“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” – Abraham Lincoln
A strange election in strange times has, after more than the usual delay, returned a result that seems almost strangely familiar. Prior to the 2016 election, the “received wisdom” was that the majority SNP government was going to come back to power with that majority and thus usher in five years of “boring government” under a “one party state”. Instead, we got a minority government and everything that followed from that. This time round, the challenge to “restore” that majority government was rejected and we again find ourselves with a Parliament that looks really quite similar to the one in 2016. Many of the names have changed, many of the seats have not. The SNP have fallen one seat short of a majority, the Tories remain the “2nd party” by equalling their previous tally, the Greens have increased their ranks and Labour and the Lib Dems have reduced. Despite enthusiastic campaigning by their activist, no new parties have entered Parliament and none have left either (though the Lib Dems have dropped below the “major party” threshold which may have significant implications for them). From a pure democratic stance, at 63% the turnout was the highest of the devolution era – despite or in spite of fears that the pandemic would suppress it. More voters is always a good thing. As is diversity in the Parliament with record numbers of women, people of colour and other underrepresented groups in the House.
A full breakdown of the results in each constituency and region can be found here.
There will be discussion over the coming days about the makeup of Government and whether the SNP continue to run as a minority or whether they form a formal coalition – most likely with the Greens. For my part, with a track record of two minority governments I think that a coalition is unlikely and my preference would be against one anyway for reasons I’ll detail below but primarily because of my feeling laid out on Thursday that a Government that can rely on whipped loyalty will make less good decisions than one that has to justify itself to Parliament.
The call for a second independence referendum must now intensify. There is a Parliamentary majority capable of passing a referendum bill and instructing the Government to proceed with its manifesto promise. Indeed, between the SNP and the Greens there is now as many pro-independence MSPs in Parliament now as there were in 2011 when the first indyref was initiated. Mandates are sure to be traded – some more, some less valid – and we’re still lacking an effective pressure campaign to keep the tactical and strategic advantage on our side, but I think it is likely now that the only person who can actively prevent an independence referendum within the next Scottish Parliament is now Nicola Sturgeon. The campaign is there for her to take and run with.
For more detailed analysis of each of the parties and the overall political landscape, keep reading below the fold.
Returned to power for the fourth term, the SNP will be happy despite not quite getting a majority. There will be a lot of shouting on social media about the party’s performance on the Regional vote (they picked up only two Regional seats across the whole country) but we must remember that the Scottish Parliament is a semi-proportional system. Taken across both Constituency and Regional ballots for parties that won at least one seat, the SNP won 45.3% of the vote and thus in a fully proportional system would have been expected to win 58 out of the 129 seats. They have therefore benefited from the inequalities of our voting system to the tune of 6 seats. Less benefit that they would have got in a UK-style pure FPTP system (where they would have ended up with around 85% of the seats and a mono-dominant supermajority able to exercise absolute will over Scotland even to the point of re-writing devolved sections of the Constitution to their liking).
I’ll confess to being underwhelmed by the SNP manifesto. There’s a lot of good “Common Weal style” policies in it and I look forward to seeing them progress as fast as possible (especially things like Minimum Income Guarantee and free dental care) but on absolutely critical issues issues such as land reform and the climate emergency, we’re going to have to rely on the minority Parliament to push the Government forward rather than hold it back.
The other big winner of the vote this year pushing their cohort from 6 to 8. The party appears to have narrowly lost out on a second seat in Glasgow and on their first seat in the South of Scotland (with allegations of voter confusion created by a party calling themselves the Independent Green Voice). Other than South, there is now a Green MSP in every region in Scotland. They did benefit from the “overhang” of the election system to a degree on a purely proportional basis they should have won six seats but this calculation isn’t entirely fair as the Greens only stood in a few Constituencies.
The Greens are the most likely to be approached by the SNP for any talks about a formal coalition (even if a party like Labour or the Lib Dems might more closely align, historic animosity and the constitutional cleave makes these options about as likely as a formal coalition with the Conservatives). As stated above I think a formal coalition is unlikely and I personally would prefer there to not be one but if an offer appears on the table I’m going to judge it fairly and remain willing to be convinced. The Greens as a party are controlled by their members and we will be able to vote on any coalition offer. We’ll see where things go from there.
The Tories remain the largest of the pro-Union parties in Parliament, equalling their 2016 tally. Their solid campaign of “Don’t talk about the Constitution, only the Tories can stop us talking about the Constitution. Our one policy is to stop talking about the Constitution” was a successful one in the short term. They appear to have solidified their base in the seats they control although voters do seem to have been a bit cannier than they hoped and in areas where Labour or the Lib Dems were the closest runner to the SNP Unionist votes tended to go to them rather than the Tories. The Conservatives may have avoided a large drop in support due to losing their key flagbearer Ruth Davidson to the House of Your Unelected Betters (not that this stopped her appearing on many leaflets) but they haven’t particularly pushed forwards either. It was speculated in 2016 that they may have hit their ceiling and that further breakthroughs would be difficult. It certainly seems unlikely that they’ll be able to pull votes from across the constitutional divide and their current strategy of hoovering up pro-Union votes from the other parties on their side may have hit its limits.
They also now stand increasingly isolated on many policy fronts (a fact which they used to their advantage too on issues such as prisoner voting) so while they have won votes on a platform of “We are the One True Opposition” they may find their ability to effectively oppose an otherwise united Parliament to be quite limited.
