Independence mistakes, Corbyn surge shaped Scotland’s surprise election outcome

June 17, 2017
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.

The recent British general election delivered very different results in Scotland than those of England and Wales.

While the question of Scottish independence was still a major issue for voters, tactical errors by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and a muted Jeremy Corbyn-effect in Scottish Labour’s favour led to some unforeseen outcomes.

The Conservatives were surprise winners in Scotland, polling higher than Labour. They enjoyed a swing of almost 14% — doubling their vote share from the 2015 election and winning 13 seats (up from 1 seat). The Scottish Tories campaigned almost exclusively against independence.

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour won six new seats, raising its total to seven. The party, which was all but wiped out in the 2015 general election, were quick to claim this turnaround as a big victory.

But in truth, the result does not compare well with Labour’s votes south of the border, which soared due to Jeremy Corbyn’s radical campaign. Across Britain, the swing to Labour was 9.5%. Yet Scottish Labour received a much smaller swing of 2.8%.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, were very lucky to win four seats (up from one) as their vote actually shrunk by 0.8%.

SNP losses

The SNP endured a loss of more than a third of its seats, retaining only 35 MPs. This is a bad result for the SNP, but not quite a disaster. It easily remains the largest party in Scotland with 36.9% of the vote. Moreover, the party was always going to find it hard to repeat its landslide 2015 result, where it jumped from six to 56 MPs.

Yet the result was still a shock for the SNP, which expected to do far better.

The origin of the SNPs losses was its call for a second independence referendum by mid-2019. SNP leaders said the time was right for a new referendum after 62% of Scots voted to stay in the European Union in last year’s Brexit referendum, but were outvoted by the Leave supporters in England and Wales.

In March, the SNP-dominated Scottish parliament voted to endorse the call for a new referendum. It was a risky strategy from the outset. Polls had suggested that many independence supporters had voted to leave the EU, while many unionists had voted to Remain.   

Several prominent independence campaigners were critical of the SNP’s decision. Scottish Socialist Party co-spokesperson Colin Fox, a board member of the 2014 Yes campaign, was among those who warned it was a mistake. In March, Fox said tying a new referendum to support for the EU was a “gamble … which puts the issue of EU membership ahead of independence”.

Fox said this was also a departure from the previously agreed-upon strategy of the Yes campaign, which was to call a new referendum only after winning sustained majority support. The harder task of building a radical independence campaign with deep roots in working-class communities had to come first, he said.

By the time Tory Prime Minister Theresa May called the June 8 election, it began to dawn on the SNP that its call for a new independence referendum had misfired, proving unpopular even among some of its core supporters.

Accordingly, the SNP tried to downplay its commitment to a new referendum midway through the election campaign. However, this rather clumsy about-face arguably compounded the original mistake.

Te Scottish Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour campaigns barely mentioned anything but the supposed evils of independence, but the SNP suddenly appeared to be ducking the issue.

The SNP’s election manifesto characteristically tried to marry its left-of-centre social policies and opposition to Tory austerity with new business tax breaks and a balanced budget. This unwieldly combination failed to achieve the cut-through enjoyed by the more radical Labour Manifesto championed by Corbyn.

Soon after the election result several SNP leaders, including SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, conceded that the call for a second independence referendum would likely be put on hold.

The SNP’s relatively poor showing does not mean support for independence has fallen away. Rather, it suggests that support for independence now outstrips support for the SNP.

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour’s modest electoral revival was almost entirely triggered by a late surge — especially among young people. Here, Corbyn’s hopeful, radical influence was key.

The result came despite Scottish Labour’s right-wing leaders and its conservative election campaign, which put more emphasis on defeating the SNP and preserving the “United Kingdom” than stopping May’s austerity or keeping the Tories out.

Near the start of the campaign, the then-sole Labour MP in Scotland Ian Murray even called for tactical voting for Tory candidates to unseat SNP MPs.

Scottish Labour leaders have been bitter opponents of Corbyn and a focal point for the plots to remove him. In March, Murray tweeted that Corbyn was “destroying the party”.

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has repeatedly attacked Corbyn. When MPs launched their failed “coup” to unseat Corbyn last year, Dugdale was the first senior Labour figure to call on Corbyn to resign.

When Corbyn first stood for leadership in 2015, Dugdale openly dismissed him, saying a Corbyn-led Labour party would be left “carping from the sidelines”.

After the June 8 election, Dugdale preposterously claimed that Scottish Labour’s result was the “final nail in the independence coffin”. Yet she could not bring herself to concede that Corbyn had saved Scottish Labour from another electoral disaster.

Paradoxical election

The contradictions and errors of the SNP and Scottish Labour resulted in a strangely paradoxical election. A pro-independence SNP was reluctant to talk about independence and a Scottish Labour Party with a popular leader and a radical manifesto was reluctant to talk about its leader or its manifesto.

The SNP and Scottish Labour will both come under pressure to adapt to the new left-wing political atmosphere that has resulted from Corbyn’s rise.

But there are also good reasons to think the dominant right-wing factions in the SNP and Scottish Labour will doggedly resist any significant left turn.

If neither party manages to swing left before the next general election, more volatile results in Scotland are likely.

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