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The people have spoken – the bastards. Voters upset various applecarts in Holyrood 2016

IT didn’t take long for Labour to lose its cool on Friday morning. As the results started to trickle in at 12.30 am, the former MP and Holyrood candidate Thomas Docherty announced that the party had committed electoral suicide. “Our tax and Trident manifesto,” he declared, “was self-immolation for dummies.” He was denounced as a selfish publicity-seeker by Labour’s shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray. From then on the night went downhill.

It was undoubtedly a catastrophic election result for Labour, the party that used to dominate Scottish politics. Docherty went on to declare it “the worst result in 110 years”. Labour was wiped out in Glasgow, something that would have been unimaginable only a decade or so ago. They lost seats across Scotland and ended up a humiliating third behind the hated Scottish Conservatives, who now replace Labour as the main opposition force in Holyrood. Somehow, it seemed to hurt almost as much as the tsunami general election one year ago when they lost 40 out of 41 Westminster seats. Perhaps it was just closer to home.

Yet it was hardly an unalloyed success for the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon. She was denied the overall majority that many party supporters seemed to believe was theirs by natural right. There was a frisson of shock and dismay across social media as the realisation dawned at 6am that the SNP would have to share power. The party actually increased its vote on the 2011 Holyrood landslide, but lost out in the list wars. This was because of the vagaries of the d’Hondt method of redistributing votes to ensure proportionality which, as this column has been arguing, makes overall majorities in Holyrood very much the exception.

Nevertheless, it was still a third, massive election victory for the SNP, even if this seemed lost on some of their more excitable supporters on Twitter. The SNP took 63 seats, which is more than the next three parties – Conservative, Labour and Green – combined. After nine long years in office, the Nationalists will continue to dominate the Scottish Parliament. Nicola Sturgeon may have to argue a little harder in future to get her legislation through, but that is no bad thing – as she said herself during the successful SNP minority government of 2007-11. Many believe that administration showed SNP governance at its best – and, remember, Alex Salmond had only 47 seats at his disposal back in the day, not 63.

In the early hours, some embittered nationalists claimed that the “vanity” of Patrick Harvie and the Scottish Greens had killed hopes of an early independence referendum by denying the SNP another overall majority. This was a curiously defeatist approach and very much contrary to the spirit of the cross-party Yes campaign. The six Scottish Green MSPs also support independence, and Harvie made a valuable contribution to the 2014 referendum. The Greens persuaded many non-nationalists to join the independence movement by demonstrating that it was not all about the SNP and Alex Salmond.

The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, does not, of course, want an early referendum, and nor do the Greens. But if material circumstances did change, and there was a strong tide of opinion in the country for another independence vote, no-one could any longer claim that it was all about the “whim” of an over powerful First Minister if the SNP were to rely on Green votes in the Scottish Parliament to press the demand. A strong Green presence in Holyrood doesn’t weaken the independence movement and could actually strengthen it.

Anyway, the humiliation of the hated “red Tories” as some SNP supporters call Labour, should surely be adequate compensation for any loss of an overall majority. A defeat of this magnitude would normally spell the end for the sitting party leader, but Labour cannot dump Kezia Dugdale, because she is their fourth leader in four years and their best. However, she is damaged by this result and by the mistakes made during the campaign over the income tax rebate, her equivocation over voting Yes in a future referendum, and the confusion over Labour’s health spending. She will now play second fiddle in Parliament to Ruth Davidson. Dugdale is energetic, bright and radical, but she lacks experience and her staff lack rigour.

