Editorial: Old wine in old bottles?

Though Charles Dickens did not say ‘It was not the best of times. It was not quite the worst of times’ as he began his novel, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), this is what it feels like for the left after 6 May 2021 elections for the sixth Scottish Parliament.

After months of electioneering as well as all the hopes and hype, the big picture is actually that things are pretty much as they were before. And, the polls in the immediate run up to 6 May, were not far off either predicting this eventual outcome. Plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose – meaning ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’ – does not adequately sum this up. Hence, a bit of ‘What the Dickens is going on?’ being needed.

But before we get on to that, it has to be acknowledged that the SNP streamrollered the opposition despite tactical (pro-Unionist) voting, a strangely becalmed political atmosphere due to the pandemic, and an increased turnout (up from 56% in 2016 to 63% in 2021). For a party that has been in office one way or another since 2007, that is no mean feat. To go one better on the ‘first-past-the-post’ constituency seats compared to 2016 is nothing short of miraculous. To have nearly won a majority of seats (65/129) in the parliament from the constituency seats alone (62 seats) is astounding. If the SNP had not been hamstrung by the D’Hondt method for calculating the list seats apportionment and, instead, had won the number of seats according to the size of the vote it received, that would have amounted to another 22 seats. The effect would equate to sum of 64+22 = supermajority. But that is precisely what the choice of the d’Hondt system was designed to prevent.

All that said, the SNP’s mandate to govern is actually not really any different from before. It had a clear mandate without or without the Greens from 5 May 2016. One seat does not make a huge difference. Even with the SNP governing as a minority party, this does not change that. This is to see the wood and not the trees.

What explains the SNP’s dominance? As ever, it’s a combination of what the SNP did and what the opposition did not do. The SNP was virtually untroubled by the opposition. Sturgeon was not wounded by Salmond and was strengthened by her enhanced profile during the pandemic as well as her overall handling of it. The SNP is pretty managerially competent as a governing party so was not a hostage to any banana skin slip ups – just compare Sturgeon to Boris Johnson. Some suggested that the SNP would have been in trouble without its independence totem for this would have caused voters to take more notice of its palpable weaknesses on education, health and transport.

Though it lost ground in seats (down two) and votes (down 1%), Scottish Labour under Anas Sarwar did not tank. Some will say this an achievement and endorsement of Sarwar and his politics. The argument runs that in less than three months, Sarwar steadied the sinking ship left to him by Leonard, giving Labour a good basis to recover before the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2026. But there are some obvious holes in this argument. First, it’s not clear that voters are widely aware of what Labour stands for, other than opposition to another independence referendum and independence itself. Like down south, its version of ‘Build back better’ is not clearly distinguishable from that of the governing party (see below). Merely stating again and again, the focus should be on tackling the effects of the pandemic more effectively and not independence does not cut much ice with those that think independence would allow the Scottish Government to do that exactly that – deal with the effects of the pandemic more effectively. Second, as the ‘new kid on the block’ of party leaders and from the centre (and not the left like Leonard), Sarwar was always likely to get a better press from the Scottish media. But that’s not to ignore that he is a more effective public performer than Leonard turned out to be. If Sarwar was shown to be incompetent, the media would have blasted him for it no matter being new and more ‘on message’.

The Greens are the only small success story for the left. They increased their number of MSPs by 25% (from 6 to 8) and their list vote share by 1.5%. They were the obvious party to vote for if the argument for a ‘supermajority’ held up to significant scrutiny. But it did not seem to do so, and they remain small fry (and even smaller after Alison Johnstone was willingly elected to the politically neutral role of Presiding Officer). The SNP has no reason to allow them to play a ‘kingmaker’ role given its own 64 seats. And, the Greens got nowhere near displacing Labour as they said they hoped to.

The much-heralded great disrupters of Scottish politics decidedly disappointed. One was to wreck the union and the other was to save it. Despite the widespread initial publicity given to Alex Salmond’s new Alba party, not only did he not return to Holyrood but Alba barely gained 45,000 votes across the whole of Scotland, representing just 1.7%. Clearly, voters dislike Salmond and were not convinced by the ‘free pass’ argument of vote SNP in the constituencies and don’t waste your list vote on it in order to create a ‘supermajority’ for independence. They did want to waste their list vote – all 1.1m of them. Alba supporters will no doubt try to salvage something by saying they are now ‘on the pitch’ and have 2 MPs and a few councillors (all of which defected from the SNP) from which to build from. But this is special pleading for Alex Salmond, their ‘great communicator’, will find it difficult to communicate to the masses without being in Holyrood. Alba is another lesson in the huge difficulties of breakaway parties from established parties (as the Scottish Labour Party found in the 1970s when it broke from Labour).

