In the wake of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the Scottish National Party swept all before it. At the 2015 UK general election it won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, taking half the popular vote.
The 2016 Scottish election confirmed the SNP’s dominant position, winning 47 percent of the vote and giving it just short of an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament.
While the 4 May council elections did not see a reversal of the SNP’s fortunes — it emerged with the largest number of seats — it did signal the fact that some of its gloss may be starting to rub off. Despite its leading status, it was not able to win overall control of any single council.
The relative increase in support for the Tories, which has been grossly exaggerated by the media, is real enough. They took a quarter of first preference votes (on the Single Transferrable Vote system) winning 276 seats with a swing of 12 percent.
The main reason for this is the disastrous leadership of the Labour Party in Scotland by Kezia Dugdale, who spends most of her time attacking the SNP and the idea of a second independence referendum. The result of this is that much of the unionist vote has now consolidated behind the Tories.
The combined support for the pro-unionist parties in May’s elections was considerably greater than for those supporting independence. The Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats between them took a 56 percent share of first preference votes while the SNP and Greens took 36 percent. Hardly a ringing endorsement of independence.
This result can partly be put down to the lower turnout in council elections. However, it can also be explained by the performance of the SNP as a party of government.
The SNP came into power in 2007, when it first took over as a minority administration. Since then it has won two further elections, one with outright majority. It has had more than enough time to make an impact on the lives of people in Scotland.
More than one in five children in Scotland live in poverty and Scotland remains a deeply divided country with 1 percent of Scots owning half the wealth. The impact of the SNP in tackling the Tories’, and previous Labour governments’, policy of austerity and cuts has been negligible. SNP controlled councils have also implemented cuts just as vicious as their rivals.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, in the wake of the Brexit vote, has tied the issue of independence directly to Scotland’s continuing membership of the EU. Ignoring the complexity of the vote, she has presented the argument as a direct choice between a reactionary Tory Brexit and more progressive Scotland, which would have continuing access to the free market and the continued free movement of people. However, it has been recently shown that over two thirds of people in Scotland either want to leave the EU or want it reformed.
How all this affects the June UK general election is an open question. It would be nigh on impossible to expect the SNP to improve its position in comparison to 2015.
The Tories are likely to improve their performance and pick up several seats. Any improvement by them will be trumpeted by the Tory press as a means of ruling out a second independence referendum.
The Labour Party manifesto presented by Jeremy Corbyn does resonate in Scotland. Angus Robertson, the SNP deputy leader, has tried to rubbish it as a vision “that looks a lot like Scotland”. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that Labour’s commitment under Jeremy Corbyn to tax the rich, renationalise the railways and the Post Office and restore workers’ rights puts it way to the left of anything being considered by the SNP.
However, the manifesto commitment to rule out a second referendum on Scottish independence means that it is doubtful that Labour will win back the support of working class voters who have switched to the SNP.
The radical left, which is not standing in this election, must hold to account the main parties looking for the support of the Scottish working class.
These parties need to be pressurised to ensure an early vote on Scottish independence and called upon to support immigrants and refugees, to commit strongly to anti-racism, to promise to remove Trident nuclear missiles, to put an end to warmongering and to break with the politics of austerity and cuts.
The results of the council elections show that Scotland is not totally immune to right wing and reactionary arguments. Failure by the leadership of the independence movement to move forward can easily set the movement backwards.
The scapegoating of immigrants and refugees is always part of the daily political discourse, in Scotland as well as England. That is why it is crucial that organisations such as Stand up to Racism and Unite Against Fascism must continue to play a central role in the political life of Scotland.