labour have always been a left wing (to varying degrees) party, the SNP have always been a broad church, unified by an aim to make Scotland Independent.  They have always had a left wing element and a right wing element, though the right haven’t been in the ascendency since John Swinney ran a Holyrood campaign based on trickle down economics in 2003.  Therefore it is theoretically easier for an already broad church party to formulate a balanced policy prospectus.  Hence the pledges for funding for hospitals and the various other polices which reference Scandinavian thinking and values married to tax policies which reference Anglo-American thinking and a devotion to the cult of the Laffer Curve.

This form of policymaking has organically grown from within the SNP themselves and cannot be attributed to outside influences or overseas political fads.  The SNP themselves would baulk at the “Third Way” comparisons.  Though one or two members have, in the past, made comments which reference classic Clintonian Third Way-isims.  I can’t remember exactly who said it, but it was certainly in one of the Better Nation blogposts from the 2011 Holyrood elections where a member of the SNP claimed that in the modern Scottish political landscape, there was no such a thing as left wing and right wing politics.  This came back to me recently when the Business for Scotland chief Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp claimed that it was “Time to abandon the old constructs of Left and Right”.  If the comments from four years ago were Clinton-esque in tone, MacIntyre-Kemp’s piece is very Blairite in tone.
Blair & Brown in 1994

With the slow car crash that is the implosion within the Labour party still going on, there are opportunities for the SNP to stop taking notes and to learn lessons.  The biggest lesson perhaps has been in the handover of power from one leader to another.  Nicola Sturgeon is no Gordon Brown in the respect that she has never agitated for power in the manner Brown did.  However there is one aspect where Sturgeon is, rather remarkably, the heir to Brown - the ability to talk left and act right.  This ability was seen in evidence during the recent Holyrood elections where Sturgeon’s self styled ‘Application to become First Minister’ was all rather small c-conservative in nature. 

That fiscal shift rightwards hints that maybe the SNP haven’t quite learned every lesson from the New Labour years.  That Labour lost popularity when they shifted from the centre ground and drifted to the right should provide a warning to the SNP.  Yet the populist left sounding campaigning has had an effect, losing them votes in the old SNP heartlands.  Both Swinney & Lochhead saw their majorities slashed while the SNP lost seats in Edinburgh, Aberdeenshire and the East coast – all pre devolution SNP heartlands.  There is of course another possible reason for the loss of those seats, that ‘no’ voters in the recent independence referendum have voted for other parties because of the SNP’s pro-Independence stance and not for any other policy reasons.  Whatever the reason for the SNP’s loss of support in those areas, it is true to say that any political project will be beginning to see wear and tear creep in.

The warning that both New Labour and the Conservatives can provide for the SNP is that the third term can be the most difficult of the lot.  With Labour & Blair, a reduced majority and an impatient Chancellor saw Blair only see out 2 and a quarter years of his third term – a term that was dogged by questions over Iraq and his obsession with increased security.  Thatcher also faced questions relating to how long she can go on for, and fared better than Blair – though she was forced out after several questionable policy decisions led to a loss in popularity. Already, though clearly the largest party, there are issues ahead that may cause trouble for the SNP – Labour & the Tories plan to scrap the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (though this might be the subject of a diplomatic retreat in light of events at the Scottish Cup Final), The Greens plan for beefed up land reform and the Greens teaming up with Labour for tougher stance on fracking.  That’s before we mention the behaviour of certain SNP MP’s.

While both New Labour and the current phase of the SNP had different aims and different backgrounds, their attitude towards policy-making was similar and they had a similar thought process regarding left and right wing politics.  Policywise though, the SNP remain grounded in the Scottish centre ground.  I’d coined Mac-New Labour because the SNP had created a Scottish version of New Labour that was much more successful than the original.  9 years on from the election of Alex Salmond as First Minister, this is a model that still works, for how much longer though is anyone’s guess.  We might not have passed ‘peak Nat’ as some wag put it, but history suggests that this is the high-water mark of the SNP.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Holyrood 2016: The Tale of the Tape

Just before 9am yesterday morning the last of the list seats were allocated in the North East Scotland Region.  This confirmed the final outcome that had always been the highly likely outcome of this election - that of a first full term for the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon which will only be fully confirmed once the new Parliament convenes.

