Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Lessons for the SNP - a response

This post is in response to an article in the Daily Record by Gerry Hassan. I've always found Gerry provocative and he was certainly that in his article. I felt there were some holes in his analysis and seek to address his points in this post. Helpfully the original article was structured as 11 points and a summary - I've used his original text as the template for my responses.

1. A week ago, Sturgeon said the election gave her “a clear and unequivocal mandate”. That’s not accurate and sets the wrong tone when the public have just elected a minority SNP administration.
The SNP are the clear winners of the election - in terms of seats won, constituencies won, votes won. The result may be a minority government as the SNP is two seats short of a majority but that may not be what the electorate wished for rather the result that the system of proportional representation produced.

2. There is now an established pattern emerging of SNP over-reach seen in the three peaks of the referendum, the 2015 general election and this year’s elections.

The SNP don’t seem to know how to deal with huge success (last year), slight reverses (this year) and major reverses (referendum). That’s a worrying pattern.
I don't think this evidences a pattern other that differing results to different questions or choices at elections and a referendum. I wouldn't say that's a pattern. Over-reach is not explained - is over-reach something the SNP created and what is it or is it the expectation of a majority which was predicted by pollsters and commentators but never taken for granted by the SNP?

3. The SNP vote rose compared to 2011 in constituencies and fell in regional list percentage-wise. They made great play of winning one million votes – up 156,982 on 2011 – but down from “Peak SNP” last year, from 49.97 per cent to 46.5 per cent with 394,539 less votes.
Last year's Westminster election had a higher turnout, different boundaries, fewer parties and was first-past-the-post. The Scottish Parliament elections were held against the backdrop of that astonishing success for the SNP and relentless opinion polls suggesting another ground breaking performance from the SNP with no close challenger. Despite the 'no-contest' nature of the election and the further collapse of Labour and the LibDems (outside of the LibDems carefully targeted constituency wins) the SNP advanced in terms of constituency seats won and total vote. It is worth noting that fewer parties contested the constituencies which helped the SNP while the regional list contest was more crowded and competitive which worked against the SNP.

4. The SNP won 25.9 per cent of the electorate’s votes, nearly the same share with which David Cameron won in 2015, 24.5 per cent, that led to cries of “Tory dictatorship” from some on the left.
The SNP has been smeared by opponents of turning Scotland into a 'one party state' is this what the 'Tory dictatorship' label alludes to? Also, while I can understand the point Gerry is trying to make about share of the electorate I am unclear what point he is making unless it is to point out the ludicrousness of the 'one-party' gibe. 

5. The response of many Nationalists is that share of the electorate doesn’t matter. Turnout affects legitimacy and strength of mandate. A landslide on 55 per cent compared to 75 per cent is very different. Just as a Scotland of indyref participation levels is different from Scottish Parliament turnouts.
Turnouts for the Scottish parliament elections have always been lower than Westminster - why would this Scottish government be any more or less legitimate than any previous one? Turnout was up on 2011.

6. Scotland’s democratic revolution is diminishing. The referendum had an 85 per cent turnout, last year 71 per cent and now 55.6 per cent – 5.2 per cent up on 2011.
That small increase from five years ago is an echo from the referendum explosion, with participation down 1.344million from September 2014 and 631,312 from last year.
This is a moot point. The referendum was a one off in a way - many people voted in that election who haven't habitually voted in elections at any level. The tribal nature of party electoral politics and scientific methods of targeted campaigning may have both turned off and not reached voters. Also the relentlessly strong position of the SNP in opinion polls will have driven down turnout - 'why bother voting, they're going to win anyway'. 

7. The SNP are the most national party of Scotland, much more so than Labour or the Tories at their peak. Yet, slowly the SNP are becoming more West of Scotland, with all but one of the party’s 11 constituency gains being in the west.
To some extent I can't argue with this other than to say that the SNP won more in the West of Scotland because Labour had held on there in 2011 and collapsed there in 2015. The SNP does have lessons to learn from the constituency losses in Edinburgh Western, North East Fife, and Aberdeenshire West and the closeness of the vote in places such as Ayr and Edinburgh South and Edinburgh Central. Success in just two of these seats would have won that majority (though an SNP victory in Ayr may have cost the SNP a list seat in the South of Scotland regional vote).
8. The SNP are still the dominant party in their old areas but while they look impregnable in the west, they are still not as popular as Labour were at their peak – the highest SNP Glasgow vote being Nicola Sturgeon’s 61 per cent, whereas in 1997 Labour won 73 per cent and 71 per cent in Shettleston and Springburn.
Comparing Scottish Parliament results with Westminster again which is not a good thing. Besides is it a 'good' thing to emulate Labour by winning votes shares of 71-73% of the vote in a multi-party democracy?

