Robin McAlpine: There's nothing for Yessers to fear from #SP16 - unless we don't listen

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine gives his verdict on the Scottish parliamentary election results

OK, so can you name me a Scottish election since the era of devolution began when a party of the centre left has been rewarded for drifting into the centre ground? Nope? That's because there isn't one.

In 1999 the Labour Party was still in its early Blair glow years and the SNP did well to push it with a tax-raising policy. Next time round, both tacked to the right (the SNP substantially so) and both were punished (especially the SNP). Then in 2007 and 2011 Labour was associated with the rightward drift at the UK level and was equally punished.

And today we have an SNP which very clearly spent much of the election making eyes at the so-called 'centre ground' and as a result has gained nothing and lost a fair amount.

Where the rightwing vote was never going to go was to the SNP. The idea that it might was hubris.

Scotland votes centre left. It has voted centre left for 50 years. There has always been a rightwing vote which until recently was split between New Labour and the Tories. The Tories have now consolidated that vote.

Where the rightwing vote was never going to go was to the SNP. The idea that it might, the belief held by some SNP strategists that it could hold all its left and centre left vote and go after some of the centre right vote, all based on the personality of the leader, was hubris.

There were three big problems for the SNP in this election. First, this idea that Edinburgh's closet Tory voters could be won over, and that it could be done without any consequence to the core, left of centre vote that brought it to power at the General Election.

Because what really happened is that Nicola Sturgeon and, in particular, John Swinney started to use precisely the political language which has turned the left of centre voter away from UK politics. You can go on about 'tax grabs' and 'the most competitive business environment' and all that stuff - but you can't pretend you don't sound like Ed Miliband or George Osborne. If you want to know where the SNP's majority went to, the best place to look is at the 10 per cent of people who came out to vote last May but not this time.

The SNP has distanced itself from the movement and the movement has fragmented and become a little disillusioned with the SNP.

The second and related factor derives from another piece of SNP staffer hubris. Some of the SNP's centre ground insiders have always been suspicious of the wider Yes movement. They believed that the wider movement rode on the back of the SNP. They never really accepted how much the SNP rode on the back of the wider movement.

Both in the independence referendum and the General Election, a coalition much wider (and generally more exciting, creative and inspiring) than the SNP placed the party firmly in the centre of a movement. The SNP has distanced itself from the movement and the movement has fragmented and become a little disillusioned with the SNP.

And here's the thing - the SNP without the context of its wider movement looks awfully like a political party. It made it much harder to talk to the people who are tired with 'normal politics'.

But by no means are last night's events all the fault of the SNP. The third big dynamic was the consolidation of the unionist vote. There has always been a Tory vote in Scotland, but until last night that vote was spread between the Tories and New Labour. Eastwood was never really a Labour seat.

It was always ironic that the part of the UK least enamoured with New Labour was Scotland but that because old Labour types had other parties to go to, those who were left-voting Labour were substantial further to the right than those voting SNP. Labour became a New Labour party in an Old Labour country. It paid the price for that then - and now it has paid an additional price by pretending not to be New Labour after all.

And here's the thing - the SNP without the context of its wider movement looks awfully like a political party. It made it much harder to talk to the people who are tired with 'normal politics'.

Further irony is that the perpetual Tory complaining about a divided and polarised Scotland is almost single-handedly the factor which has led to the party's revival. It happened because a polarised and angry Tory vote has congealed around the party which most complained about polarisation and anger.

(The Lib Dems are now a local party for local people in a couple of areas and have been the beneficiaries of a consolidated unionist vote where they had local roots. Elsewhere they seem barely relevant.)

The consolidated Tory vote seems to have been what did for the SNP on list votes and even more so limited the Green breakthrough.

Because while the Greens can have a smile today, they may not be grinning as widely as they should be. It is definitely a step forward, but I don't see it as a breakthrough. In my opinion the Greens needed to reach double figures to start looking like they were going to challenge the Labour Party for third place (which needs to be their next target).

But the Greens simply do not seem able to get beyond their core voting demographic. They struggle to talk to working class Scotland and until they can they will probably remain a single-figures party in the parliament.

anyone in the SNP who wants to blame the Greens for last night's results needs to ask themselves how it was that the SNP bled second votes quite so easily.

That said, they ran a much better campaign than the SNP and anyone in the SNP who wants to blame the Greens for last night's results needs to ask themselves how it was that the SNP bled second votes (and, in Edinburgh Central, first votes) quite so easily. It is the right of the SNP who should be pressed to answer that question, not the Greens.