‘Gorgeous’ George Galloway has long since stopped being greeted as such at the polling booths. That last time was in 2012 in Bradford despite various other forays since. His ‘All for Unity’ attempt for the list seats (securing just 23,000 votes across Scotland) included urging people to vote Tory where necessary in the constituency seats. Like with Salmond’s Alba, it shows that successful new political entities cannot be magicked out of thin air in next to no time.

The far left had another miserable showing despite their being fewer far left parties standing. This was not a case of unity though. Solidarity, led by Tommy Sheridan, joined Action for Independence (see below) and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) did not stand as it saw the pandemic restrictions as making campaigning for it not worthwhile. Instead, it concentrated upon its campaign for a publicly-owned National Care Service. The Socialist Labour Party, led by Arthur Scargill, did not stand. Though not standing in all list regions and constituencies, the Communist Party and the Scottish Trade Union and Socialist Coalition gained less than 4,000 votes between them.

Whilst 34 MSPs did not stand for re-election (up from 20 in 2016, 24 in 2011, and 14 in 2007), it is not expected that the left will be well represented within the new batch of 43 MSPs as Neil Findlay, John Finnie, Elaine Smith and Alex Neil have departed. We do hope, however, that Carol Mochan (Labour, and Secretary of the Campaign for Socialism) and Maggie Chapman (Greens) will do their best uphold the left. We have a vested interest in this s as both Carol and Maggie are members of the editorial committee of the Scottish Left Review.

When it comes to the issue of independence and another referendum, it’s surely a case of ‘All hail the chief’ with Sturgeon. She – and the SNP – have won the case for caution and conditionality. Saying there won’t be a push for another referendum until the pandemic is over was clever footwork. It assuaged some of the concerns of those considering voting SNP, especially with support for independence in polls falling since March, and now, post-election, gives her ample latitude to decide when to go for it. All the evidence suggest that will not be anytime soon.

But standing back from this, several things become apparent. There’s still not much of an SNP strategy to gain a Section 30 order if Johnson refuses one. And, other than a renewed SNP-dominated mandate for independence, how much different is the situation from before? There were 69/129 pro-independence MSPs and there are now 72/129 pro-independence MSPs. More than a simple majority but not a supermajority that Johnson would find less easy to ignore. Indeed, the pro-independence list vote was just 50.1%. Some have speculated that the only way Johnson would agree to a referendum would be if he was sure of winning one, mostly likely a case of a post-pandemic V-shaped economic recovery that would be seen as a credit to UK PLC. Yet there was one important difference. In 2016, the mandate was less specific for a referendum and based on unknown outcomes (like Brexit). This time it was explicitly stated in SNP and Green the manifestos of both the SNP and Greens. Maybe that was why Gordon Brown intervened again with his ‘save the Union (via a constitutional inquiry) from its Tory destruction’ message.

For the left inside the SNP and the pro-independence left outside of it, the problems are multiplying. First, all Alba failed and that was after Action for Independence (formerly Alliance for Independence) and the Independence for Scotland Party threw their lot in with it by standing down for the election. Even though organisations like All Under One Banner and Now Scotland are neither electoral organisations nor political parties, this will make their jobs that bit harder. It will depress some of their activists and followers. Second, much of the SNP left decamped to Alba. That means the left inside the SNP is now weaker and it is unlikely that the defectors will be allowed back in to the SNP anytime soon. This particularly affects the Commonweal group inside the SNP given that it made advances in the internal SNP elections earlier this year. Third, the street strategy of All Under One Banner and Now Scotland is unlikely to be able to exert much pressure on Sturgeon with her renewed and slightly enhanced mandate.

Returning to the Dickens analogy, it was not so much a case of a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ as a tale of two or more countries. In Wales, things could not be more different than in Scotland. Labour secured 30 seats, just one shy of a majority, there are no Greens members and the SNP’s equivalent, Plaid Cymru, trails the Tories. Labour will govern on its own. In England, Labour got trounced in all but a few places like Liverpool, London and Manchester. The main problem Labour has – and has failed to recognise -is that the Tories are spending money rather than cutting it so the argument of not spending enough is a much more difficult one to make. Starmer being a competent parliamentary performer does not alter this. His ‘management’ of Labour is increasingly in doubt after the Rayner debacle. But more importantly, he is surely on the slide now because the ‘red wall’ continues to crumble with Hartlepool and the council elections. We will return to this issue as the balance of forces between Labour and the Tories in England has significant implications for politics in Scotland, especially in regard of independence.

All in all, maybe not so much as case of old wine in old bottles but maybe more old parties in old parliaments.

Three tales of a single city
The tremendous victory in Kenmure Street was followed by mass civil disobedience of a very different kind in George Square two days later. The next day thousands of citizens of Glasgow marched from George Square in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The police response to each was somewhat dissimilar. We shall look at these matters in the next issue.