For the second year in a row the prize for most spectacular self-inflicted political wound must surely go to the Prime Minister of the day. Despite having piled on support for the Conservative Party, Mrs. May severely underestimated her opponent (as, I am happy to admit, did I), who piled on more votes and so deprived the Prime Minister of her majority, and her authority.
However, Mrs. May is not the only politician who until recently was walking on water to have had a disastrous night on Thursday. In relative terms the biggest vote loser was the SNP, as well as the biggest seat loser in absolute terms. While it is certainly true that the SNP’s starting point was astonishingly high, in only two seats did the SNP start with a majority of less than 3,000. The average SNP majority was 9,966. Save for a handful of seats the SNP’s grip on Scotland looked solid for a generation.
While the expectation for Thursday’s election was that Labour would be squeezed from both sides; it was the SNP, in fact, who lost votes to both left and right. After Thursday’s mauling, the SNP have been deprived of 21 seats. In Angus, and Coatbridge, the Conservatives and Labour, respectively, overturned SNP majorities in excess of 11,000. The SNP’s overall vote share declined by more than 13 percentage points, with the Conservatives, in particular, but also Labour, adding hefty chunks of the vote to their respective piles. The average majority in SNP-held seats now stands at a mere 2,292.
The SNP’s impressive coalition of support in 2015 can broadly be broken down into three categories. The first is voters who aren’t nationalists, but voted SNP either because they had a decent local candidate and/or believed a vote for the Nats did not equate to supporting independence. The second is voters who are nationalists because they believed that Scottish independence was the most credible route to a more left-wing government. The third is existential nationalists, who support independence for Scotland above all else.
Having spectacularly misjudged the public mood in calling for a second independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon drove support in that first category away from her party and towards the Conservatives in the magnitude of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. However, provided that this was the only direction in which the SNP were losing support, their grip on Scotland looked safe enough.
Explaining the increase in the Labour vote is somewhat more difficult. In what were once Labour heartlands there was a palpable shift in anti-SNP Labour supporters towards the Tories, believing Ruth Davidson to be the most doughty opponent of a second independence referendum. In many working-class seats across Scotland the Tories more than tripled their vote, and a sizeable chunk of that was from voters who stuck with Labour even in 2015.
At the same time, having spent much of the past two months canvassing there is at least some anecdotal evidence of disquiet about the SNP’s record in government. Kenny Farquharson also posits that among the younger and more radical voters many now no longer see independence as the only road to a more just society. In any event, it appears that the SNP has begun to lose voters within that second category too, which goes some way towards explaining Labour’s increase in support despite discernible losses to the Tories.
Which is why the road ahead for Nicola Sturgeon is more dangerous than ever.
No fewer than 30 of the SNP’s 35 seats require a swing of less than 5% to fall to another party. The vast majority of these seats face towards Labour.
Nicola Sturgeon’s next step is critical. The expectation is that the First Minister does as many of her proxies have been hinting and takes a second independence referendum off the table in an effort to win back some support within the first category of voter. However, in doing so, she runs the risk that working class unionists no longer feel it necessary to lend their support to the Tories and shift their allegiance back to Labour. If even half of the 2017 increase (note, not the total, just the increase) in Tory votes in largely working class seats found its way into Labour’s pile then Labour could expect to pick up a further 11 seats from the SNP.
However, such a strategy also risks alienating those voters whose support for the SNP is motivated by a belief that independence is the most viable route towards a more socialist Scotland. Why on earth would such voters support a party who have just closed off that path to a more socialist Scotland when another, increasingly viable, alternative exists in Jeremy Corbyn?
Furthermore, such a U-turn by the First Minister may also risk losing support to the nationalist fringes. After all, if you can’t rely upon the SNP to push for independence then what’s the point of their very existence? Expect Tommy Sheridan to be licking his lying lips at that one.
It may well be that after a decade in power and with little to offer but a single issue the safest route for the SNP is to press on with the strategy that has cost them almost a third of their support and almost half of their parliamentary seats in two years. Either way, expect the next set of Holyrood elections to be very interesting…