Picking up the Pieces

So, was Thursday’s election really as bad as it looks for the SNP? The answer is yes.

The Labour party has just formed a new UK government having won 63% of the seats with just 34% of the votes. In a contest were two out of every five voters stayed at home. That’s first past the post for you. It exponentially distorts results when seats are in three- or four-way contention. And this is the most distorted result in history. A mandate a mile wide and an inch thin. But no-one is going to challenge it because no-one did any better.

Some might try to take comfort by saying that the electoral system also distorts Scotland’s results. Labour has won two thirds of the seats with just 36% of the votes in Scotland. And the SNP was less than six percent behind.

This is true. But anyone looking for salvation for the SNP in these figures is delusional. Percentages are only half the story. Less than half when turnout plummets. To understand how bad this is we need to look at actual votes cast. At the 2019 general election the SNP got 1,242,380 votes. This time 708,759. That is a drop of 43%. More than four out of every ten people who voted for us last time chose not to do so on Thursday. Is this sinking in yet?

The first step to recovery is to acceptance. Then we need to dry our eyes and think through a rational plan for recovery.

In the aftermath of Thursday, still picking through the electoral debris, it is far too soon to draw conclusions. We need to start by asking the right questions, to discuss what went wrong and what to do about it.

For starters let’s accept we lost. And just as winning elections means you have a mandate, losing them means you do not. There is no point arguing that we still have a mandate from 2021. Mandates only last as long as it takes for people to reconsider them. We tried to discharge the 2021 mandate by asking the UK government, and then the Supreme Court for permission to have another referendum. Both said no. This time we asked the people to back us in continuing the journey to independence anyway. The people said no.

That is not to say that we stop or tone down our arguments for independence. Far from it. Others may follow Groucho Marx’ doctrine “These are my principles, if you don’t like them, I have others”. But that is not an option for us. The only rationale for the SNP is to be the political wing of the national movement for autonomous self-government.

This result is undoubtedly a setback for the independence movement, but it can also be an opportunity to renew and refresh. So, first off let’s ask why people did not vote for us. It’s a complicated picture, as various groups of people withdrew support for different reasons, some contradictory. Broadly speaking there were positive and negative reasons.

The positive, and let’s face it, the measure is relative, was that people were seduced by the argument that whilst the SNP could oppose a Tory government, only Labour could replace it. It’s a strong argument. It doesn’t even depend on spelling out an alternative, any change is better than no change. It was a better argument than we had.

We mitigated that argument on the doorstep saying as England was voting Labour anyway, the choice was to add to their majority, or have someone who will push them to do more. But that simply means that had the result in England looked closer, even more might have switched in Scotland.

Undoubtedly many, probably most, who were floating between SNP and Labour and who eventually plumped for the latter, did so out of despair rather than enthusiasm. In my experience these people were more likely to be white collar liberally minded people who came to the independence cause over the last decade believing it offered a better route to social democratic reform. In this election they decided it didn’t.

What we do not yet know is whether this represents a definite change in outlook for this group, or whether Thursday’s decision was temporary and tactical. Many of them are probably not sure either. Whether that change sticks depends in part on how we respond, but also mainly on whether the Starmer government succeeds in making any worthwhile social or economic reforms.

And now to the negative reasons why people didn’t vote for us. There are many factors here, each one contributing a little bit, but accumulating into a significant slap. People were sending us a message and we need to hear it.

Top of the list is that a significant section of those who support Scotland being an independent country did not believe that we had any strategy for achieving it. They didn’t even see the point is voting for the idea, again. And in truth, they were right. We don’t have a strategy.

Then there were those who feel that everything is shit and they blame us for it. Most of these people never voted SNP, but some did. Underperformance in areas of government the SNP control definitely affects the trust and confidence some of our supporters have in the party. Labour’s attack on both governments worked well for them, making us take some of the flak for a profound discontent with governance in general.

Others cited policy reasons for withholding their support. At times we even got shot by both sides. I well remember canvasing in a stair near Waverley station and arguing with a woman who said she couldn’t vote for us because the party’s policy on making it easier for people to change gender undermined the rights of women. Five minutes later I was upstairs being told by her neighbours that they couldn’t vote for us because Kate Forbes was DFM and that clearly meant we didn’t care about trans people. To my mind neither of these things are true. But we need to understand why people believe them.

I lost several thousand green votes too. Our position on managing the decline of and transition from oil and gas was misrepresented. We didn’t counter with sufficient clarity and conviction.

And then there was the elephant in the room. Operation Branchform never mentioned, always there. Hard to fight an election with your former leaders awaiting charges, especially when many of the public perceive little distance between now and then. A perception not countered by the debacle over iPad expenses.

So what do we do?

As above, no easy conclusions or answers. But we need to start asking questions in five areas.

Firstly, we need to explain how Scotland could become an independent country. That starts with stopping pretending it is just around the corner and can be achieved at the next election. We never had a postmortem on the 2014 referendum. There was talk in the months after of a ten-to-fifteen-year strategy to win the next one. That got derailed by Brexit. Now ten years have passed. The Supreme Court ruled that the British constitution does not allow people in Scotland to sanction a review of the union without Westminster consent. That needs to be challenged intellectually and legally and we need a plan to do it.

Secondly, we need to argue the case for independence in the new context of a UK government that suggests it wants to achieve the same reforms that we seek from self-government. That task is made easier by the stated lack of ambition of Starmer’s government. 

We should set demands for the new UK government. I’d start with ten, but happily focus on fewer. So, just for illustration:  £16Bn for NHS, reschedule debt to fill the IFS 18Bn black hole, a statutory minimum wage of £13 per hour, recognise Palestine, abolition of Lords, proportional representation, review Rosebank license, 28Bn green transition, increased top rate of tax for millionaires, a public energy company to own and develop wind and marine. All things Labour voters would agree with. All things the Labour leadership doesn’t. And all things that if refused by the UK government make the case for Scotland having the powers to do them itself.

Thirdly, and especially as we approach the 2026 election, we need to explain better the limitations and constraints of devolution. The “two governments” mantra needs to be exposed for suggesting a false equivalence between what is essentially a provincial administration in a small part of the UK, and the fifth most powerful state in the world. We need to show the shackles of devolution, whether legal or financial, and have a synchronised approach between the Scottish government and our representatives in the union parliament to challenge them.

Fourthly, we need to have a laser like focus on service delivery in those areas where we do have control. Not having the money or power to do some things does not excuse bad performance in the areas we do control. The new Programme for Government provides an opportunity to reset and reprioritise in the new circumstances. We need a small number of achievable targets, and we need to achieve them in a year.

We should also be more confident and persuasive in talking about what has already been achieved. Our opponents do tell lies, and even when not lying they will put the worst possible interpretation on things. Our new party leadership rightly came out fighting on the government’s record. That is going to be more relevant in the next election than in the one we have just had.

Finally, we need a process of internal renewal. Most people join political parties to indicate passive support rather than get involved in them. But the proportion of our members who are active is abysmal. We need the will and the organisation to allow many more people to become engaged.

That ought to involve a fundamental rethink of the structures and governance of the party, with a new focus on grass roots organisation. It will also mean opening doors to the disillusioned and discontent elsewhere in the independence movement. British conservatives have just suffered their worst defeat in history, not because more people believed in Labour, but because they were divided. It’s a lesson we need to learn too.