Further out on the left, things look grim. Rise says it suffered because it didn't get media publicity, which is partly true, but it got a lot more than Solidarity which seems to have outpolled Rise almost everywhere. One of the big purposes of the Rise initiative was to make the left look as if it wasn't split. It is. Everyone on every side is 100 per cent convinced that splits are all the fault of whoever is on the other side of the split.

Meanwhile, the rest of us just walked away. I like many of the Rise people but I have said since the idea was first proposed that I didn't think it was a good one. The left needs a real uniting initiative, not a PR job. Until it does that, and until it stops running campaigns which look like activists running the protests they enjoy so much rather than winning over non-activists, it has nowhere to go.

I don't want to be too harsh - the real problem with Rise is that no political brand can properly establish itself in the public imagination in 18 months. It made a valiant effort, but it does look like it marks just one more failure of the left - and this is a failure that may make the next initiative even harder to pull off.

The problem with Rise is that no political brand can properly establish itself in the public imagination in 18 months. It made a valiant effort, but it does look like it marks just one more failure of the left.

So what does all this mean? As a progressive independence supporter this is not all bad by any manner of means. A Tory press and a unionist BBC will talk over and over about Tory revival. But it's not so much a revival as a coming out party. It's not like Scotland didn't have Tories. It's just quite a few previously voted New Labour.

One in four voters voted Tory last night. But if we assume that Tory turnout was high and it was the working classes who didn't turn out, it probably looks more like one in five or one in six Scots actively want any kind of Tory government. I don't really see a lot of scope for that vote to expand. The Tories aren't much more relevant today than they were yesterday. They have no allies. Progressive Scotland should lose no sleep over this result.

What is cheering is that a range of bad SNP policies look like they're never going to see the light of day. There is a clear parliamentary majority against cutting Air Passenger Duty . The SNP should drop that idea immediately.

Even more importantly, if the SNP wants to get mandatory testing for primary school children through parliament it will need Tory votes. Seeking those would be a miscalculation of enormous proportions (look at the widespread protests against this policy in England).

The Tories aren't much more relevant today than they were yesterday. They have no allies. Progressive Scotland should lose no sleep over this result.

Pride will see Nicola Sturgeon try to negotiate her way through this. She must be talked down. There is only one way this can go and it's a confrontation with parents and trade unions with only the Tories on their side. The policy should never be mentioned again.

And in areas where the SNP has been too timid, this opens a door for better thinking. The three obvious ones are taxation, replacement for the council tax and land reform. The SNP can no longer rely on whipping unwilling backbenchers into supporting timidity.

For those angry that this sounds like I'm celebrating the SNP losing a majority, take a little care. There are plenty people in the party who have expressed unease. Again, if activists want to be angry at someone, I'm not sure it should be people like me who want a pro-independence, left-of-centre government in Scotland.

I suggest more of the anger might be directed towards those who saw a merger between the SNP and big business, establishment Scotland as desirable. I certainly didn't lose you your majority.

And where now for Labour? Tavish Scott seemed to hint at the only serious option. Labour and the Lib Dems should disband as parties in Scotland and form an independent, Scotland-only Progressive Unionist Party. That gives them a purpose and a pitch. Of course, they won't. They'll probably still be talking about rebuilding a decade from now.

I suggest more of the anger might be directed towards those who saw a merger between the SNP and big business, establishment Scotland as desirable.

Then finally, where now for constitutional politics? I've spoken to a couple of people today who are a little despondent. I don't share that despondency. I have been arguing for a long time now that constitutional politics and left-right politics are not and have never been separate. This is becoming clearer and clearer.

Simply put, leftwing people vote for independence, rightwing people vote for the union. It was true in 2014 and it is more true now. I've had people ask me where the vote is coming from to get independence given last night's results. The answer is 'same place as last time'. It's only going to happen with the votes of the dispossessed and disillusioned Scots on moderate incomes and below.

So the next time you hear someone in the SNP say that they can't put up the 40p tax band because we need to win Tory votes, point out that probably only about one in 10 Scots fall into that category - and they're predominantly Tory.

About 80 per cent of working Scots earn less than PS35,000 a year. Which means that including pensioners and other groups not in work there are probably about nine out of 10 people who live on less than PS35,000 in Scotland.

I have been arguing for a long time now that constitutional politics and left-right politics are not and have never been separate. This is becoming clearer and clearer.

