Local Government Elections
by Peter Duncan
I had to check myself during a conversation last week, when I found myself talking about the “nationalist community” and the “unionist community” in a Scottish context. These terms are well established in Northern Ireland, but have not been justified in Scotland for a very long time indeed. The local election results of 2017, would tend to embed the view that they are more justified now.
For the absolute dividing line in Scotland is the constitution, and whether you are a nationalist or a unionist seems to be clearly much more significant than whether you are Labour or Conservative, or SNP or Green. That dividing line shows no sign of abating.
For Nicola Sturgeon, these results will be seen as less successful than was wanted. To broadly match the SNP performance of 2012, will not be seen by nationalist strategists as anything other than a mixed result. 2012 local elections were seen as a relative disappointment then, and so will their 2017 counterpart.
Yes, a huge number of SNP councillors have been elected, but these results fell short of what will have been expected, without the ultimate prize of outright victory in Glasgow and Dundee. In rural Scotland, where the Tories were challenging, Sturgeon will be sanguine in noting the progress being made by Ruth Davidson’s Tories. They saw widespread advance, doubling their number of elected councillors.
Vindication of the Conservative “unionist” strategy in Scotland was complete when the declaration from the Ferguslie Park ward in Paisley was received around lunchtime on Friday. Not known as a conservative heartland, in fact one which has never before returned a conservative representative, this result tells us much about the emerging landscape in Scottish politics. We expected the Tories to do well. We even expected them to do very well, but it certainly was not clear that new councillors would be returned in parts of the electoral map like Shettleston and Ferguslie Park.
What does their success tell us about the mood of the electorate, and the forthcoming general election and prospects for a second independence referendum?
Firstly, it demonstrates that – to a large degree – the detoxification of the Conservative brand in Scotland is well on course. The fact that non-conservatives feel able and willing to use Ruth Davidson’s party as a vehicle for rejecting another independence referendum is something that would not have been possible five years ago, and is something Davidson should take considerable credit for.
Secondly, it demonstrates that gains are being made and the greatest advances being delivered in those areas where there has been least previous evidence of Conservative support. This theme was evident in the 2016 election where big advances were made in areas of Scotland like Central Region and Glasgow, where there was the smallest of base to build upon.
So, the two largest parties in Scotland are now established as being the SNP and the Tories. What is striking of course, is that both would strategically chosen to have the other as their main opponent. To define Scottish politics as the SNP v the Conservatives will suit both Sturgeon and Davidson, providing both with the opportunity to define their party against the other.
What room does that leave for Labour and the Lib Dems?
For Labour, this was a further step backwards, although perhaps a slightly smaller one than was predicted. Having lost so many councillors will be a further blow to their prospects of long term recovery, as so many of those defeated were the long-established faces of the Party in their communities, and were crucial to the Party’s organisation in each ward. Those losses will be sorely felt. Time will tell whether that further deterioration in campaigning resource will be a significant factor if and when we head towards a second independence referendum.
However, there will be no time for any strategic changes in direction before the General Election in June, and Labour will now pile their troops in to support Ian Murray in the socialist heartland of Edinburgh South, in the sensible belief that they can hold on there, but struggle to gain elsewhere.
Yes, there were some signs of hope, although they were mainly on the fringes. In North Lanarkshire, Inverclyde and in Midlothian there were some good results to reflect upon, or at least results that were less dreadful than they could have been.
For the Lib Dems, it was another disappointment, and it was stretching the credibility of the listener and viewer to hear their spokespeople lauding a great result in Westminster target seats, when the Party clearly regressed further more widely. For the Greens, a small advance, with some useful gains in Glasgow in particular.
Two major questions are posed by these local election results. Firstly, at what point will the Conservatives start to want to move their unionist supporters over to being Conservatives? The last time that transition was attempted, was in the 1960s, and it precipitated almost terminal decline – or are we set for the formal embedding of their unionist tactical positioning as a long-term strategy?
Secondly, to what degree can the SNP win the PR war set to play out from now until after the General Election in June. They will seek to portray their results as further major successes for a party winning across the vast majority of Scotland, whilst others will be keen to portray them as a party that has passed the point of “peak Nat”.
Both can be true – they may have passed their extraordinary 2015 peak, but still be delivering results that are genuinely striking for a party that has been in government for 10 years.
This is a polarised political landscape, and both the Tories and SNP will welcome that polarisation, and probably benefit from it in June.
For now, those newly elected councillors will start the process of trying to build stable administrations across the country where no party has overall control in any council. That is likely to be dominated by conversations with central party operations who will be nervous about formal coalitions with any of their opponents.
Expect protracted negotiations, and a proliferation of minority administrations. This will be a relatively unstable period in local government, just at the very time when big decisions will have to be made.
Onwards, to June!