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Thursday, 10 May 2012

Who Won The Local Elections?

Whatever the official line is from the political parties, each of them will have dissected and re-dissected the results, taking whatever can be spun as being positive, for public consumption, while party strategists decide if there are any other messages contained in the canvassing returns, which point to less obvious lessons the parties can take on board. The Lib/Dems will find it difficult to get any solace from the results and Willie Rennie was quick to concede it was a terrible night for the party. Ruth Davidson was also quick to concede the size of the defeat but tried to argue that the Tories are the senior partner in a very unpopular government, pushing through unpopular but, in their mind, very necessary policies. The Tories in Scotland did not do as badly as their counterparts in the rest of the UK, therefore Ms Davidson could see some light at the end of the tunnel.

The obvious winners were the SNP because they won the largest number of seats and the highest percentage of the popular vote. Despite being pressed on several occasions to concede the ambitions of the party went beyond that target, Alex Salmond refused to give that particular hostage to fortune, if one ignores his warning to the Labour Party that "the SNP is coming". This was a rather oblique reference to the contest in Glasgow, which other senior party figures readily conceded was the SNP's top target. No matter how much that is now denied, the general impression among commentators, the Unionists and the SNP itself, was that Glasgow was seen by the SNP as a realistic target. Again, no matter how much it is now denied by the SNP, the disappointment among the party activists runs deep because they fully expected to take not just Glasgow but North Lanarkshire as well, thereby eating into the traditional heartland of the Labour Party in Scotland.

In round figures, Labour won fewer seats than the SNP but, a point which I have not seen made, they contested far fewer seats - 497 against the SNP's 612 - but won 31.39% of the vote against 32.32% for the SNP, a difference of less than 1%. Despite having fewer Councillors, Labour has complete control in four councils as opposed to the two under SNP control and is the largest single party in ten councils as opposed to five for the SNP. That can be dismissed as Labour having their support more concentrated in certain parts of Scotland, whereas the SNP has won seats the length and breadth of the country. Much time and effort has been expended by the spokespersons of both parties since the results became known, emphasising how both SNP and Labour have seats in the far-flung corners of Scotland, an indication that both parties have increased their followings. Nothing can explain away however, the victory of Labour in Glasgow - a total of 44 seats and overall control - as opposed to the SNP's 27 and - disappointment.

It suits Labour to point to the disastrous results in the Holyrood elections of 2011 and how the party has turned things around since then. Johann Lamont did herself no harm by her demeanor after the results were known, by acknowledging that Labour had taken a hammering but had "listened to the people but still had a long way to go". It suits the SNP more to point to the results in 2007 - to compare like with like - and point to the increase of 62 Councillors in "mid-term" when parties of government tend to be punished. They obviously want to ignore, at least publicly, the substantial drop of 12% in their share of the vote since the Holyrood elections of 2011. Both sides are correct, as far as the analysis goes, but there is far more to those results than just the figures. The psychological momentum is with Labour because they didn't just hold on to Glasgow, they did so comfortably, giving them the opportunity to spin the result like mad. Their support in Scotland may be more concentrated bu it is still in the largest centres of population and, inexplicably to SNP activists, in some of the most socially deprived areas of Western Europe, social conditions which generations of Labour dominance have done absolutely nothing to alleviate.

Can anything be taken from the results that can be seen as a pointer to the likely outcome of the referendum in 2014? Political scientists and commentators will argue "No" for a number of reasons; the low turnout, the different platforms, the emphasis by all parties before the polls that "this was not about independence" (SNP) and "this should not be about independence" (Unionists) and the relative sophistication of the electorate in the way it changes its voting patterns for different polls. None of that will stop the political parties and commentators from using the polls to suggest the results will reinforce their own analysis. There was a time when every election, as far as the SNP was concerned, was seen as a stepping stone to independence; every council seat, every election contested let alone won, provided a platform to push the idea of independence. Alison Hunter, the SNP's Glasgow leader, said as much during the campaign and was slapped down on all sides, including her own, for doing so. But what else would a party do, whose raison d'etre is supposed to be independence? Unfortunately Alison Hunter is the "Old SNP" and obviously is too honest for her own good.

