The SNP are now facing the dual threat of a resurgent Scots Toryism, driven by a nationwide unionism and a reviving Scots Labourism, driven by the clear leftism of Jeremy Corbyn. Nicola Sturgeon is going to have to pick a side; the SNP era of ‘all things to all people’ is firmly over.
Rewind two years and the political landscape was so different. The SNP activists were meeting in their thousands to cheer their leader on, all wearing brand t-shirts. A kind of football-meets-carnival atmosphere; all pointing it seemed to the inevitability of their political vision.
What a difference two years makes.
Since then the SNP vote has collapsed from 49.9% share of the vote (2015 GE) to a significantly lower 36.9% (2017GE). The casualties of that vote share collapse was 21 Nationalist MPs. Their westminster top brass, and most recognised television faces all booted out by the electorate. The SNP knew they would take a hit (having 56 MPs and nearly 50% vote share implies you can only head downward), but the sheer scale of their vote decline surprised them. I will myself admit to expecting the SNP to -perhaps- lose 11-12 total, but nothing like 21. So what happened?
1. No, Scotland hasn’t suddenly become more small ‘c’ conservative
This first point needs emphasising. Let us not pretend or lie to ourselves. The reason 6 out of 7 N.E constituencies fell to the Scots Tories was complicated, but hardly an endorsement of a new brand Conservatism. In part it was frustration with the SNP years-running failure to pay farmers their subsidies, in part is was the pro-brexit feelings of the fishing communities. Neither of these groups have been well inclined to the SNP and their brash pro-EU messaging in recent years. Add into this picture the poor shape of the oil and gas industry – and a palpable sense that the SNP government in Edinburgh has taken Aberdeen for granted and you begin to see why voters rejected the SNP. Naturally this is all wrapped up in the biggest factor of them all: voters in the N.E simply did not want another independence referendum.
This would all suggest voters were voting as much against the SNP as they might have been voting positively for the Scottish Conservatives. Ruth Davidson now has the unenviable difficult task of turning a unionist anti-SNP vote and melding it into a ‘Scottish Tory’ vote base for the longer term. I think she can manage it, she has surprised many and worked miracles for a party feared dead; now the second largest party in all Scotland.
2. Labour under Corbyn has exposed empty SNP ‘progressive’ rhetoric
While we were all analysing the Scots Tory revival in Scotland, the underlying trend that will most worry the SNP was the Scottish Labour forward movement. They managed to pick up 7 MPs and came second in 25 others. And in many of those second places, they were not far off the SNP incumbents. What will surely concern the SNP looking into the middle distance is the risk of a Labour party under Corbyn stripping them of the west coast and central belt seats. Constituencies the SNP now rely on, especially with their collapse in rural Scotland.
It seems to me Dugdale’s hardline ‘no to indyref2’ when coupled with Corbyn’s unashamed leftism proved a surprisingly attractive option for some old labour voters who had hitherto defected to the Nats. The problem Sturgeon faces here is obvious: the SNP have been trading on the argument that Scotland cannot ever get a leftist government so long as it is in the UK. But the rise of Corbyn puts paid to that argument. Indeed the SNP during the 2017 general election were left making the thoroughly ridiculous case that to get Corbyn in as PM you needed to vote…erm…for the SNP.
Ruth to their right in rural Scotland, Corbyn (perhaps) to their left in urban belt Scotland: it is beginning to look like Sturgeon’s SNP is getting squeezed.
3. SNP government record is pulling them down
And the third major factor to help explain the big hit the SNP suffered over the last two years must be their domestic record. Nobody (not even the hardest of hearted cybernat bullies) can any longer pretend that there isn’t something seriously wrong with Scottish education. Stories of 4,000 unfilled long term teaching places, coupled with the disastrous PISA scores helped give flesh to the opposition claims that Sturgeon was ‘not focused on her dayjob’. An electorate weary of constant votes and referendums, hesitant to even contemplate yet another indyref took this claim on board. They looked at their kids schools, they waited in the lengthening A&E queues and decided that Sturgeon really ought not be pushing for another referendum. There were so many bread and butter problems needing her attention.
The SNP have spend a decade avoiding hard legislative choices, in case it weakened support for independence. Under Salmond especially they traded on lofy ‘progressive’ rhetoric but legislatively failed to ever be quite as bold as their talk. And it has ended with this: only 3 bills the whole of last year in Holyrood – and over 7 months since the SNP even debated education in government time. Their poor domestic record; which can politely be viewed as middling and mediocre; has finally started to catch them up.
Nicola Sturgeon is going to have to choose. Does she keep pushing indyref2? Or does she drop it completely till the next Holyrood election? Does she shift her rhetoric and policy proscriptions leftward to counter Corbyn’s labour? Or does she try and regain lost ground in the N.E by appealing to the pro-brexit crowd in places like Banff & Buchan? Nicola Sturgeon has tough choices to make, and she needs to do it while leading a party that has been in government for over a decade now. And with her own falling personal ratings too…
The future of Scottish politics has never been more uncertain or complex. Scotland’s voters are becoming more promiscuous, but only within the confines of the toxic constitutional divide the SNP has bequeathed us all. SNP, Scots Tory and Labour all within 10% of each other’s vote shares following GE2017. Who knows what the future holds?