Nicola Sturgeon on the steps of Bute House, Friday afternoon.
That final result did not look as good as it looked as if it would be when the SNP took the seat of Rutherglen at about 1:30am this morning.  The swing that removed Labours James Kelly was 9% from Labour to the SNP – that uniform swing across Scotland would be enough to wipe out Labour in the constituency vote.  However, as constituency results started to come from the east and rural areas, a different picture emerged.  If Glasgow and the west of Scotland was a picture of the SNP laying waste to Scottish Labour’s heartlands, then the east & Edinburgh was a picture of the SNP advance being checked and, in some instances, being pushed back by resurgent Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. 

This pushback, among other factors, led to the SNP falling two seats short of another majority government with the final result of:

Votes – FPTP - % - Seats
Votes – List - Seats
Total seats
46.5% (+ 1.1%)
59 (+6)
4 (-12)
22.0% (+ 8.1%)
7 (+4)
24 (+12)
22.6% (- 7.8%)
3 (-12)
21 (-1)
Scot Greens
6 (+4)
Lib Dems
7.8% (- 0.1%)
4 (+2)
1 (-2)

The collapse in Labour’s vote was most apparent when the first tranche of results were coming in, when the SNP were taking seats from Labour in the West and around Glasgow.  I mentioned Rutherglen earlier, but that was only the first.  Previously rock solid Labour seats like Provan, Maryhill & Springburn, Greenock & Inverclyde and Coatbridge & Cryston fell to the SNP on swings of 15.6%, 15%, 13.9% and 12.6% respectively.  Those swings were not confined to SNP gains either.  Glasgow Anniesland was the most vulnerable SNP seat going into this election with a majority of 7.  Bill Kidd’s majority, after a swing of 12% is now 6,153.  Similarly, George Adam’s majority has been transformed from 248 to 5,199 via a swing of a mere 8.1%. 

The shift from Labour to the pro-Independence SNP is a huge problem for Labour and has serious implications for Corbyn’s attempt to unseat Cameron in four years time.  If Labour’s problems only stem from being pro-Union, you can understand calls for Labour to soften their line regarding the constitution.  However what the second half of the constituency votes showed is that there is still a large pro-Union constituency in Scotland – a voting bloc now empowered to use their votes tactically to thwart Indyref 2.  Those people who have switched rightwards from Labour will be, as I’d mused earlier, soft right voters attracted to Labour through Social Democratic values rather than out and out Socialism. Professional people who may, in a previous age, have been so called ‘Tory Wets’.  Think fellow bloggers Ian Smart and Kevin Hague.

More than Rutherglen, perhaps Eastwood was the real harbinger result of this election.  A three way marginal, where the SNP didn’t quite do enough to overtake both Labour and the Conservatives to win.  The Tories Jackson Carlaw only needing a swing of 5.7% to unseat Labours Ken McIntosh.  It was after that result that the shock results started to come in.  Those results hinted at pro-Union tactical voting.  The SNP lost North East Fife to the Lib Dem’s Willie Rennie and then Edinburgh Western.  Both seats were not exactly vulnerable – requiring swings over 4% for the Lib Dems to take the seat yet the Lib Dems produced swings of 9.5% and 7.8% to take these seats.  The biggest shocks came with the Tories constituency wins.

Davidson’s win in Edinburgh Central came from out of the blue, given the Tories were third in this constituency in 2011.  A swing of 9.7% to the Tories saw them home with a majority of 610.  A bigger swing came in the Tory win in Aberdeenshire West, when they took the seat on a 12% swing.

There was some relief for Scottish Labour when they took Edinburgh Southern from the SNP, coupled with holding on to East Lothian and Jackie Baillie’s…  ah… ‘popular’ win in Dumbarton.  Bearing in mind that Labour has traditionally gained far fewer votes on the list vote than the constituency vote, this left Labour with too much ground to make up on the Tories going into the list seats.  So, as a result of both the Tories aggressive re-positioning as defenders of the union and Labour’s continuing impersonation of Stretch Armstrong culminating in their two stools approach to the constitutional question, the Tories had their best share of vote in Scotland since the 1992 General Election and Labour finished third for the first time in an election in Scotland since 1910.

