The election shows Scottish politics is still in a state of flux

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 10 May 2016 in Inside Politics

A nuanced election result proves Scottish politics still has the capacity to surprise

Nicola Sturgeon appeared outside Bute House, her official residence, a day after the election. The scene was set up like a Downing Street press conference, with a lectern placed outside the building and the media fenced off on the other side of the street. 

Some women hung out the windows of the neighbouring Georgian townhouses, craning to see what was happening – an uncommon sight in the genteel splendour of the New Town, which at least gave proceedings a distinctly Scottish air.

A rather larger crowd had gathered behind the press, a mixture of SNP supporters and curious tourists, to hear what the First Minister had to say.


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The results had been public for a few hours. The SNP won 63 seats – two short of a majority – the Conservatives took 31, Labour won 24, the Greens six and the Lib Dems five.

A clear win for the SNP but the business as usual Downing Street-style set-up contrasted sharply with the scenes from 2011 when then SNP leader Alex Salmond arrived by helicopter at Prestonfield House Hotel to bask in the glory of having secured the Scottish Parliament’s first ever majority. But then, Sturgeon no doubt recognised her victory, while historic in terms of the numbers and the fact she had secured a third term, was nonetheless less dramatic than 2011.

Sturgeon talked about having won “a clear and unequivocal mandate”, along with her intention to govern in the interests of the whole country. She said education was her “passion and priority”.

“To those who voted for me yesterday, thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she said, adding, “to those who did not vote for me, I promise I will never stop striving to earn your trust and support.”

It was five hours since the results had been confirmed and Sturgeon had just taken the customary phone call with the Prime Minister. A press release afterwards said the two leaders had congratulated each other on their respective results and pledged to work together where possible.

Elsewhere politicians had trudged, bleary-eyed, away from election counts and television studios by mid-morning to snatch some sleep, before returning to the merry-go-round of public appearances once again later that same day.

At the same time as Sturgeon was appearing in Charlotte Square, in front of hundreds of cameras, Kezia Dugdale was sitting on one of the curving concrete ledges that run round the Scottish Parliament pond, doing radio interviews.

An hour later, Ruth Davidson spoke at a hotel in central Edinburgh.

Willie Rennie appeared along with new MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton at the party’s Edinburgh West campaign office, where they were joined by a surprise appearance from UK leader, Tim Farron. The three laughed as they held up silver ‘M’ ‘S’ and ‘P’ balloons for the cameras.

It was a result  few had expected. After a night at the counts, for successful candidates the day must have been a blur.

The SNP won 46.5 per cent of the constituency vote, bringing 59 constituency seats, and 41.7 per cent of the list vote, winning the party another four MSPs. So while the party’s share of the vote increased by 1.1 per cent in the constituency vote (against 2011), it was hurt by a 2.3 per cent fall in its regional vote share.

The Tories saw a surge in support, taking 22 per cent of the constituency vote and seven constituency MSPs, along with 22.9 per cent of the regional vote, bringing another 24 seats. Their constituency vote went up 8.1 per cent, and the regional vote rose by 10.6 per cent.

For Labour, though, the result was a disaster, even for a party that has spent the last few years redefining the meaning of the word.

Labour won 22.6 per cent of the constituency vote but took just three constituency seats, along with 19.1 per cent of the list vote, which brought 21 MSPs. The Labour constituency vote fell by 9.2 per cent, and its regional vote dropped 7.2 per cent.

The Greens won 0.6 per cent of the constituency vote and no seats, but a 2.2 per cent increase in the regional vote, taking the party up to 6.6 per cent, won the party six seats. Rennie, meanwhile, pulled off a surprise win in North East Fife, with the party also taking Edinburgh Western, Orkney and  Shetland, plus one regional seat. Against 2011, its constituency vote went down 0.1 per cent and its regional vote stayed static.

