Election night is always a strange, somewhat surreal experience, watching the future of a country unfold in the midst of bleary eyed, tired campaigners, anxious candidates, and earnest counting agents. As the results unfolded in the early hours of Friday 8 May, it felt like there were two elections happening: one in Scotland, which was a changing of old order for new, and one in (most of) the rest of the UK where the old order was being strengthened, reinforced, and seemingly further entrenched.
Neither result was supposed to happen. Both results were shocks of a kind not seen in British politics for a very long time: the Scottish election because of the scale of change, and the English election because of its outcome. The different political landscapes between Scotland and the rest of the UK create a uniquely dynamic political environment – one I think no one really knows how will play out over the next months and years. In some ways, that is up to us on the left. It is a challenge but also an opportunity.
I am still reeling somewhat from the English result. I am very, very angry because I know the Tory majority will result in people dying. And, I am angry because of the failure of all of us on the left not to be able to convince enough people that our anti-austerity message had to win.
The polls got it wrong in England because they misunderstood how differently Labour and Tory voters would act: overestimating the Labour turnout and underestimating the Tory turnout. In seats the Tories won, turnout went up. In seats Labour should have won, turnout went down.
It is clear that Labour voters didn’t vote because Labour had comprehensively failed to give people anything to vote for. Austerity-lite is not an attractive option to those who oppose austerity, nor is it desired by those who see the cuts as vital to securing an economy for the wealthy. Conversely, the Tory voters turned out in their droves, because they are terrified of us Scots, wanting to break up Britain.
So the context of the general election across the UK was clearly last year’s independence referendum. This gave unionists a scare – 55% was less than they wanted. It was not a clear enough victory to put the question of Scottish independence to bed for a generation. It kept alive the hope in many of us that, although we had lost the battle, we might yet win the war.
This is partly because of the diabolical way in which senior unionist politicians acted: before the referendum, promising us the world and, after the referendum, reneging on those promises. We only have to look at the ways in which Labour and the Conservatives collaborated in the Smith Commission process to understand just how little stock they held in any of the grand promises and gestures made.
And we, the radical movement of the independence campaign, changed the framework within which the referendum was fought: from discussions of Scotland retaining NATO membership and cutting corporation tax of 2011 and 2012 to a Scotland fighting to save the NHS, introducing free childcare, and creating a new politics and a new Scotland.
This gave the SNP the platform it needed to do so well. Labour was powerless in the face of such a vision of hope. In many ways, the election proved Ralph – father of Ed – Miliband right when he said that the left could never win through Labour because it has so bought into the Westminster way of doing politics. Ed Miliband became utterly incapable of offering the case for change: neither the economic nor constitutional change we all seek fits in with what Westminster wants. The SNP showed that, because it isn’t tied into the broken beast of Westminster, it could not only make the case for economic and constitutional change in the direction we all wish to see (even if it does not go as far as we might wish) it can do well and win.
It is tempting to say the election results prove that England and Scotland are different. In some ways, some of us might wish that to be the case. But I’m not sure it does. Social attitudes surveys and the like indicate that people north and south of the border share some of the same values and ideals. Remember that Scotland elected a UKIP MEP last year. Sure, there will be some distinctions, but they aren’t great enough to deliver the yellow-blue divided world that we now inhabit. What matters is the freedom that the SNP has by not being bought into the Westminster system.
This gives me some cause for hope. There is common ground that we must build with our comrades and friends south of the border, and of course in Wales, and perhaps even in Northern Ireland. We must use this to resist the devastation that is heading our way.
With the new cabinet, the moves to abolish the Human Rights Act and abandon any semblance of union legitimacy, and so on, the prospects are terrifying. We have to mobilise against these neo-liberal attacks on citizens across Britain. And we, the left in Scotland, can show the same leadership that we showed in the run-up to the referendum, now on a much greater scale, working with others who share our aspirations for the creation of a just alternative.
Greens must be central to this. We are the only ones to the radical left of the SNP in both the Westminster and Holyrood parliament. We have electoral legitimacy and policy positions to promote a strong, people-focused and democratically accountable economy in Scotland and the rest of Britain. And, we will work hard to build the movement for radical change over the coming weeks and months.
Maggie Chapman is the co-convener of the Scottish Green Party and a councillor in Edinburgh. She also sat on the Smith Commission.