Some of those are working class Tories or have affiliations such as to the Orange Order which means they'll never vote Yes. A number of others are modestly off rural workers who are culturally conservative and will probably also always vote No. They make up probably between 20 and 25 per cent of the population.

It's time to write them off - we're not getting a 100 per cent Yes vote, so we should concentrate on the 65 per cent who can definitely be persuaded and a further 10 to 15 per cent who have a real chance of being persuaded. They're all further down the socioeconomic spectrum than the mythical 'middle Scotland' which journalists seem obsessed by.

The SNP has too many influential people near the top (many via informal networks) who are well to the right of the party as a whole. They have used their insider status to drag the party in a direction which has lost it votes.

They have also been talking as if the next direction for the independence movement is a shift to the right. It is them who must be held to account for this result. They promised the party they could 'triangulate' unionist votes. They failed - badly.

Through a process of proper internal party democracy, the SNP needs to reestablish itself solidly and unequivocally on the centre left. And by looking at the data and being honest with ourselves, everyone that believes in independence needs to accept that this is not as broad a church as the right of the SNP claims it to be.

The SNP has too many influential people near the top who are well to the right of the party as a whole. They have used their insider status to drag the party in a direction which has lost it votes.

Whomever in the SNP believes that there is no political problem that cannot be solved by a leaflet with a picture of a baby on it needs to be taken aside and talked to. This was no catastrophe for the SNP - it did stunningly well in some parts of Scotland. But it could turn into a serious problem if lessons are not learned from the campaign we just had.

Stop worrying about the Tories - they are just a slightly bigger bunch of people stranded on a remote island with little influence over mainstream politics in Scotland. Be clear-sighted that a movement that thrived on inspiring people has failed to inspire them this time. Be worried that there will be no independence for Scotland unless we can inspire them again.

Don't imagine for a second that we'll inspire them by forcing primary school children to do tests. Don't kid on that there are chunks of Tory vote secretly waiting to jump ship for independence. Dispense with the hubris that thinks the SNP is something more than a political party and so doesn't need to answer to the usual dynamics of politics.

Through a process of proper internal party democracy, the SNP needs to reestablish itself solidly and unequivocally on the centre left.

Look at where the winning votes are. Look at what needs to be done to win back those voters, not from other parties but from disillusionment. Develop a programme of government to reach and inspire those people.

Everything needed to secure both a progressive government and a route to independence in the next five years remains in our hands. We just need the leadership of the SNP to stop listening only to its conservative fringes and instead to heed the wider wisdom of a party and a movement which has, at least in some part, been let down by an election campaign which failed.

The CommonSpace opinion section is an open platform for anyone who wants to voice their views and does not represent the editorial position of CommonSpace itself. If you'd like to have a piece published, email CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty at angela@common.scot

Picture courtesy of First Minister of Scotland

Comments

Alan Reid

Mon, 05/09/2016 - 16:11

I don't really see how the SNP could have done much better at this election given the list system is supposed to balance out one party pretty much cleaning up the FPTP constituency seats. The SNP are still marginally over represented in parliament based on their share of the vote 49% of the seats on 42% of the vote.

I would also suggest that the turnout was damaged not by any move to occupy the centre ground but everyone knew the outcome of the election. Those Yes minded but only lukewarm on political engagement probably didn't see the point in voting, and to be honest they were probably right. In a referendum every vote counts, not so in a parliamentary election.

As for what now for Labour - they need to decide what they are. Will they define themselves as a party of the left or as a party of unionism?

If they define themselves by unionism they will be stuck in the wilderness as they will have cut themselves off from a big chunk of their former core vote. If they define themselves primarily as a party of the left then they can stage a come back much more quickly. Many No voters previously voted SNP for Holyrood knowing they had a safety net of a referendum. Labour can win votes back by saying you can vote Labour but still be able to vote Yes in any future referendum, or by officially having no position on constitutional matters with Labour members and representatives free to vote either way in any future referendum.