The Labour party continues its slow decline. Squeezed on the Constitution by the Tories and on everything else by the SNP and the Greens, there is little space remaining for the party without substantial reform of a kind it seems unwilling to take. Anas Sarwar became leader of the party on a platform of firm rejection of an indyref but with trade union groups like the STUC now backing another referendum (albeit staying neutral on independence itself) and with many of the older, Unionist voters they tried to stick by over their younger, Indy-leaning ones now gone over to the Tories their niche not only grows smaller but possibly becomes increasingly more detached from their voter base.
I expect Labour to continue to campaign for their “third way” on the constitution and to maybe demand it as a price of supporting a referendum but it’s a hollow promise until they actually try to define it and show how it can be created without first having to have a Labour Government at a UK level. Boris Johnson might be slightly more inclined to offer Home Rule if the alternative is independence but he’d have to actively screw over his own Scottish Tories to side with Labour to make it happen. It would also critically disrupt his plans for a “One Nation Under the PM” reformation of British Sovereignty and his attempts to undermine and undercut devolution by throwing money at anyone willing to show fealty to the Mother Parliament.
Other than this, the Labour manifesto shows some promising aspects – notably agreeing with and in some places exceeding the offer from the SNP and Greens on aspects of housing and social justice. Their support for major programmes like a National Care Service, a Job Guarantee and Minimum Income standards mean that there is a solid Parliamentary majority for these things. There is no excuse for the Government to wait to bring them in – though I expect a lively debate around the details.
The Lib Dems
The last and now smallest of the Parliamentary parties in Holyrood the Lib Dems were the biggest loser in terms of proportional representation, winning enough votes to earn them 8 seats but only actually getting 4. Dropping below the “major party” threshold has significant implications in terms of their involvement in Committees, the amount of questions they get at FMQs as well as funding and other aspects of Parliamentary life in Holyrood – In many circumstances, Willie Rennie’s position as leader of the party might be in question but the brutal reality is that with only three other seats there simply may not be anyone there who wants the job (unless he resigned his seat and a potential successor fancied their chances at a by-election…). This might also have implications for things like air time on media channels – some will wonder if the Liberals swap out the place in the colourless “Others” box reserved for the Greens as late as last night. Maybe – but with the media in Scotland still so UK focused, I rather doubt it.
I can’t say too much in favour of the Lib Dems’ manifesto simply because apart from the Tories, they’re the furthest from me in ideological terms. They have some moments and their support of UBI and a Job Guarantee is laudable. Their push on housing and energy standards is the strongest apart from the Greens and they are one of the few calling for the National Investment Bank to be given the full powers that it needs to do its job.
On the Constitution, they will – of course – push for Federalism but their plans so far are still far too weak for that campaign to be credible (indeed, they don’t really amount to Federalism at all). As with Labour, until they can answer questions about their proposals with as much detail as is demanded of the independence campaign, they cannot be considered to be offering a serious “alternative” to independence (indeed, the very framing of Federalism as such an alternative is their first mistake).
The Alba Party
Alex Salmond’s Alba Party did not meet the electoral threshold to send any MSPs to Holyrood. Like many smaller parties before and alongside it, their campaigners did not read the streets as much as they read their own Twitter bubbles and thus many of them vastly overestimated the impact they were going to have. I’ll leave the arguments about their policies or their candidates to others but I would say that I warned campaigners for several smaller parties last year that creating a new political party and having it achieve electoral success is not a plan with timescales of weeks to months. It’s one that needs years to decades.
The party may or may not stick around and there are certainly roles in politics that do not require sitting MSPs. If they intend to return in future elections, perhaps they make use of the next five years to build a more solid base or to find more support in the next Council or UK elections (and we can’t forget that they do have some representation at Council and UK level thanks to some defections so they haven’t completely vanished from Scottish politics quite yet).
From an independence and from a climate perspective, these will have been the most critical of Scottish elections. There are fewer than nine years left to avert catastrophic environmental tipping points and this Parliament will take up more than half of that time. The pro-Union parties have and will frame independence as a “distraction” from recovery from the Covid pandemic and if they’ll “allow” a referendum at all it must only be taken “after” that recovery. Even the SNP have fallen into that trap. This is wrong. Independence must never be an end in itself but as a means to ends. In this light, independence must be used as the means of recovery. There is much that Scotland can do with the powers of devolution and it must do all of these with haste – See Part’s 1 and 2 of Common Weal’s “Resilience” blueprint for a list of these things. But we must also prepare for independence so that the moment that we hit the limits of our powers is the moment that we gain the ability to do everything else (See Part 3 of the above plan). It is absolutely essential that the incoming Scottish Government treats independence as one of many tools for the recovery and benefit of Scotland and not as an optional extra for “after”. Of course, if pro-Union parties wish to lay down their recovery proposal they are free to do so but if that proposal relies on “permission” from a UK Government that will not give it, then that plan is obviously incomplete and if that plan relies simply on allowing the UK Government to do what they want with Scotland then they must reflect that this is a proposal that has obviously been rejected by a substantial majority of the Scottish electorate.
Unlike many previous Scottish elections, the 2021 poll did not result in a Scottish Parliament that was significantly different from the previous one but I hope that the differences prove to be the distinction and that the Government – however it ends up being formed – will take on the challenges facing us with a boldness that it lacked in the previous session. I certainly look forward to engaging with the various new members of the Parliament. The near unanimity across the Parliament for many of Common Weal’s policies certainly show the value of our work in the past few years. May the next few be marked by turning those plans into actions.
[Edit 17/05/2021 – In counting the number of pro-independence MSPs in 2011, I neglected to include independent MSP the late Margo MacDonald.]