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The 2011 Scottish Parliamentary Results- Are we on the Verge of Independence?

Scottish elections billboardThe May elections were a political shock. Kevin Leetion asks, with the SNP landslide victory, are we on the way to independence?

Even to the most cynical and jaded of observers the 5th of May 2011 was a night full of surprises.  Despite the lead in the polls for Labour a few weeks earlier, by the time election day arrived most people were anticipating that the SNP would emerge again as the largest party.  The scale of the win, however, and the failure of Labour to hold onto seats where their vote has traditionally been weighed rather than counted, took many aback.  The outcome most people thought nigh-on impossible under the Additional Member voting system, an overall majority for a single party, came to be a reality.  At the same time, the left vote fell even further than the disappointment of 2007 and will inevitably provoke some soul-searching.  In order for the SSP in particular to move on we obviously need to understand why this happened, as well as appreciate the significance of the results and the possibilities this opens up.

An explosive result

2011 Scottish Parliamentary Election Results (1)


Constituency Vote

Regional Vote













































Lib Dem






















The figures tell their own story but the footage on election night was even more spectacular.  Andy Kerr, Tom McCabe, Frank McAveety, and Pauline McNeill were among the high profile Labour members to lose their seats.  Airdrie and Shotts, Uddingston and Bellshill, Clydesdale, Paisley, and Renfrewshire North and West, seats synonymous with the iron grip Labour has had on the Scottish political landscape for a generation, slipped from their grasp.   Their vote did not fall considerably, however, the SNP increased theirs significantly to take the first-past-the-post seats that had previously ensured Labour were winning a disproportionately high number of total seats compared to their vote.  For the first time, the percentage of seats Labour won was less than their percentage of the FPTP vote (although, as in the previous elections, it remained above their regional list vote).

What explains such a dramatic outcome?

In the four elections to the Scottish Parliament so far we have seen four very different outcomes, but each of which could be, to some degree, analysed in terms of the distribution of the left vote.  In 1999 a still popular pre-Iraq War Labour Party continued to ride on a wave of general goodwill.  They lost some of their vote in 2003, but not as much as the SNP, as the SSP, Greens, and independents gained as a result of anti-war activism and the ineffectiveness of the nationalists.  In 2007, for various reasons voters deserted the smaller parties and seemed to tactically get behind a rejuvenated SNP in order to remove Labour from office.  On this occasion, the SNP have continued to grow their support as the Liberal vote has collapsed and with Labour unable to capitalise. 


No analysis of the results is complete unless there is an appreciation of the centre-left programme of the SNP and its implementation in government.  It is interesting to note that Welsh Labour, the party that abolished prescription charges in their country, have never faced the pummelling that their Scottish colleagues have.  Many on the left, the SSP included, have serious criticisms of the SNP’s record in government and their 2011 manifesto, but they have succeeded in convincing people that they are the most credible ‘progressive’ party in the country.  Their four years in government have shown them to be no less competent than their predecessors but just as importantly they have positioned themselves to the left of Labour.  In contrast, the highest profile Labour policies in this election included draconian measures to tackle knife crime and a half-hearted attempt to mimic the SNP’s council tax freeze. 

Labour’s inability to put forward a progressive alternative was made worse by what was considered to be by most observers a very poor campaign.  It was, to quote one member, “uninspiring, ill-conceived and unsuccessful.”(2)  At the forefront of it was the uncharismatic and unpersuasive Iain Gray, a man who carried a permanent air of cluelessness which was exposed at the leaders’ debate and also on the trail itself.(3)  While Westminster MPs complained afterwards that they had been cut out, the campaign itself had a rather London-centric feel to begin with.  Their strategy seemed to be akin to ‘Scots distrust the tories; the tories are in government implementing unpopular austerity measures; therefore we will attack the Westminster government.’  While they busied themselves attacking the tories they were apparently unaware that they have been irrelevant (in terms of affecting the votes of other parties) in every Scottish election since devolution.  To be generous to Labour, they might have been hoping to pick up disaffected Liberal Democrat voters, after all, there were plenty of them.  However, if they did (which anecdotal evidence from canvassing suggests) it only means they must have lost even more of their previous supporters to the SNP.

