This week’s elections for the Scottish Parliament have produced one result that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable: the Conservatives beat Labour. Not only did they emerge with more seats than the Labour Party; they also received more votes.
The obvious political question is “How could such a thing has happened?”
The first thing that needs to be said is that it didn’t happen because the Conservatives did particularly well. They got about 22% of the vote. If you consider that they got over 25% of the Scottish vote in the 1992 General Election, 22% isn’t very impressive. What happened in Thursday’s election was not a Conservative triumph, it was a Labour disaster.
So how did Labour fall so far? The election numbers tell the story. In the 2007 Holyrood Election, Labour got 30.7% of the vote. In the 2010 UK General Election, Labour got 42% of the Scottish vote. In the 2011 Scottish Election, Labour got 29% (averaging the constituency vote and the regional vote). What’s going on? Labour is doing much better in Westminster elections than Holyrood elections. Basically, Scottish voters liked the Labour Party, but preferred having the SNP running Scottish affairs, no doubt partly because of the personal popularity of Alex Salmond.
The big change came in the 2015 UK General Election when Labour was down to 24.3%. And that is really is not that much better than the 20.9% they received a couple of days ago. A look at the opinion poll numbers shows that Labour’s real problems began in 2014. Until that time, Labour was well ahead of the SNP in opinion polling for Westminster elections. By the end of the year, the SNP was well ahead, and that is the way it has remained.
What really did the damage to Labour in Scotland was the Independence Referendum in 2014. In the referendum campaign, Labour was seen to be working with an unpopular (in Scotland) Conservative-led administration in London. As the Scottish voters punished the LibDems (for being part of that administration) in the 2007 Scottish Election, they punished Labour in the 2015 UK Election.
In other words, had there been no Independence Referendum, the Labour Party in Scotland would be in a much stronger position. That referendum was a large part of Labour’s undoing. And of course, that referendum never would have taken place if there had not been a Scottish Parliament.
The referendum is not the whole reason for Labour’s problems in Scotland in recent years. There is also the fact that right from the beginning, Labour have not done as well in Holyrood elections as in Westminster ones, and the SNP have done better. Why? Probably largely due to the fact that the SNP in Holyrood has had more popular leaders than Labour.
In other words, the very existence of the Scottish Parliament has been politically damaging for the Labour Party in Scotland. And the reason that there is a Scottish Parliament is, of course, because a Labour government in Westminster, under the leadership of Tony Blair, brought it in. (Or, to be precise, Labour gave Scottish voters the opportunity to vote on whether they wanted a parliament, knowing that they would almost certainly say ‘yes’.)
In short, the Labour Party’s problems in Scotland today were basically caused by the actions of a Labour government in Westminster almost 20 years ago.
And there is something I cannot help wondering: If the Labour leadership 20 years ago had known what was going to happen, would they have allowed devolution to take place in Scotland? Something makes me doubt it.
In other words, we are back with the subject of my last blog post. The results of government policies are not always what the government expects. Indeed, the consequences of government actions are often the opposite of what government intends. The problem is not the politicians make promises that they have no intention of keeping. The problem is that politicians make promises, and keep them, and claim that their policies have been a great success. But in the long term, the effects of those policies were not what the government expected or wanted. And furthermore, usually nobody notices.
The result of what we do is often not what we intend. Indeed, it is often the opposite. One is reminded of the old Biblical Proverb (14:12) “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.”
I just wonder where the Named Person Scheme is going.