The "New SNP" has spent so much time either talking down independence or ignoring it completely, that many of the activists seem to have forgotten the party's raison d'etre and if it were not for the Unionist media and parties insisting the "SNP is obsessed with independence", much of the electorate would have no idea the party actually had it as its ultimate aim because they would see never a mention of the word on the election material shoved through their doors. Gradualism has taken such a grip on the party that their 300 year strategy will ensure that none of those living and active in the campaign today, will ever see it. The SNP insisted throughout the Holyrood campaign in 2011 that Scots were not being asked to vote for independence, they were voting to be given the right to a referendum, while the party saw it as an opportunity to show their competence in government The SNP, like the Unionists, saw the election as being about jobs, education, health and all the other responsibilities of devolved government. That being the case, the election of the SNP government cannot be interpreted as showing support for independence in any way, shape or form. Now, no matter how many seats were won by the SNP, the victories are not to be seen as the party pushing the idea of independence, they were about "local" elections and whatever "local" elections are about. That includes council tax, emptying bins, parking and other items, deemed so unimportant that the vast majority of the electorate cannot even be bothered to vote. Independence has become the political aspiration that dare not speak its name.

We have now reached the situation, accepted by the SNP which has allowed itself to be pushed into fighting every election on the ground determined by the Unionists, where elections which are about jobs, education, health, council tax, the smooth and effective governance of our local needs have nothing to do with independence. If that is the case, what is independence all about? We will be told it is about getting more power to Scotland, greater powers over taxation, borrowing and defence, in other words, those areas of government where the power has been retained by Westminster. To argue therefore, that independence has nothing to do with jobs, education, health et al, is a complete nonsense. Without independence no Scottish government can do anything about improving the availability of jobs, improving health and education because they all depend on economic powers, which no devolved Scottish government has under the Devolution Agreement. The SNP has given itself a mountain to climb to explain why, having told the Scottish electorate that none of the issues addressed in the Holyrood elections of 2011 and the local elections of 2012 had anything to do with independence, they should vote for a constituional change which would appear to alter so little. The Unionists have effectively spun the story that independence is about changing the constitution and little else, therefore why bother? Of course they then have to explain why, if the constituional change is so unimportant, their own scare stories about all the ills that will befall an independent Scotland are worth a light.

Unfortunately, the SNP has done much of the work for the Unionists by conceding so much ground already, following a strategy that seeks to change as little as possible, just in case some focus group takes fright. Retaining the monarchy has been a long-standing policy of the SNP despite the alleged left-wing credentials of the current leadership, most of whom were leading lights in the allegedly left-wing '79 Group, therefore there is nothing new there. However, in the past year since the Holyrood elections, the party has decided it will keep sterling and ask the Bank of England to be the lender of last resort, thereby giving control of monetary policy to London whereas it was earmarked for Brussels before the crisis in the eurozone kicked that into touch. John Swinney has already asserted that assurances will be given to the Bank of England about an independent Scotland's taxation regime. Does that mean goodbye to lower corporation tax? Alex Salmond has also confirmed  the SNP will keep UK income tax rates, so no change in taxation at all? I have already pointed out that Salmond's claim that Fiscal Policy has primacy "in the modern world", is nonsense but on the basis of the statements from the First Minister and the Secretary for Finance, an SNP-led independent Scotland would control neither monetary nor fiscal policy, which begs the question of how it is going to develop an independent Scottish economy?

 Membership of NATO will become party policy at June's National Council, which throws the nuclear deterrant part of the treaty into doubt, despite the declarations to the contrary by some activists. There is a growing suspicion that under pressure, the SNP will soften its opposition to Trident, particularly in light of the problems England will face with finding an alternative site. Angus McNeil, SNP spokesman on defence, has spoken openly about agreement with rUK on defence bases throughout Scotland and the latest declarations by MOD that at least two Scottish regiments will be disbanded shortly, led to three expressions of outrage from SNP MPs and MSPs. For suggesting on Twitter that reducing the chance of young Scots being sent to fight in foreign wars must be a good thing, I was accused of being anti-SNP and nothing but a unionist troll. To some SNP activists at least, so long as the requisite amount of money is being spent in Scotland, London can send as many of our young people to die in illegal wars as they want, and anyone who disagrees is just anti-SNP. In light of that reaction, and that of the likes of Pete Wishart to the abolition of two Scottish regiments, I have to ask what independence actually means to these people and the New SNP.

The campaign for the referendum starts in a few weeks, by which time the question on the ballot paper will have been settled - perhaps. The consensus of opinion among political commentators, in the immediate aftermath of the election results, was that the SNP will be keener than ever to have a second question on the ballot paper. This suggest that despite most commentators being reluctant to openly concede that Labour took more out of the elections than did the SNP, they actually think the SNP fell well below not only expectations, but the kind of result which would have encouraged the party to believe it had taken a positive step towards gaining a "Yes" vote. It seems that the elections were in fact about independence, it was just something that could not be admitted. For the SNP to concede it wanted a second question on the ballot paper, would be tantamount to conceding it could not win a straight "Yes" vote, which would kill the prospect of independence being won this time round. But some of its strategists argue that in order to get anything thought to be worthwhile out of the referendum, a second question is a "must". Who is going to bell the cat?

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