There is evidence already that Labour will fail to learn the lessons.  If the blogosphere and twitter feeds of supporters, activists and representatives are any guide then the self-appraisal of their failure has been entirely superficial, focussing as it has on the weaknesses of their campaign and the delivery of their message rather than the message itself.  Some apparatchiks in the aftermath of defeat blamed a lack of a ‘second vote strategy’ for their defeat (i.e. that their core voters decided to vote for other parties on the regional list because they thought Labour would be a wasted vote).  Since 1999, Labour politicians and activists have sneered at other parties who have had candidates that have stood both in an individual constituency and the regional list.  ‘If you’ve been rejected by the voters once, you shouldn’t have a second chance’ has been the somewhat asinine reasoning that fails to consider both the nature of the voting system and the wishes of voters themselves.  Instead, Labour put all their high profile candidates in the constituency seats alone, confident that they will be returned.  They took their re-election for granted because they took their voters for granted.  That’s more than a lack of a ‘second vote strategy’, it’s the inevitable consequence of ignoring the needs of their traditional voters. 

The SNP, on the other hand, are now presented with a quite different challenge.  The ability to follow through with each of their manifesto commitments means they will be tested like no other party on the sincerity of their pre-election promises and the effectiveness of those proposed solutions.  They will be forced to operate under a restricted budget as determined by Westminster. Up to now, Alex Salmond in particular has been skilled in deflecting criticism and they will hope to do the same as tory cuts continue to filter down as well as using it as an argument for greater fiscal autonomy. At the same time there are some areas in which they will not be able to escape responsibility, no matter the financial constraints.  If they fail to introduce a fairer alternative to the council tax then they cannot blame a lack of consensus in the parliament.  And if they don’t allow the Scottish people to have a referendum on independence, they cannot point their fingers across the chamber.

This is in turn demonstrates the continued need for a strong left, despite results that were disappointing for the Greens and terrible for everyone else.  Continued cuts to public services seem inevitable as does a continued decline in real wages.  The socialist left must continue to campaign on these key issues which are only going to be exacerbated in the coming months.  However, it’s on the issue of independence that the SSP in particular must ensure it plays its full part.

What now for the independence campaign?

On 25th April Gray made a speech in which he said, “We stand now, closer than ever before to the end of the Union. That would be a disaster for Scotland [...] We stand on the edge now for ten days. The message on separation is simple. If you don’t want it, don’t vote for it because Alex Salmond says a second term will given him the moral authority to pursue it.” There is a certain hypocrisy in unionists now claiming that, although the SNP were runaway winners, this should not be interpreted as support for independence.  It is true that their massive win does not necessarily translate directly to a definite ‘yes’ votes in the event of a referendum, not least because they secured less than 50% of the vote (although the combined vote of pro-independence parties is tantalisingly close to that mark).  However, it misses the wider significance of the results- the wholesale rejection of the Westminster political agenda and the ever widening chasm between the priorities of the Scottish electorate and those of a London government with minimal support north of the border.  It may not have been a vote for independence per se, but it was hardly a ringing endorsement of the union either.

Furthermore, all previously widely-held presumptions have been exploded.  It was previously assumed that no party could get a clear majority under AMS, let alone the SNP.  It was thought that Labour’s strangle-hold on the central belt was unbreakable, their machine too powerful.  It turns out these are not everlasting truths, just like the oft-quoted but nonetheless dubious ‘fact’ that independence is only supported by a quarter to a third of the population.  The truth is that all bets are off.   This election has seen the biggest shift in the political landscape of Scotland in decades- who’s to say it will stop there? 

Independence may not be the key issue felt by most people right now but that will change- we will have a referendum in 3-4 years time and there can be no doubt it will be an issue then.  The key question that will define the economic, cultural and political terrain for decades is now in sight.  It is rare that we can say with such certainty what the political discourse will be so far in advance.  In this environment there is not just an opportunity for a radical socialist party in the new climate, but a necessity.  A ‘yes’ vote in the independence referendum is by no means a certainty but if it does come, it will not be delivered by a party but by a movement.  The SSP needs to play its part in that- with energy, passion, and haste. 

But what role should the SSP play in the independence movement?  Options would include working within existing organisations such as the Independence Convention but others would say that with a clear and distinctive message we should seek to build something else; something that’s not already dominated by the SNP and their supporters; something that would be more amenable to espousing a clear and unambiguous support for a socialist republic, as advocated by the SSP.  This is perfectly understandable- it allows the party to put clear red water between itself and the SNP and provides a structure for putting forward the socialist point of view around the referendum, promoting a vision of a Scotland quite different from the one envisaged by Tom Farmer and Brian Souter.

What such a view fails to appreciate, however, is how much weaker the radical left is today compared to 2004 when it was able to mobilise thousands around the Calton Hill Declaration.  The party no longer has the contacts, the resources or the influence to replicate anything akin to that success.  If it were to pursue such a strategy it would be, at best, ignored by all but a couple of hundred of the most committed Scottish republicans.  At worst, the party would lose what influence and goodwill it did have within the independence movement, including with many sympathetic to the party and its ideas.