The SNP though serenely moved towards a third consecutive term.  Except that, in spite of their highest constituency vote in a Holyrood election and the highest list vote ever in a Holyrood vote, due to the vagaries of the list vote the SNP fell short of a second overall majority.  The gains in the constituency vote had a negative effect on their list vote, only 4 seats were picked up on the list system.  So much for the #bothvotesSNP effect and the architects claims that only both votes would guarantee a majority SNP government that craves an Independent Scotland.

Sturgeon has already said that the SNP will govern as a minority, as they did during their first term.  While the SNP would ideally have wanted a majority, the new parliament gives them options.  Funnily enough, I suspect that there won’t be that much love lost between the two pro-Independence parties in Holyrood given the SNP’s aggressive #bothvotesSNP campaign and their attempt to run the Scottish Green’s off the road (as they did with RISE).  One by-product of this election will be that I think that Indyref 2 will not happen in this parliament.  Not that this is a bad thing, when the SNP have still to come to terms with their own failure or to hold any sort of post mortem into how they failed.  Patrick Harvie’s sober but realistic view on Indyref 2 is certainly not what the hard line pro-Indy supporters want to hear, but they are views that should be listened to if people are to be convinced about Independence.

While Nicola Sturgeon is comfortably back in Bute House and no doubt planning for the next weeks and months of SNP government, the other big winners are the Conservatives.  Ruth Davidson’s tactic of running as the out and proud pro-Union party clearly paid dividends and made things much more difficult for Scottish Labour by targeting their indecisiveness over the constitutional issue.  Scottish Labour’s meltdown has also made things clear down south that there is now a Scotland shaped roadblock to their route back to government.  Sturgeon might have won, but in the longer term the spoils will go to David Cameron’s successor.

Friday, 6 May 2016

On The Verge of Three In A Row

We all knew that this would be a historic night for the SNP and would end up with a first full term for Nicola Sturgeon. We also thought that this would be a terrible night for Scottish Labour. What we did not know is that tonight would be redemption night for both of the coalition partners in the last government.

For the SNP, so much has changed but so much has stayed the same. Rather than become the beneficiaries of Scottish Labour’s collapse, their share of vote has only gone up – to date – by 1.1%. They have picked up 10 seats from Labour but to date have lost four seats. It did look like the early result at Rutherglen, where the SNP unseated the Labour shadow cabinet minister James Kelly – would be this election’s equivalent to Nuneaton or Basildon. That we would have a second majority government on the spin. That currently is not certain to happen.

Instead, the story has turned out to be redemption night for both of the coalition partners. The Lib Dems held both the Orkney & Shetland seats before claiming the Fife North East and Edinburgh West seats from the SNP. The Tories wins were more spectacular, and puts them on course to snatch second place from Labour. The first signs that the Conservatives might be on for second was Jackson Carlaw’s defeat of Ken McIntosh in the three way marginal at Eastwood. Then came Ruth Davidson’s win in Edinburgh Central. The constituency wins underpinning the story of the 8.5% swing from Labour to the Conservatives.

The reasons for SNP’s projected win are fairly well discussed, given their safety first manifesto. A hopelessly split party on the verge of civil war with very real decisions about where it should go next and no real plan on how to bridge the divergent priorities of middle Scotland and middle England have contributed to Labour’s collapse here. It is also very clear that there is a constituency here in Scotland that 30 years ago would have been Conservative (but firmly on the Tory Wet wing) but as time went on would have been what we now recognise as Blairite. Those people, probably in the Professional class, commuter belt Scotland, are pro-Union and are not sure where they sit in post Referendum Scotland. An ideal starting point then for a Conservative revival.

So far, a good night for the Conservatives, a good night for the Lib Dems and a catastrophic night for Scottish Labour. The SNP might still talk about what might have been. But with the list votes still to be counted, it is certain that Nicola Sturgeon will be heading back to Bute House.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

In The Hours Ahead...

