No matter how you look at it, the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary election was a convincing win for the SNP. The party was seeking an historic third term after nine years in charge at Holyrood. It got it. With knobs on. More votes than ever before in a Scottish parliamentary election and a bigger share of the vote too.
What’s not to like? Well, I guess the fact that even though it was its best ever performance the party still lost a few seats and narrowly missed out on an overall majority. That, though, is how the system is designed. It is almost impossible to get more than 50% of the seats unless you get more than 50% of the votes. Almost, but not quite. Last time round in 2011 the SNP did just that, but in retrospect it’s pretty obvious that was something of a fluke, involving winning some unlikely seats by a whisker in three or four way marginal contests. Nowhere illustrates this better than what happened in Edinburgh.
In 2011 in Edinburgh the SNP won five out of the six constituencies with just 36.9% of the votes cast in the city. Quite an achievement. This happened almost entirely because the pro-independence vote rallied behind the SNP, whilst the unionist vote was split amongst two or three parties. This meant a number of three and four way contests and led to seats being won with less than a third of the votes cast. The additional members elected from the Lothian list are meant to even things out so that the combined number of list and constituency seats for each party is in line with their share of the vote. But the list only adds seats; it can’t take them away so the ability of the system to re-balance is limited.
Last time round in Lothian the SNP took eight of the nine constituency seats on 39% of the vote (we did slightly better in the non-city seats). We didn’t get any extra seats on the list but that still left us with half of the region’s seats overall.
Winning five of the six city constituencies gave something of a distorted view of the party’s strength in Edinburgh. It’s never exactly been a safe area for the party having been a bastion in times past for both the Tories and Labour. And the 2014 referendum result showed a clear majority against independence. And yet many in the party, and it has to be said many neutral observers, believed that we could have won six out of six city constituencies. That might have happened had the parties split in the same way as five years earlier. But in the end that didn’t happen and wishing it had seems, in hindsight, gloriously optimistic.
One of the consequences of this was a lot of glum SNP faces on polling night and a feeling that we’d lost in the city. We did lose some great people who would have, and have, made superb MSPs, but they’ll be back. As a party we have no need to be disappointed in our performance. We won half of the constituencies in the city; we increased our share of the city’s votes from 36.9% to 38.2%, with a thirteen point lead over our nearest rivals who are still the Labour party. We should take heart from this steady progress which puts us in pole position for the council elections next year.
A look round the constituencies shows that the changes in how people who support other parties voted was the main factor in the fortunes of the SNP. In two of the six seats – Eastern and Pentlands – the profile of votes was the same as last time. We held our share, increasing it a bit in Pentlands, as the silver and bronze positions stayed the same – although there was noticeable swing from Labour to Tory among the runners up. But in the other four seats the line-up changed.
In Edinburgh Southern, the most marginal of all where last time round Jim Eadie won on 29.4%, there was what appears to be a dramatic level of tactical voting by previous LibDem supporters. The LibDem vote fell from 24.6% to 5.8%. This, remember, is on top of the major collapse in their vote which had already taken place in 2011. To get less than 6% in a seat they once held shows a remarkable willingness by this section of the electorate to vote tactically. There wasn’t much guesswork about who was best placed to stop the SNP, Labour were second last time and won the equivalent Westminster seat last year. So, against the national trend the Labour vote went up by 8%, enough of swing to beat Jim Eadie, who himself got more than two and a half thousand extra votes and increased his share by 3%.
In Edinburgh Western it looks like Labour repaid the favour. The SNP’s Toni Giugliano got 34.4%. This would have won the seat in 2011. But by 2016 the opposition to the SNP was thinking tactically. Here the LibDems were seen as the main challenger – having held the seat for years and coming second last time. The Labour vote fell from 20.4% to 9.4%, and this is one of the few areas where the Tory vote fell too. The majority of these switchers rallied behind the LibDem giving them enough to win.
In Edinburgh Northern and Leith things were even more interesting. In 2011 this was one of the few areas where there was no swing to the SNP from Labour. In fact, sitting MSP Malcolm Chisolm had actually increased his vote by over 6% in that election. It seems fair to speculate that a lot of this was down to Malcolm. He had a track record on the left of the party and was a supporter of devolution which would have meant many Labour Yes voters would have stuck with him, holding back the tide of history that swept the rest of the country. That all disappeared this year as Malcolm’s finger was removed from the dyke and the electorate overran the Labour candidate to give the SNP’s Ben MacPherson the biggest swing in the city.
And so to Edinburgh Central, now the seat of Tory leader Ruth Davidson. The SNP’s Marco Biagi had won this for the first time in 2011 with the narrowest of majorities – just 237 – and 32.8% of the vote. A full quarter of the electorate who vote Labour and LibDem last time did not do so this time. The two beneficiaries were the Greens and the Tories. Davidson doubled her vote share to 30.4% leaving her the victor with the smallest share of votes cast in any election in the city and a majority of just 610 votes.
The Green’s Alison Johnston stood here and took 13.6% of the votes. Now, of course, this is a democracy and the Greens have every right to stand wherever they want but I wonder if they might now be regretting that particular decision. It would be different if they had stood candidates everywhere. But they didn’t, the Greens stood only in three constituencies – testing the water for battles yet to come. Had they not stood and their 4644 votes went elsewhere it seems inconceivable that the SNP’s Alison Dickie would not have made up 610 votes between her and the Tory leader. The effect of that would have been one less Tory and one more SNP in the parliament, and a much smaller grin on Ruth Davidson’s face. Why the Greens decided to contest this seat rather than Northern or Eastern where they also have a decent base and the Tories are nowhere is, frankly, beyond me.
The SNP were the clear election victors in Edinburgh but just a word about the Tories before I finish. Back in 1987 Thatcher won her third term in office in the UK. But in Scotland the Tories were extremely unpopular and they got hammered in that election, losing most of their Westminster seats. In that election they still got 24% of the popular vote. Ruth Davidson has done a lot to get rid of Thatcher’s toxic legacy but it’s worth remembering that last Thursday she still fell short of the dismal vote share achieved a generation ago. The Tory result – and they lost the election badly – looks better than it is for two reasons. One, they couldn’t really have shrunk much lower. There always have been Scottish Tories and there always will be. But more importantly they only look not too bad because Labour is even worse. The reason that the Tories, with less than a quarter of the seats and barely a fifth if the vote, are the opposition is because the Labour Party got even less.