Nor does Labour know what it stands for any more. The former Labour first minister, Henry McLeish, insists that the party must address the constitutional deficit and support, if not independence, then federalism. Former party advisers, such as Paul Sinclair, argue vehemently the other way: that the party has to seize from the Tories the mantle of true unionism. On BBC radio on election night, Sinclair admitted that Labour had “already lost its working-class base” and now had to target middle-class Scots worried about independence and tax. But the Tories seem to be doing that rather effectively and have cornered the unionists’ market for the time being. And if Labour gives up on the working class, it surely jettisons its political soul.
All credit to Ruth Davidson, though, for leading the Tories out of the wilderness, even if she had gone to great lengths during the campaign to disguise the fact, on billboards and party literature, that she was in fact a member of the party-that-shall-not-be-named. Tory is still a toxic brand. Snatching Eastwood from Labour’s Ken Macintosh and Edinburgh Central from the clutches of the SNP was a huge boost. But let’s not get carried away. They may be the main opposition party, but the Tories still only have 31 seats, fewer than half the SNP’s 63. They remain a marginal force in Scottish politics and are likely to win few if any votes in Parliament, where the other parties will do their best to stifle the life out of them. In some respects, having Tories as the lead opposition actually helps Nicola Sturgeon because it places a very clear ideological dividing line between government and opposition, confirms that independence remains the paramount issue in Scottish politics, and places Labour on the outer fringe.

The real victors of this extraordinary election, however, were the Scottish voters. As so often in the past, they wrong-footed pundits, politicians and pollsters alike. The voters have decided to withhold from Nicola Sturgeon untrammelled control of the Holyrood Parliament, perhaps believing that one-party control is not entirely healthy. And while it may be difficult for Nicola Sturgeon to see it right now – after all she had hoped to emulate Alex Salmond’s landslide majority in 2011 and he’ll never let her forget it – this might actually lead to better governance. The Scottish Parliament was never designed for majority government. There is no revising chamber to call a halt to questionable legislation – such as the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act – and Holyrood committees tend to split on party lines. A balanced parliament provides checks and balances against headstrong government.

The 2007 SNP government worked best when it was a straight minority administration, playing the other parties off against each other, as Alex Salmond did so brilliantly. He secured his first budget by doing a discreet deal with the Conservatives to out-manoeuvre Labour. Nicola Sturgeon has ruled out any formal coalition or “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Scottish Green Party this time, but the two parties will have to work closely. The six Greens will have the balance of power and Patrick Harvie may be able to use this leverage to reopen issues such as reform of the council tax and even the 50p tax band, which Sturgeon has abandoned.

There will certainly be further pressure to beef up land reform, now that Andy Wightman, the passionate and erudite critic of landlordism, is sitting in Holyrood as a Green MSP on the Lothian list. This will please many in the SNP rank and file, who rebelled at the party’s Aberdeen conference last autumn over the leadership’s timidity over land reform. They may also welcome Mr Harvie opposing TTIP and pressing the First Minister into converting the moratorium on fracking into an outright ban. One suspects that such is Sturgeon’s inclination anyway, and, if so, she now has a counterweight to the small-c conservatives in her administration who argue caution over things like taxation and energy policy. The Greens will also fight against the halving of Air Passenger Duty (APD) and will press for measures to reduce traffic-related pollution by getting folk out of their cars.

But on most other matters, like protecting the NHS, extending free child care and closing the attainment gap in education, the Greens will have no trouble supporting the SNP. And nor, intriguingly, will Labour now that they are the third party in Holyrood. Kezia Dugdale may be less inclined to indulge in opposition for opposition’s stake as she seeks to demonstrate that the rise of the Scottish Tories is just a temporary phenomenon. On taxation, APD, fracking and council tax reform there could even be a new red/Green alliance in the Holyrood chamber.

And a final word for the most colourful performer in the 2016 Holyrood election campaign, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie, He added to the gaiety of the nation by his hyperactive photo calls, including that encounter with amorous pigs in Gorgie City Farm. The LibDems may have been pushed into fifth place by the Scottish Greens, but a couple of significant victories, including Rennie’s in North East Fife and Alex Cole Hamilton in Edinburgh Western, showed that there is life in the old party yet.

And so the people have spoken, the b******s – as the American writer politician Dick Tuck famously put it. The Scottish voters have created a new balanced parliament, punished complacency and given a new face to the parliamentary opposition. By denying the SNP an overall majority, they have forced the Scottish parties to work together. The 2016 Holyrood election may have been a dull campaign but the result was anything but.

Sunday Herald 8/5/16

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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