There’s now a wee bit of a tradition on these pages where I put together a sort of guide about when results are estimated to come in and results to look for.  For this election I’d try and do a similar thing.

Before I go on, it will be useful to have a look at what happened five years ago.  The bedrock of the SNP’s win was the 53 constituency seats won, gaining 32 seats from 2007.  The SNP took votes from all the parties (the swing to the SNP was 6.2%) but the biggest swing came from the collapse in support of the Lib Dems, there was a 4.1% swing away from the Lib Dems to the SNP.  It’s worth mentioning this as polling for this election suggests that the switch in support to the SNP will come from Labour voters, the switch that happened from the referendum and caused Labour’s near wipe out in last years Westminster elections.

The first Holyrood results are estimated to be announced about 2am.  If memory serves, five years ago the first results started to come in from about half past 1 onwards.  The second and third results announced (East Kilbride and Hamilton, Larkhall & Stonehouse) proved to be the harbinger of the SNP triumph to come with the unseating of Labour’s shadow finance minister (Andy Kerr) and former cabinet minister (the late Tom McCabe).  Again these seats are estimated to be amongst the first to declare.  If there is to be an upset, these seats would be vulnerable with swings to Labour of 3.25% and 4.4% required.  However that’s not what the polls are suggesting.

The first Labour held seat due to declare will be the Rutherglen seat. Five years ago, Labour hung on, but survived a swing of 7.5% to the SNP.  This time Rutherglen will require a swing to the SNP of 3.3% for the seat to change hands.  The seat is expected to change hands, however if Labour hold this seat, it could be a harbinger of an upset or that the SNP won’t sweep all before them.

There are five three way marginal’s in the last parliament and the first of them is due to declare about 3.  Labour will be hoping to hold on to Dumfriesshire, with both the SNP and the Tories hoping to take the seat from them.  The Tories have the better shot with a swing required of 5% for them to take the seat.  However if the SNP are having a night like last year, they will win the seat, even if they need a swing of 6.7% to win the seat.  If the SNP do win this seat, then it’ll be odds on that they’ll have another majority in the new Scottish Parliament.

By 3:30am the results will be rushing in.  It will be from about this time that the Edinburgh and Glasgow seats will be coming in.  This means victory speeches or concession speeches from the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon (defending her Glasgow Southside seat), Labour’s Kezia Dugdale (looking to re-take Edinburgh Eastern, Kenny MacAskil’s old seat) and Ruth Davidson (standing in Edinburgh Central).  As the results from the constituency seats come in, then phase two of the results will then start to be announced – the list seats.

Because of the ubiquitous #BothvotesSNP campaign, then there will be a focus on how many votes the SNP attract and whether this feeds into a positive result (for them) from the list votes.  It needs to be pointed out that the SNP have always had a higher percentage of retaining constituency votes into List votes than Labour have ever had.  This of course is not the only reason to focus on the list votes. It will be in the list votes that the real battles of this election will unfold.  The fight for second between Labour and the Conservatives.  And the fight for fourth between the Lib Dems and the Scottish Greens.

Labour are expected to suffer heavy losses in the constituency vote, so will be hoping to pick up seats in the list vote.  The Tories already hold two constituency seats and may add to that.  Yet, traditionally, Labour have always attracted less list votes than they have done constituency votes.  I think Labour need to hang on to at least 5 (of the 12 they currently hold) constituencies to have a chance of holding on to second place.

For the Scottish Greens, this could be a straight list fight given the continued collapse in Lib Dem support.  Their fight could even be bolstered by picking up one of their target seats.  Their co-Convenor Patrick Harvie is standing in Glagow Kelvin while the other seat they have high hopes over is I think the Edinburgh Western seat.

The results of the list votes are estimated to be announced from 4am onwards, which means a long night.  Both in 2007 and 2011, results continued to roll in throughout the Friday.  The overnight results however will give us an idea of how this election will go, whether the polls are correct and we will get a first full term for Nicola Sturgeon, or whether there will be an upset along the way.  For me, I think Labour will cling on to second.  I think the Scottish Greens will finish ahead of the Lib Dems and I have a feeling that the night won’t all be plain sailing for the SNP though I think they’ll be the largest party.