Instead, a more productive focus for activity will likely be within the existing structures of the movement, no matter their current drawbacks.  This provides direct contact and the ability to share ideas with socialists and progressives who will become active in the campaign and will help to put forward an alternative vision of an independent Scotland.  But more importantly, it is through this avenue that the party can actually most productively play a role in promoting a ‘yes’ vote when the referendum comes.  Socialists don’t just have a different vision of a future Scotland, we have a different idea about how best to secure it.  The campaign we would want is not just about the ‘message’ but how it is organised to best mobilise as many people as possible to fight for this once in a generation opportunity, especially those who have never been engaged in political activity before.  We could see thousands of people empowered to become actively involved and have local groups organise events and activities on a wider and more inventive scale than we’ve seen for parliamentary elections.  The SSP cannot do this alone.

Next Steps

The first step is to convince others of the need for a bold, ambitious, and well-organised grassroots campaign.  There will be some who will be sceptical, perhaps even hostile, to such an idea but there will equally be others who will see the advantages.  These may need to be spelled out.

  1. The independence campaign cannot afford to be considered indistinguishable from the SNP.  The current economic climate means that their popularity is likely to decrease in the coming months but also, the policies and personalities of the SNP does not appeal to all independence supporters.  The activist base needs to be broader and able to separate the cause of independence from the fluctuating reputation of the governing party. 
  2. Maximising participation will ensure greater impact- more contacts, more people spoken to, more donations, more leaflets delivered, more events organised, more meetings addressed, and more ideas. They need to feel valued and be inspired to participate and are unlikely to do so if they sense it is merely an extension of an ongoing SNP campaign.
  3. Moreover, grassroots campaigning is more persuasive- people are more likely to be persuaded by their friends, neighbours, and colleagues than by politicians and celebrities.  The key is how to make it effective and how to track progress
  4. The campaign needs to penetrate areas all parties have failed to appeal to over the last decade.  Independence is most popular with those with the lowest incomes and the young (indeed, the most recent polls indicate more people under 45 support independence than oppose it with a majority of 18-24 year olds supporting),(4)  the same groups of people who have seen the least point in voting in parliamentary elections, or become active in party politics.  We have seen though, in the course of anti-war, anti-cuts, and environmental campaigns that it’s not as if young people do not have opinions or are unwilling to be politically active- there’s no reason why the independence movement cannot benefit from that same engagement.
  5. The type of campaign we have will help shape the discourse of civil society in a newly independent Scotland. If people feel that it is they themselves who have secured the victory then they will feel they have a stake in it and make sure they are not let down.  They may even get a taste for campaigning and for winning, and take that forward to continue fighting for the new society they want to see. Indeed, if enough people are involved and invested, it could help shape the terms with which representatives have to enter secession negotiations with the UK government, providing a substantial bulwark against any ‘independence lite’ inclinations.

It would require planning, dedication and trust but if all pro-independence activists were prepared to be involved and participate in a non-sectarian manner then there is so much to be gained.  The SSP will continue to be unambiguous in its call for a ‘yes’ vote, clear that it will be a democratic advance, but never shirking from our belief that for the Scottish people to truly benefit then it will have to do more than replace the Union flags with Saltires.  The day after independence is achieved there will still be gross inequities and injustices.  There will be fundamental questions of democracy and the economy that will need to be answered but we should be more confident in their outcome after a campaign that involved and excited thousands, rather than scraping through on 50.5% of the vote on 60% turnout after a decisive debate in which Sir Sean Connery bested Sir Alex Ferguson.

Independence is not the hot button topic at this moment but for once we can predict political events two to three years hence- how often do we have that advantage?  This gives us time to think about the nuts and bolts of a strategy, speak to contacts and other activists in the movement, and start building towards it. 

There is already scheduled to be a rally in Edinburgh in September 2012 and the SSP needs to play its part in not just building for it, but also the planning.  The rally must involve people on the day but, just as importantly, there needs to be a clear idea of how people are to be involved beyond that.  A crowd of thousands from all over Scotland who declare their commitment to vote for an independent Scotland would be a welcome sight, but not as much as one where everyone is inspired to be campaigners- an advocate for independence in their stair, on their union committee, or even in their classroom- and that enthusiasm is constructively and creatively used.  The idea of which provokes a possible message for the referendum itself- ‘imagine the possibilities’.


 1 +/- seats is based on the notional outcome of the 2007 results (i.e. adjusted for boundary changes that were implemented for the 2011 election).

3 Who can forget Central Station and its aftermath?