After a long weekend of counting the dust has settled on one of the most interesting series of local and regional elections in Great Britain.
Hume Brophy’s UK Public Affairs expert Mark MacGregor shares his insights with input from Kevin Pringle, a partner at Edinburgh’s Charlotte Street Partners on the Scottish Parliament elections results.
From shattering defeats to…
“Labour’s problem runs deep. People don’t trust the Labour Party. I have seen focus group polling where people were presented with a particular policy and they liked it – until they were told it was a Labour Party policy and they didn’t.” Steve Reed MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
This was the verdict of the Labour Shadow Minister despatched to explain to the media why the Labour Party had suffered a series of shattering defeats in the elections last Thursday. The defeat in the Parliamentary seat of Hartlepool, a seat the Party had held since 1974, was the precursor to Labour losses in local government elections across the north. This brutal but refreshingly honest analysis gave me a sense of déjà vu. When I was Chief Executive of the Conservative Party just after they had suffered a similarly devastating election defeat in 2001, I watched group after group of voters describing the Conservative in the same way.
Acknowledging the scale of this trust deficit is an essential but necessary first step for any political party. After all, it took the Conservatives almost a decade to understand the scale of their own reputational problems. They went through three party leaders before finding one – David Cameron – who was willing to make the kind of changes that would restore their reputation. That same challenge faces Labour today. To win back that trust is not a question of redesigning their logo or tweaking a few policies. Or even to pretend that the few successes Labour did manage last week – winning elections in places like Cambridgeshire or the West of England mayoralty or even holding on in Wales, represent a genuine route back to power. What is needed is the kind of fundamental shift that Tony Blair led in the 1990s.
The threat to the Conservatives two decades ago did not simply come from their traditional rivals to the left, but from UKIP. That same scenario now confronts Labour. In Scotland, the SNP has already destroyed the bedrock of past Labour election victories. The success of the Green Party in the local elections, adding an extra 88 councillors and scoring successes in many mayoral contests, shows the potential for another left wing party to siphon away significant numbers of potential Labour voters.
The other challenge facing Sir Keir Starmer is that Labour is immensely comfortable about taking on the Conservative Party of the past. The trouble is that that Party only exists in their imagination. As the brilliant Rafael Behr Guardian piece so elegantly put it: “Labour still campaigns against the nasty party because it is the one they can beat. There have been many lines of attack against a parade of Conservative leaders, but the underlying message is consistent: same old Tories.”. In recent years, under both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the Conservatives have moved away from being the small state, free market party of the past, investing (even before the pandemic) billions more into the NHS and prioritising public sector investment into Red Wall areas as part of their levelling up agenda.
The problems facing the Labour Party are immense. Turning around a reputation – as much for a political party as for a business – does not happen in days or months but years. In fact, political parties have no inalienable right to exist or to succeed. A look at the fate of a swathe of left wing parties, in France, Germany, Italy and beyond, show what is at least a possibility for Labour here.
But the Party does at least seem to have recognised its parlous position. While much attention will be focused on the reshuffle of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet team, the most important appointment was bringing in Deborah Mattinson as the new Director of Strategy. She is the author of the book, Beyond the Red Wall, that explains precisely why Labour lost support among working class voters. That feels like an important step in the right direction. Labour is certainly in a tough place right now but, just as the Conservatives took the steps to turn around their fortunes in the early 2000s, so Labour has the chance to do the same.
… a fourth term
First, the news that everyone can take pleasure and some pride in. The record turnout for a Scottish parliament election, in the midst of a global pandemic – at approximately 64% – suggests a healthy degree of confidence in Scotland’s devolved system of government, scrutiny and accountability.
The overall result of this election – an emphatic SNP win for a fourth term of government – was never in doubt. But we started the campaign by posing three key questions about aspects of the outcome which carry significant consequences, to which we now have the answers: whether the SNP would get an overall majority notwithstanding the proportional electoral system, whether the Scottish Conservatives would fend off Labour to retain second place, and whether any of the minor players, particularly Alex Salmond’s pro-independence Alba party, would win any seats.
While there is no SNP majority, the 64 seats it holds plus the 8 won by the Greens represent a clear majority of 72 pro-independence MSPs out of Holyrood’s 129. And unlike at the 2016 election, both parties had clear and unqualified commitments to a referendum during the term of the next Scottish parliament in their manifestos. Nicola Sturgeon may be tempted to consider a more formal arrangement with the Greens, which would solidify this independence majority at Holyrood.
The Conservatives will be pleased to have maintained their level of representation, and Labour will be relieved not to have fallen further. Alba joins the long list of new parties during the devolution era that tried and failed to break through on the regional lists. For the Lib Dems, they now face the prospect of not being recognised as a fully-fledged Holyrood group, which requires a minimum of five MSPs.
Tactical voting by supporters of pro-Union parties was a definite feature of this election. However, while this prevented the SNP from gaining a number of its target seats, it wasn’t a strong enough factor to deprive the party of any of its existing seats. There are also indications of Conservative voters being more inclined to switch to Labour (for example, to help Jackie Baillie retain Dumbarton) than vice versa.
While the election ensures that there will be a stand-off in the coming years between the governments at Holyrood and Westminster on the question of a referendum, all sides are agreed that the immediate priority must be recovery from the pandemic. When the dust has settled from the election, there may be a period of relative calm before the constitutional storm ahead.