Scottish elections have tended to be rather disturbingly predictable in recent times. If the candidate is wearing a yellow rosette and isn’t a Lib Dem, they’ll probably win. Ahead of our elections on May 6th, this trend, if polls are to be believed, looks to be holding up.
What do you expect? The Conservatives are the largest opposition party currently, but they’ve peaked at 20-25%. Can you expect Scots to vote for a scandal-ridden party that has done little to tackle nationwide poverty, and is currently undergoing scrutiny over missing or misallocated sums of money? Clearly you can, given this description equally fits the SNP as it does the Tories. Pictures of massive food lines in freezing winter snow, findings that Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament over the handling of the Alex Salmond inquiry, and a curiously missing £600k (that three members of the party’s Finance and Audit committee have already resigned over) currently being looked into are a mere handful of high-profile Scottish Government embarrassments in the last year. Not to mention the exam results fiasco, a U-turn over trials without a jury, and COVID-19 patients being shunted into care homes along with extremely vulnerable older adults. The recent resurgence of the BLM movement also leaves the SNP sitting uncomfortably, with the glossing over of the death of Sheku Bayoh in Police Scotland custody in 2015 looking increasingly intolerable. The SNP have been in power in Scotland, in minority or majority, for the last 14 years. Surely we can expect some fall in popularity? Not so, at least not massively – there is talk of a possible SNP majority at Holyrood.
There’s a clear failure of democracy in the fact the SNP have seen no sizeable decrease in support. Bad governance, dishonesty and incompetence should not be rewarded, regardless of whether it’s Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon. The fact it probably won’t even make a blind bit of difference in both cases is, frankly, worrying. Such a phenomenon as electoral untouchability is worrying enough in itself, let alone in Scotland, where we use a far more representative voting system than First Past the Post. A key part of democracy is its use as a feedback mechanism for public choice. If the government does badly but people still vote for them anyway, this crucial feedback mechanism fails, and leads to further bad governance.
Of course, not all of this is due to dogmatism, seeing as the Opposition parties don’t offer much in terms of an alternative. The Tories can successfully hoover up the right-wing of Scotland, comprised mostly of farmers in the North-East and Borders and hardcore staunch unionists in Lanarkshire. But as said above, they can’t do much more than that due to lasting bitterness in post-industrial areas, a generally pro-EU sentiment, and a massive aversion to the haunted scarecrow of a Prime Minister.
The biggest disappointment here is Labour. For years the party of choice for Scots – as you’d expect, given Labour’s origins lie in industrial North Lanarkshire and Keir Hardie, namesake of Labour’s current leader, was Scottish – the red rose has wilted horribly into a previously unthinkable third place. What began under Blair, the slow haemorrhage of Scottish voters to the SNP, has continued under successive Scottish Labour leaders: the blustering Murphy, the hopeless Dugdale and the hapless Leonard have been unable to arrest the decline, which only showed signs of stopping in 2017 under Leonard – but the main figure of that campaign was, of course, Jeremy Corbyn.
The lesson from this should have been clear. The only way Labour can compete with the SNP is on the left. This is how the SNP gained power from Labour, and it’s the only way Labour can gain power from the SNP. How can Anas Sarwar, a Starmer loyalist and a fairly likeable, if bland, leader compete with Sturgeon’s personality cult combined with the raft of public spending the SNP have promised? Free laptops for every pupil, nationalisation of ScotRail, another independence referendum; it’s clear from this is that Scottish voters want something like Corbynism. Yet Labour has hamstrung itself. If the Scottish wing of the party starts outflanking the SNP on the left successfully, it puts pressure on Starmer down in London, who is waging a war on the left of Labour in England. The only strategy available to Sarwar, consequently, is smile-and-wave centrism with a sprinkle of social democracy. This, as experience in Scotland shows, is not a winning strategy.
Add to this mix the irrelevant Liberal Democrats, a quietly optimistic Green Party, and Alex Salmond trying to break back into Holyrood with the new Alba party, and you have an electoral storm. Anything could change between now and May 6th; even the slightest change could alter the tone of the whole election. But one thing is clear: if the SNP are in majority government on the 7th May, both the Scottish public and the Scottish opposition will have failed politically.
Words by Gabriel Rutherford
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