Peter Dow's picture

Peter Dow

Sun, 05/08/2016 - 15:44

A whopping 3/4 of a million SNP list votes were wasted, electing not one SNP MSP and across Scotland the chance of wasting an SNP list vote was nearly 80%, whereas the chance of wasting a GREEN list vote was less than 30%.
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"Both Votes SNP" outside the South of Scotland region put the prospects of a Indy-Ref-2 Holyrood majority at risk and was stupid and reckless tactics by the SNP.
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The chance Scots now have of Indy-Ref-2 from 2016 to 2021 needed the GREEN list campaign in #SP16 and may need it again in #SP21, if Indy-Ref 2 is not already won by 2021.
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Wasted list votes
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"Both Votes SNP" -
Wasted - 129,082 + 111,101 + 118,546 + 120,128 + 137,086 + 135,827 = 751,770
% wasted of total - 100 x 751,770 / 953,587 = 78.8% chance of wasting SNP list vote
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"SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST" -
Wasted - 12,722 + 15,123 + 14,773 = 42,618
% wasted of total - 100 x 42,618 / 150,426 = 28.3% chance of wasting GREEN list vote

Peter Dow's picture

Peter Dow

Fri, 05/06/2016 - 19:07

Analysis of REGIONAL LIST results for Holyrood Elections 2016 considering "YES Scotland" pro-independence tactics.
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Comparing "Both Votes SNP" tactics versus "SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST" (SNP 1, GREEN 2) tactics.
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
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Voting "SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST" was far better tactics for "YES Scotland" in 7 regions of Scotland - all except the "South Scotland" region, the one region where "Both Votes SNP" was good tactics.
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On average across Scotland, it was 9.5 times more powerful for YES indy-ref voters to vote GREEN on the regional list compared to voting "Both Votes SNP".
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Green list voters were essential to securing a majority in the parliament for Scottish independence and defending the possibility of winning a vote in the parliament for a future independence referendum.
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#BothVotesSNP was a bullet dodged by 150,426 Green Regional List voters who alone saved the day @ #SP16 for #YESScotland
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ALL SCOTLAND REGIONAL LIST TOTALS
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8 REGIONS with 7 MSP seats up for grabs in each
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"NO / Better Together" 7+6+5+5+6+7+4+6 = 46 MSPs
(4+4+2+2+2+2+2+3 = 21 LAB, 3+2+3+3+4+4+2+3 = 24 CON, 0+0+0+0+0+1+0+0 = 1 LD)
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"YES Scotland" 0+1+2+2+1+0+3+1 = 10 MSPs
(0+0+1+0+0+0+3+0 = 4 SNP, 0+1+1+2+1+0+0+1 = 6 GRN)
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Tactics
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"Both Votes SNP" -
129,082 + 111,101 + 81,600 + 118,546 + 120,128 + 137,086 + 120,217 + 135,827 = 953,587 votes winning +4 MSPs @ 238,396 votes per MSP
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"SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST" -
12,722 + 23,398 + 14,781 + 34,551 + 17,860 + 15,123 + 14,773 + 17,218 = 150,426 votes winning +6 MSPs @ 25,071 votes per MSP
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RESULTS & YES SCOTLAND TACTICS - REGION BY REGION
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CENTRAL SCOTLAND RESULTS
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"NO / Better Together" 7 MSPs (4 LAB, 3 CON)
"YES Scotland" 0 MSPs
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Tactics
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"Both Votes SNP" - 129,082 votes (47.7%) WASTED.
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"SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST" - 12,722 votes (4.7%) WASTED.
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GLASGOW RESULTS
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Better Together 6 MSPs (4 LAB, 2 CON)
YES Scotland 1 MSPs (1 GRN)
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Tactics
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"Both votes SNP" - 111,101 votes (44.8%) WASTED.
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"SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST"- 23,398 votes (9.4%), winning +1 MSP @ 9.4% per MSP
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HIGHLAND AND ISLANDS RESULTS
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NO / Better Together 5 MSPs (3 CON, 2 LAB)
YES Scotland 2 MSPs (1 SNP, 1 GRN)
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Tactics
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"Both votes SNP" - 81,600 votes (39.7%) winning +1 MSP @ 39.7% per MSP
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"SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST" - 14,781 votes (7.2%), winning +1 MSP @ 7.2% per MSP
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LOTHIAN RESULTS
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NO / Better Together 5 MSPs (3 CON, 2 LAB)
YES Scotland 2 MSPs (2 GRN)
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Tactics
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"Both votes SNP" - 118,546 votes (36.2%) WASTED.
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"SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST" - 34,551 votes (10.6%) winning +2 MSPs @ 5.3% per MSP
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MID SCOTLAND AND FIFE RESULTS
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NO / Better Together 6 MSPs (4 CON, 2 LAB)
YES Scotland 1 MSP (1 GRN)
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Tactics
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"Both votes SNP" - 120,128 votes (41.3%) WASTED.
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"SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST" - 17,860 votes (6.1%) winning +1 MSPs @ 6.1% per MSP
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NORTH EAST SCOTLAND RESULTS
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NO / Better Together 7 MSPs (4 CON, 2 LAB, 1 LD)
YES Scotland 0 MSPs
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Tactics
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"Both votes SNP" - 137,086 votes (44.7%) WASTED.
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"SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST" - 15,123 votes (4.9%) WASTED.
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SOUTH SCOTLAND RESULTS
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NO / Better Together 4 MSPs (2 CON, 2 LAB)
YES Scotland 3 MSPs (3 SNP)
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Tactics
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"Both votes SNP" - 120,217 votes (38.3%) winning +3 MSPs @ 12.7% per MSP
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"SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST" - 14,773 votes (4.7%) WASTED.
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WEST SCOTLAND RESULTS
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NO / Better Together 6 MSPs (3 CON, 3 LAB)
YES Scotland 1 MSP (1 GRN)
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Tactics
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"Both votes SNP" - 135,827 votes (42.2%) WASTED.
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"SNP CONSTITUENCY, GREEN REGIONAL LIST" - 17,218 votes (5.3%) winning +1 MSP @ 5.3% per MSP

