Labour have just been trounced in Scotland.
I know, hard to believe but in local elections on Thursday it seems the previously minority Scottish National Party government have been returned in the Scottish Parliament, this time with a proper majority – holding 69 of the 129 available seats (a theoretical impossibility in a single chamber with allocation via a mixture of Westminster-style constituency seats and Australian Senate-style regional lists). Training wheels off, then. Every party leader except the victorious Alex Salmond has now fallen on his or her sword. Conservative boss Annabel Goldie is only still in Holyrood courtesy of the regional list and even the Labour party leader Iain Gray barely held his own seat of East Lothian by 151 votes. The only ones to do worse were the Liberal Democrats.
Umm, probably best not to mention their performance. It’s actively embarrassing (like, deposit-losingly embarrassing, ie. less than 5% of the constituency vote in the UK, in at least 20 seats). “Total collapse” barely covers it and they’ve been driven back to a tenuous hold even in their Norse stronghold of Shetland, having lost 20% of the vote there. Orkney and Shetland islanders traditionally describe themselves as falling “north of the tartan curtain” so the kilt and kirk sort of Scotland typically associated with the SNP doesn’t go over so well with voters there. However, Gaelic-speaking Skye and the Western Isles was surrendered to the SNP this time. It may only be having Scottish party leader Tavish Scott as the MSP that saved the LibDems in the Northern Isles.
That 20% swing away was mirrored England-wide where they are estimated to have lost over 300 councillors and control of several north of England city councils, including Sheffield, Hull and Stockport. Nick Clegg, who is the national party leader and currently Deputy PM in a coalition government with the Conservatives, claims this is because his party is being blamed for the spending cuts, but there’s no sign of a similar backlash against the Tories even though they’re the senior partner in the London coalition. Labour have simply been slaughtered, with several high profile former ministers booted out of former Glasgow heartlands in the process by their SNP alternatives. They lost Shettleston FFS! That’s like Labour losing the Rhondda Valley in Wales or Australian Labor losing Oxley in Queensland. Funnily enough, Wales has actually gone the other way with gains for Labour over nationalists Plaid Cymru, winning 21 of the 29 Welsh Assembly seats announced so far.
So what’s happening?
In the 1950s Scotland was about 50% blue, then after the Poll Tax was brought in up here a year earlier than the rest of the UK by Margaret Thatcher, Conservatives became the endangered species of Scottish politics. The SNP then stood on the gas (but couldn’t free the oil) to deliver devolution and the restoration of a Scottish Parliament after nearly 300 years. A complacent “old” Labour Party under the late John Smith had little reason to oppose this thanks to the healthy Scottish stranglehold that even its rebranding as “New Labour” couldn’t break. In fact you could argue that it was this north of the border dominance (and the West Lothian question) that kept Tony Blair and his party in power in Westminster for the next thirteen years despite a couple of wars, plenty of terror and instances of outright political corruption.
As even the Labour rose eventually went on the nose, the only thing keeping the SNP out of government in the Scottish Parliament was a far too cosy little coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats to block the Nationalists (who’d taken more votes than labour but apparently the LibDems couldn’t bring themselves to been seen with Alex Salmond). Being the kind of country that takes its democracy pretty seriously – there’s never been a ‘divine right’ of Scottish Kings, so why should there be one of Labour Government? – meant that the yellow vote slumped to a level where they could barely prop-up themselves (a bit like their then leader, Charles Kennedy) and we saw a minority SNP government north of the border.
And despite what Labour have said, as a voter, the SNP have provided perfectly competent administration in Scotland, even as a minority government. All the cross-party negotiation to get bills through has made the chamber look remarkably Australian, and the dodgy architecture helps, but perhaps most importantly the SNP have been squeaky clean, despite the expenses scandals that caught all three of the major parties in Westminster on the hop (Jim Devine the former Labour MP for Livingstone is currently in gaol along with three others from England whilst a fourth awaits sentencing. The Conservatives had a couple of peers sent down but the worst of the sleaze in the UK, even in the bright new Westminster coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats [choosing to support the party with the larger share of the popular vote this time], still belongs to the Labour party).
With the LibDems having screwed over the electorate at both devolved AND national level, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that the Conservatives have just become the third party in Holyrood (on the plus side, it was getting confusing having two viable political parties in Scotland who both wanted to be yellow) but the shock to almost everyone was that every single disenchanted voter north of the border seems to have gone just one way – straight to the SNP.
This is despite joyful scare stories like the one my (now) former Labour MSP gleefully told me, about the SNP support for joining the Euro (I’m really hoping that has now changed) but strangely, the traditional anti-SNP spectre – Independence for Scotland – has failed to raise a scare this time around anywhere north of London.
[David Cameron] said: “I passionately believe in our United Kingdom, so I congratulate Alex Salmond on his emphatic win, but I will do everything obviously as British prime minister to work with the first minister of Scotland, as I always do, and treat the Scottish people and the Scottish government with the respect they deserve.
“But on the issue of the United Kingdom, if they want to hold a referendum, I will campaign to keep our United Kingdom together, with every single fibre that I have.”
After the results this week, I’m just not entirely sure that Scotland in any way agrees with him.