Representation of women in parliament remained unchanged, which means they are still underrepresented, with just 45 of the 129 seats (just under 35 per cent). Labour has the highest proportion of female MSPs, with 45.8 per cent, the SNP come next on 42.9 per cent, the Tories trail on 19.4 per cent, and the Greens on 16.7 per cent. The Lib Dems have five MSPs, all men. 

Dr Meryl Kenny, lecturer in politics at the University of Edinburgh, said: “At the start of the Scottish Parliament election campaign, it seemed that the tide had finally turned for women’s representation in Scotland. The past two years had ushered in change not only from the top down – evidenced in the ‘female face’ of political leadership in Scotland – but also from the bottom up, through the civic awakening that had accompanied the referendum.”

She added: “Thirteen years on, the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections remain the high point of women’s representation in Scotland at all political levels (at 39.5 per cent). We can and must do better.”

And while there is no doubt Sturgeon’s party won the election, given the SNP lost seats on 2011, and in the context of a surge in membership and in the polls, to some supporters the result was underwhelming. If the system had been first past the post, the party would have cleaned up, but with the additional member system set up to stop a majority, the aim of replicating 2011 proved impossible.

Aberdeen University’s Professor Michael Keating said, for the SNP, the result was “disappointing only in comparison with 2015”.

This was a much more nuanced result than many had expected and understanding the outcome, it seemed, came down to expectations. But there was no way to spin Labour’s result, with Dugdale’s party receiving its lowest vote share in a century.

Labour had been braced for a tough night, but still, the party was clearly shocked by the reality of being overtaken by the Tories. Former MP Thomas Docherty, third on Labour’s Mid Scotland and Fife regional list, said the result was proof the party had moved “further backwards” from its collapse at the general election.

In her appearances the next day, Dugdale was adamant she would stay on as leader.

As she put it: “It’s a very bad night for the Labour Party, there is no question about that. I was adamant that I would fight this as an election about the future, talking about the potential for change, using the powers of our new parliament to deliver that change instead of rerunning the arguments of the past.

“And I know that for some the constitutional argument remains the most important factor when casting their vote and my determination to try and move the Scottish debate on will have cost me and my party votes tonight.”

Whether it was her determination to shift the debate on or other factors, like her plans to increase tax, which cost the party was not immediately clear. The Tories certainly used questions over the constitution to great effect, with Davidson’s clear opposition to a second referendum helping to attract those concerned by confusion over Labour’s message.

Speaking soon after Sturgeon, in her new constituency of Central Edinburgh, the Scottish Tory leader wasted no time in returning to her favourite topic.

“Now that she [Sturgeon] has failed to win a majority, whatever claims the SNP were pursuing with regard to constitutional brinkmanship over the next five years have now been utterly shredded.

“As she starts her new term of office, I hope Nicola Sturgeon makes it clear that she will now focus entirely on what she was elected to do: lead a devolved administration. I urge her to start this new parliament by ruling out another referendum.”

This argument, though, ignores the Scottish Greens – the only other party, apart from Davidson’s, to see big gains on its 2011 showing. And whether Davidson likes it or not, the Greens’ success means there is a pro-independence majority in the Parliament, even if that fact does not change anything in the immediate future.

After Sturgeon and Davidson had made their appearances, it was Patrick Harvie’s turn to provide his take on what it all meant.

By late afternoon he was sitting with four of his five fellow Green MSPs, along with the party’s co-convener Maggie Chapman, who missed out on a space in Holyrood, to face the referendum question.

“We’ve said right throughout this process that it shouldn’t be for politicians alone to decide this,” he said, adding, “and it certainly shouldn’t be for politicians who have had no sleep to decide.”

Referring directly to the argument that the SNP coming short of a majority weakens the case for a second referendum, Harvie said: “I’m not sure what the logic is of saying that a parliament with a pro-independence majority is some sort of instruction from the people never to raise the question again.