Peter Dow's picture

Peter Dow

Sun, 05/08/2016 - 16:00

I live in Aberdeen, voted SNP 1, GREEN 2 and although NE Scotland region narrowly didn't manage to elect a GREEN MSP on the list and so my GREEN list vote ultimately was wasted this time round, nevertheless I am happy I made the smart vote because voting GREEN in the NE was a better bet than "Both Votes SNP".
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If the GREENS prove to be good allies of the SNP at Holyrood, especially on the independence question then I think the chances of persuading more independence supporters to vote GREEN on the list in 2021 will be excellent and an even more convincing victory for independence is there for the taking.

David Wilson (not verified)

Fri, 05/06/2016 - 18:22

Fair comment Robin.

However, lets not forget that the SNP vote share actually went up and save for a few hundred votes here and there, a majority was a distinct possibility. Won't the right wing faction of the SNP just persuade the general party to keep on track as is because it's winning more votes and put the loss of majority down to the quirks of the D'Hondt system ?

Jim Bennett (not verified)

Sat, 05/07/2016 - 13:12

Both David Wilson and Peter Dow above, make very good points. The SNP actually gained 100000+ votes and their "problem" was actually winning constituencies which reduced their list representation. The SNP loss of half a dozen seats to the LibDems, Tories and Labour was wot lost it. If you look at the bulk of these seats, the TV/known personality won those seats from the SNP. Alex Salmond was right when he said that the SNP's problem was that it was fighting ALL the seats whereas the likes of the Libdems were actually only fighting 6 seats at most. So, I think Robin's sombre analysis of the loss of the SNP majority is misplaced. More and more, the 2011 result really looks like an aberration of d'hont.
I simply don't agree that the SNP move to the centre lost them any support. There is no evidence for it. However, I don't believe that it's the correct strategy. The mid-40s% SNP support is probably their new bedrock and is firmly centre-left so they should orientate policy focus around it. Your right about appealing to mainstream NO voters; major support from them is simply not going to happen. Just like I would never dream of voting for a unionist party, the mainstream unionists simply won't vote in great numbers for the SNP.
So, where does that leave the indie movement? There needs to be a recognition that (a) the dominance of the SNP lies in the centre-left vote from predominantly working class people (b) The Greens will be the standard bearers for the mainstream indie-left with support primarily from the middle class (c) the "other" left RISE/Solidarity/TUSC are completely electorally irrelevant. The SNP would do well to remember this when looking for parliamentary support; they should court Tory support for their budgets at their peril.
As for the Labour Party, personally, I hope that they will have a future. That future though, will be decades in the making. They simply need to develop and maintain a consistent narrative. If that is as a unionist version of the SNP centre-left positioning, then that would be fine. There would be no problems in cooperation between the SNP and Labour in introducing broad, socially democratic policies into Scottish parliamentary life. They simply wouldn't cooperate on constitutional issues.
Looking at the electoral arithmetic, the support for independence hovers from the mid-40s to 50%. That's simply no basis whatsoever to hold a referendum. Let's concentrate on governing in a way that demonstrates the type of country we want to create, using the powers we have to make lives better now.

Amanda Baker (not verified)

Mon, 05/09/2016 - 06:16

This article is spot and - if the SNP needed any hint re what happens to parties that are too afeared - just look at Labour. Trepidation gets you no where. Labour abandoned the working class (and anyone with a conscience) during the Blair years, they abandoned the unions under Miliband. Abandon your voters and they will abandon you.

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