So no coalition then! The final result was a big surprise to just about everyone. Some joy in the big SNP vote and dismay and fear in the overall Tory win. There will be time to pick over the bones of the election, but here are my initial thoughts on what happened and what might happen next.
1. The size of the SNP win was almost unbelievable. Surely they could not win 56 seats in Scotland and wipe out not just Labour but also the LibDems? But they did, all but one Labour and LibDem survived the onslaught, alongside our statutory Tory MP. The scale of the victory was a bit surprising, but the victory itself was never in doubt.
There were early indications of the coming tsunami immediately after the referendum. Way back last September there was an impromptu public gathering in the centre of Dundee. The meeting was taken over by ordinary members of the public who, possibly for the first time in their lives, stepped forward to speak out at a public meeting. Their message was almost 100% anger and bitterness, especially against Labour. Their call was to join the SNP or at least vote SNP. All such comments met with rapturous applause. Now Dundee was a Yes city, so such a response was maybe to be expected, but it soon became clear that this simple message – join or vote SNP – was to be repeated and shared across the whole of the country.
Part of the success must also go to Nicola Sturgeon, who was probably the star of the campaign, and not just in Scotland. As the election drew nearer, the support for the SNP grew even larger. To win just over 50% of the vote on a high turnout was incredible. To win 56 out of 59 MPS is down to the absurdities of our First Past the Post election system. FPTP is inherently unfair and undemocratic, and every so often produces really exceptional results. Interestingly the SNP oppose FPTP, while Labour supports it. Perhaps time for Labour to think again about this one?
2. While the SNP ran a very positive campaign, Labour in Scotland ran a truly awful campaign. Their two key messages to the Scottish electorate boiled down to a) vote Labour to stop the Tories, and b) SNP are bad, bad and even badder. I know they had more things to say, some quite positive, but these other messages were continually drowned out by the above two claims. Both were ludicrous and everyone knew they were.
Firstly, in 2010 Labour played the same card, vote Labour to keep the Tories out, and Scotland by a large majority did. And what happened? The Tories still got in, admittedly with the support of the LibDems. However the key lesson that Scottish voters learned from 2010, was voting Labour did not guarantee a Labour government at Westminster. Only English voters can do that. Repeating a failed mantra from five years ago was a not particularly bright idea.
Secondly, constantly claiming that the SNP are bad and not to be trusted was a incredibly stupid line to take. The SNP was and is very, very popular in Scotland, witness its electoral success in 2011. It is also respected and trusted by very large numbers of Scots, including voters of other parties. In large measure due to their record in government in Scotland where they are widely seen as both competent and caring. Then of course we have the Nicola factor. The most popular party leader by far, and yet Labour try to portray the SNP as bad, bad, bad. Truly dreadful stuff, and who advises Labour on these matters?
Labour in Scotland were also not helped by Labour in England who ran a mildly austerity-lite campaign, which never succeeded in inspiring anyone. Jumping on the anti-SNP bandwagon did them no favours neither in Scotland nor in England. Not a very good show by Labour in England.
3 The LibDem wipe-out was a just reward for a party that betrayed its roots and its electorate. Putting party prestige and ministerial posts before the needs of the country in 2010, condemned them utterly and not just in Scotland. They were elected in 2010 primarily on an anti Tory and anti austerity platform, which had more in common with Labour. Yet within days they had sold out to the Tories and signed up as willing supporters of economic polices that have led to the worst and longest recession ever. And in return they got a few crumbs and nothing of substance, no electoral reform, no steps towards that federal nirvana they keep talking about. The ultimate talking-shop, that is what the LibDems have become.
4. The Tories remain toxic in Scotland. They continue to make little or no progress in their attempts to win back popularity, even in former Tory voting parts of the country. Their current leader, Ruth Davidson, continues to get rave reviews in the media, but has failed almost as much as her LibDem and Labour counterparts. No great surprise there, as our media is overwhelming right wing and keen to talk up the Tories in Scotland. Ruth Davidson, much like her predecessor, Annabel Goldie, is a well enough liked person, but I suspect that both failed to realise that we were not laughing with them, but laughing at them.
A brief word about the Tory campaign in England. This was a disgrace. Their economic and social policies are reactionary and based on a lie – see this excellent series by Simon Wren-Lewis for confirmation of this. Alas their anti-Scottish rhetoric and campaign went beyond disgraceful. Racism, pure and simple, is what the Tories in England descended to in their desperate attempt to cling onto power in England. Truly the nasty party is alive and kicking.
5. Despite my abhorrence of the Tories, I recognise that their victory is perfectly legitimate, even in Scotland. Last September Scotland voted by a clear majority to stay in the UK. Part and parcel of that decision was accepting that it is the electorate across the whole of the UK which gets to decide who forms the government. This was a UK general election and the Tories won an overall majority. No grounds for complaining now. It is true that the Tory vote share across the UK was only just over 37%. But if you add on the 12% who voted UKIP, the right wing bloc won almost half of the votes. The Tory majority comes from the iniquities of FPTP, but we all know this can happen. If you don’t like FPTP, vote for parties that favour real PR.
6. The election confirmed in a stunning way the extent to which the UK has become an ever more disunited kingdom. Despite their victory overall, the Tories have become effectively an English party with minority support in Scotland and Wales and none in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, Labour remains dominant in Wales, while the SNP are now even more dominant in Scotland, building on its success in 2011. Northern Ireland has always had its own parties and its own political system. The UK appears more broken than ever after this election.
7. What is perhaps more worrying from a Unionist perspective, is that these results seem to reflect a persistent and growing divide on policy issues between England and the Celtic parts of the kingdom. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, anti-austerity parties won substantial majorities. While England continues to elect pro-austerity parties. Clearly there are significant differences across England, but as a country the majority in England seem willing to continue with the Tories’ unnecessary and unjust austerity policies.
This divide in policy preferences probably extends to other key issues such as the NHS, education and housing. It may also extend to our membership of the EU, with pro-EU majorities in Wales and Scotland. Not sure where all the Northern Irish parties stand on the EU.
7. What next? Given all the differences in results and policy preferences exposed by this election, something has to change if the the UK is to survive. While I remain convinced that independence for Scotland is the way forward, this is not likely to happen anytime soon. Therefore it is in my interest to make the UK a more effective and responsive state, for as long as Scotland remains part of the UK. This can only mean a move towards a Federal UK. Already some people from both Labour and the Tories have begun to talk about this. An interesting take on this can be found here, where John Denham writes about the need for an English Labour party. Who would ever have thought it. Changing times indeed!