9. After nine years, where do new ideas come from and how do the party avoid policy exhaustion? One problem is the lack of an SNP-orientated, independence-supporting think tank. If the SNP can renew in office and win a future referendum,they have to be open to fresh thinking.
Absolutely, there is a lack of an SNP inclined think tank. That has been the case for decades but is it a bad thing? Is one needed and given its size and depth of experience in its ranks and amongst its supporters is there a way of creating policy forums? The SNP does have its underused National Assembly which until devolution used to discuss and formulate policy on broad issues often calling in experts from outside. Perhaps a combination of internal policy forums around the existing structure of the National Assembly allied with consultative outward facing initiatives could harness fresh policy ideas without the need for a 'think-tank' as such which often comes with its own baggage and agenda.
10. Pluralism. The SNP have a self-discipline that aided them on the way up. They now have to relax a bit, let go a little and allow a culture of debate and dissent, particularly in the party and independence community.
Agree. The SNP conference debates on NATO membership, fracking and land reform show that the SNP can have these debates with its members and through these engage and respond to campaigns outwith the party.

11. Independence is the subject of a forthcoming campaign but where is the work on a new independence package? Where even is the party’s post-mortem on losing the 2014 vote?
There can be no second referendum without a completely revised offer on the currency, Bank of England and Treasury, economics and public spending, along with Europe. What are the party waiting for?
As the SNP is playing a longer game there should be room to consider the views of those who reluctantly voted 'no'. It would be too easy to say the party fully understands all the reasons - it needs to listen. Nicola Sturgeon has made it clear that is a central part of this summers independence campaign. She sees it as important to reach out to those who had enough doubt to vote 'no' in 2014. One could ask where the wider Yes post-mortem is and what its conclusions were. My view is that any post-mortem by the Yes campaign has been limited to the remaining local groups and did not go beyond the self congratulatory and in some cases demonisation of those who voted 'no'. Yes Scotland shut up shop immediately the campaign was over. Possibly an astute move in that it avoided splits and recriminations but on the other hand it may have also avoided rational analysis of the reasons the 'No' campaign won.

The SNP have been at the helm of three great waves of political success – the referendum (despite losing), the 2015 election and the 2016 Scottish elections.

They have much to be proud of in each. Yet, there has also been in each, post-vote, an unwillingness to confront home truths.

The worst of these was the referendum aftermath – with Alex Salmond, in particular, coming over as a poor loser who felt his rightful triumph was snatched from him.
This analysis does not ring true to me. My feeling way that Alex handled it well and that his resignation was the right response, was not bitter (it could have been) and allowed the SNP to regroup under Nicola Sturgeon. That has proven extremely successful. Contrast that, if you will, with the collapse of the Quebecois movement after their last referendum where they came much closer to winning that the Yes campaign did. In Quebec the aftermath was divided and bitter whereas the aftermath in Scotland was positive and saw the growth of the independence supporting parties.

In 2015, there was too much loose talk that the SNP’s 56 MPs spoke for Scotland.
The SNP did win the vast majority of seats - no other party has ever won as many and as such could be said to be speaking for Scotland. The SNP MPs have certainly made much more of an impact on Westminster politics that Labour's 50 MPs did after 1987. The SNP MPs have provided consistent and credible opposition to the UK Tory government.

Some in the party will say what does this matter? We are the winners. However, the SNP don’t speak for most Scots. They have to understand this if they want to govern effectively, remain popular – and win a future referendum.
If the SNP does not speak for Scotland then who does? An argument can always be made with electoral systems in a multi party set up that more people voted for you than voted against. The fact is, though, that the SNP have in the Westminster election won the vast majority of constituency seats and likewise they won the vast majority of of constituency seats in the Scottish Parliament elections. 
In terms of the next independence referendum the SNP leadership know that they need to win it so are playing a long game, seeking to fully understand the concerns of those who did not put their cross in the Yes box on 18th September 2014. Through that understanding and that examination they will be seeking to build a platform for independence that achieves the winning position and one that learns from both the success and the failures of the past referendum. 

I'd like to thank Gerry for provoking me to respond to his article and think about the points he raised. I'd also like to thank Simon Barrow for challenging me to provide my response following my 'more holes than a moth eaten jumper' post on Facebook. The jumper may be slightly less moth eaten than when I made the comment!

Rob Munn
Rob has been an active SNP member since 1986 and is a long time local organiser in Leith and North Edinburgh. He was part of the grassroots Yes Edinburgh North & Leith group.