Did Richard Lochhead cost the SNP their majority?

417851-richard-lochhead-rural-affairs-secretaryThe SNP have spent decades slowly winning the support of Scotland’s farming communities. Though historically a solidly Tory demographic, the SNP first started making serious inroads in Scotland’s most agrarian areas in the 1980s, in particular in the North East. In the decades that followed their dominance in rural Scotland became increasingly apparent: they won Angus East, Banff and Buchan, and Moray in 1987; the Perth and Kinross by-election in 1995; and padded their numbers still by winning Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, and Tayside North in 1997. That dominance wasn’t just reflected in election results, either. The SNP’s support in rural communities, and their relationship with farmers, was visible in their ever-present stalls at agricultural shows, as well as the increasing number of giant “Vote SNP” hoardings on the roadsides, where once they would have said “Conservative and Unionist.” However, that relationship has severely soured in the past few months.

Since December 2015, farmers across Scotland have faced considerable delays in receiving their Common Agricultural policy payments from the Scottish Government.These payments are usually made in December, when many farmers settle their accounts, though by the end of February, only 1,000 out of almost 8,000 farms had received the payments they were due.. Though these delays are seemingly attributable to the shift to a new computer system and the shift to the new Basic Payments System, it has been alleged that Ministers were alerted to potential problems as early as 2014, while they were out campaigning in the independence referendum.

This led hundreds of farmers to descend upon Holyrood to protest the SNP Government’s handling of the issue. The previously-SNP supporting former head of the NFU in Scotland, Jim Walker, described assurances by Environment and Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead as “at best worthless and at worst plain lies” in what amounted to “a vain attempt to save his own skin.”

I spent a couple of weeks of the Scottish Parliament election campaign at home in the Highlands, and that the farming community had turned its back on the SNP was palpable. Gone were the scores of yellow Richard Lochhead and Fergus Ewing boards, and in their place were shiny hoardings bearing the names of Douglas Ross and Edward Mountain. That hostility was reflected too in the NFU hustings in Dingwall a couple of weeks ago.

Digesting the results of Thursday night, it is clear that the SNP paid a price at the ballot box for the Scottish Government’s failings over farm payments.

Below are the results of ten of Scotland’s most agrarian constituencies, and just look at those swings to the Tories. In addition to taking Aberdeenshire West, there’s a 15% swing from the SNP to the Tories in Moray, whopping 17% swing in Alex Salmond’s old constituency of Aberdeenshire East, and Roseanna Cunningham’s majority was slashed from 7,166 to 1,422.

The regional list results were just as bad. While in 2011 the SNP managed to win all ten seats in the North East and win a seat on the list, this time around not only did they lose Aberdeenshire West, but they weren’t even close to winning a seat on the list. There was an 11% swing from the SNP to the Tories in the North East. And while the constituencies panned out the same in the Highlands and Islands, the SNP dropped another two seats here, with a 9% swing to the Tories here.

So while the SNP remained static in Central and West of Scotland regions, and gained two more seats in Glasgow, the SNP lost two seats in the North East and Highlands and Islands, and another one each in Mid Scotland and Fife and the South of Scotland. Overall, six out of eight of the SNP’s losses came from Scotland’s rural regions (the Lothians providing the other two). If Scotland’s farming communities sought to punish the SNP for the farm payments fiasco, they’ve well and truly succeeded.

Back home in Moray, those who aren’t fans of the local MSP have been known to refer to him as Blockhead. Having potentially cost the SNP their majority, Richard Lochhead’s head might well be on the ministerial block.