“We have suggested mechanisms for gauging public appetite, for example, a citizens’ initiative. Others have suggested opinion polls or academic research. The question about whether, in Nicola Sturgeon’s words, ‘a material change’ was to happen has also been raised. I don’t think anybody can honestly say that they know when another independence referendum will be called. I personally don’t doubt that one will be called and I look forward to campaigning for a Yes vote when that happens, but if you are asking me if I can put a timescale on it or when I think it should happen, I don’t know.”

Clearly, then, if support was high enough for a second referendum then a parliamentary vote in favour could be won, but that is a big ‘if’.

In fact, in some ways the result may take the pressure off Sturgeon. An SNP majority may have fuelled calls for the party to demand a second vote in the immediate future – which it would be unlikely to win – while a more fragmented parliament may allow the SNP leader to negotiate a vote if she wants one, but delay if the timing does not suit.

However it may take time for the true meaning of the result to become clear.

The election shows Scottish politics is still in flux. Some, inevitably, will point to the success of the two parties with clear – albeit opposite – views on independence as proof that the constitution defines Scottish politics. But this election was much more complicated than that, and talk of Scotland splitting stubbornly on constitutional lines does not do justice to the different forces driving the result.

Ignore the fact the SNP’s seat count declined on 2011 and its success is staggering. Over a million people voted SNP in the constituency ballot, the highest backing for any party in the history of the Scottish Parliament. It won every constituency in six out of Scotland’s seven cities, with Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness, Stirling and Perth transformed uniformly yellow.

For Labour, the result is disastrous, with the party continuing, as it has since the referendum, to redefine failure.

And it is hard to precisely gauge how different things will be for the next five years. On the face of it, Holyrood is much the same. Nicola Sturgeon will still be First Minister. The SNP will form the government. Ruth Davidson, Kezia Dugdale, Patrick Harvie and Willie Rennie will still lead their parties in the parliamentary chamber.

But it will not be same, and that is the beauty of Scottish elections. The SNP will govern but without a majority. There are 61 new MSPs and although the make-up will be very similar, and the gender balance identical, at the same time the parliament will be fundamentally altered.

This will not be five years of watching the SNP push through whatever it wants, regardless of opposition. Indeed, the result may raise questions about why Sturgeon was not bolder, more radical, when she had her 18 months of leading a majority. But that does not matter now.

Governing over the next session will require compromise. It will require deals.

Some will inevitably look to 2007 as a guide, but that too is misleading. Governing with 63 seats will be a fundamentally different process to getting by on 47, as Salmond did.

But there are clues as to what change we should expect. Every party will hope to influence the SNP on tax. The Greens have already stated their intentions to push Sturgeon to something more progressive, while, on income tax at least, the Tories and the SNP are not too far apart. As Rennie put it: “On issues like tax there is more that unites the Tories with the SNP than divides them.”

Named person plans, as well as offensive behaviour at football legislation, may be revisited. And with the SNP’s majority gone, the mechanics of the parliament itself may come into question.

Speaking after the result, Davidson spoke of plans “to have discussions between my party and other parties on how we can continually improve the apparatus of the parliament and make it better in every parliamentary term, and I think it’s imperative we start that now”.

Over the last few years there have been repeated calls for reform of the committee system, which was far less effective in the years of majority government, and with the new session it seems likely that change will come.

Sturgeon’s speech on the afternoon following the vote nodded to a new culture in Holyrood.

Her voice echoing over a makeshift tannoy, the First Minister made a promise. “The government that I lead will be inclusive. It will deliver on the commitments we made to the Scottish people – but it will also reach out and seek to work with others across the parliament to find common ground and build consensus.”

She added: “We will govern with conviction and determination but also with humility and a willingness to listen and to learn from the ideas of others.”

The words were heartening, even if a cynic would suggest she has no choice. The result is in and the SNP has found itself teetering on the edge of a majority, in a system designed to stop one. 

In 2011 the voting system seemed to deliver an anomaly. In 2016 the outcome has returned to something more normal.

But for the next five years, with the Tories in second place and Labour in disarray, with new powers arriving and constitutional questions burning in the background, Scottish politics will be anything but business as usual.

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