Friday, May 13, 2011

The Scottish Elections

By our Scottish Political Correspondent

IN THE AFTERMATH of last year’s general election, in which Labour reversed the trend in England, members thought they had a fair chance of reversing the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary elections that saw the Scottish National Party form a minority administration with 47 MSPs, only one more than Labour’s 46. When the formal campaign for the 2011 election began this seemed unlikely as Labour’s lead in the polls faded away. After an insipid and accident-prone campaign by Labour it was clear that former Royal Bank of Scotland economist, First Minister Alex Salmond, was staying put in his official residence.
However it was not until the early hours of Friday morning that the extent of Labour’s defeat and the Nationalist triumph became clear. The final results saw the SNP secure an overall majority with 69 seats, Labour came a distant second with 37, the Tories had 17 (two down from 2007), the Liberal Democrats, despite frantic efforts to distance themselves from the coalition, dropped to five seats from their former 16. Two Greens and an Independent (a former Nationalist) retained their seats.
Labour lost a lot more than the reduction of nine MSPs implies. As only 73 MSPs were elected for constituencies with another 56 being elected on a top-up party list system some of their losses were compensated by gains on the lists. Under this system the former Tory leader lost his Edinburgh constituency seat, but will reappear as a regional list MSP. However, none of the Labour constituency MSPs were also on the regional lists, so those new Labour MSPs are not exactly inspiring figures or intellectual heavyweights.
Remarkably the percentage of people voting Labour declined only by a microscopic 0.5 per cent, but the fact that only one in 200 voters deserted Labour was of no help as the SNP vacuumed up votes from disaffected voters from all other parties, thus causing Labour to lose the sort of seat where they used to weigh the Labour votes.
As has became the norm in the three previous elections to what comedian Billy Connolly called the “pretendy wee parliament,” the election saw only about half the electorate inspired to rise from their sofas to the polling stations. Turnout was particularly low in working class areas; in one Glasgow constituency turnout was a just under 35 per cent. The highest turnout was 63 per cent in a leafy former Tory seat won by Labour.
On the fringes of the election those standing for left-wing parties did not make any significant impact. Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Party and their former comrades in Solidarity stood in all the regional lists. Political train spotters can find full details of their votes at the bottom of the results tables among those for the Pensioners, Christians, UKIP and single issue candidates.
Curiously enough, of these three left parties the one which did the best was the SLP which, in contrast to the other two, has virtually no visible presence in Scotland. In Glasgow George Galloway, standing as a Solidarity-backed opponent of the cuts failed to win a seat, doubtless much to the relief of the remaining Labour MSPs whom Galloway cruelly, but accurately, described as having a struggle to become nonentities.
In Donald Dewar’s old constituency of Glasgow Anniesland, the incumbent Labour MSP lost to the SNP by a mere seven votes. This was the sole seat in Scotland contested by the Communist Party of Britain, whose candidate who polled 245 votes. He was quoted in the Morning Star as saying “... the defeat of Bill Butler, a consistent left-wing Labour MSP, is a blow to the whole left in Scotland”. That may be the case, but if so why oppose him in an election? In the west of Scotland there were many right-wing MSPs who would have been better targets.
The fascists, in the form of the BNP and the curious Scottish Homeland Party (who want to prevent Turkey joining the European Union, hardly a vital issue to Scots) all did badly. However the BNP’s small vote was always greater that the two Trotskyite parties.
Until a dramatic change of tack in the last week of the campaign, Labour more or less ignored the SNP and spent most of its time and energy attacking the Con-Dem Coalition. Given that David Cameron was not actually standing this was a big mistake. Labour’s few attacks on the SNP focussed on their plans to hold a referendum on separating from England as being a distraction from more mundane economic questions. Opposing such a vote was clearly an error, given that if a referendum actually been called it would have seen a resounding defeat for the Nationalists.
What of the future? The insipid Labour leader Iain Gray, who only just survived election night, is standing down as leader. The pool of talent to replace him is not great. For what it matters, the leader of the Liberal Democrats also fell upon his sword, leaving four other MSPs in the running. This leadership contest is unlikely to be riveting viewing.
Trying very hard not to gloat, El Presidento, Alex Salmond in his victory speech, claimed that he would “govern for all the ambitions for Scotland and all people who imagine that we can live in a better land”. These pieties bring to mind Margaret Thatcher’s quoting St Francis on the steps of Downing Street when she was first elected Prime Minister and promising to end strife.
Salmond’s previous administration did indeed introduce some welcome minor reforms such as abolishing prescription charges for the few not covered by exemptions, but his main policies are not progressive. He and his normally Tory backers want the Scottish Parliament to have control of taxation in order to reduce Corporation Tax on multi-national businesses. Tellingly, shortly before the election Salmond’s main attacks on the Tories focussed on their plans to levy a tax on oil companies.