The cooncil election results are in, and we’ve learned a few things. Despite the weeping wailing and gnashing of teeth over Tory gains in places like Shettleston, Ferguslie Park and Ravenscraig, these are mostly things which are good for the longer term picture for the independence campaign. Whatever the Tories and their pals in the press say, we’re still on course for another independence referendum, and we’re still on course to win it.
The first thing to consider is that turn out was shockingly low. It usually is in council elections in Scotland, and this election was overshadowed by the General Election next month. That means that local campaigns were drowned out in the noise of national campaigns – and UK wide campaigns at that. These are factors which would tend to benefit the Unionist result. Wall to wall coverage in the media of the Tories and Labour benefits those parties at the expense of others.
When there’s a very low turn out, there tends to be proportionately more older voters than there are in other elections. The demographic most likely to go and vote, come hell or high water, are older people and that effect is magnified when overall turn out is low. Older voters are most likely to support Unionist parties, and most likely to vote Tory. That means the council elections are likely to have seen a disproportionate Conservative vote. Since these elections are conducted according to a strict proportional system, that means those votes get turned into seats in a way they wouldn’t necessarily in a first past the post election like the Westminster General Election next month.
Yes, yes, I know that not all older voters are dyed in the wool reactionaries who fly a fleg at the slightest provocation. I know that there are many older voters who support independence. So please do not fill up the comments section with an outraged explanation of how you’ve been an independence supporter since the 1960s and not everyone with a bus pass is a fan of Ruth Davidson. But it’s a statistical fact that the older you are, the more likely it is that you’ll be a supporter of the Union and the more likely it is that you’ll vote Conservative. ‘More likely’ doesn’t mean ‘everyone’.
The low turn out means that the council election results are probably a high water mark for the Tories, and reports that they’ll make serious gains in Scotland in June’s General Election are likely not to come to pass. Sky News is forecasting that, on the basis of these council results, the SNP are likely to win 54 Westminster seats in the General Election. That’s a very long way short of the 12 Tory gains that some opinion polls were forecasting. 54 SNP seats would be a pretty solid rejection of the Tory single issue no to indyref2 campaign. The same Sky News forecast also predicts a fairly modest number of gains for the Tories in the rest of the UK, giving Theresa May a majority of 48, considerably short of the 100 plus that was previously predicted. The big news from the rest of the UK is the total collapse of the Ukip vote. Although that’s not really surprising since the Conservatives have turned into Ukip. Theresa May is Nigel Farage in a designer trousers clown suit. The odious Nigel has a legion of faults, but at least he can eat chips convincingly. It’s just that he can’t do anything else convincingly. Like win elections.
There are reports that there were an alarming high number of spoiled ballot papers. Not deliberately spoiled, but spoiled because people had marked them with an X instead of numbering their preferences. In Scotland we have different electoral systems for every set of elections. In local elections it’s the Single Transferrable Vote method, in Holyrood elections it’s the D’Hondt method with constituency votes topped up by a regional list vote, in European elections it’s a pure list vote, and in Westminster elections it’s first past the post. No wonder voters are confused. It would be far better if all elections in Scotland were conducted according to the same voting system, but that’s not going to happen until we get independence.
The news reports will of course focus on the gains made by the Tories, especially in wards which are traditionally working class. However it needs to be pointed out that some of these wards contain some well-off districts where there are going to be strong Tory votes. Glasgow Shettleston contains the comfortably middle class district of Mount Vernon. The Tories in these areas have benefited from the collapse of Labour. But it’s also the case that the Conservatives are hoovering up the diehard loyalist working class vote, the people who will support the Union irrespective of how damaging the Union is to their job prospects, their economic interests, or the well-being of the communities in which they live.
Politics isn’t always rational or logical. We like to think that we make our decisions based on reason and fact, but we don’t. Humans are an emotional species and very often we make our important decisions based on our feelings, then seek facts after the event to bolster a decision that’s been made on an essentially irrational basis. We all do this, irrespective of our political views.
So a lot of people vote with the heart, and there’s a significant number of people in Scotland whose hearts are red white and blue, and there are a number of those who when you scratch the red white and blue you’ll find orange underneath. But crucially, and this is the good news, they’re a minority. If the Tories are relying on the diehard Unionists in order to save the Union, they’ve already lost. Not only are diehard Unionists a minority, they’re an ageing minority whose numbers are not being replenished. The Tories can appeal to the staunch all they like, but they’ll never staunch support for the Union bleeding away. It might be distressing to see Tories voted in in places like Shettleston, but the people who voted for them were never likely to vote for independence anyway. Their votes are not the ones we need to win in order to win independence.
The Tory victories in this week’s council elections in Scotland are the last roar of a toothless and senescent British lion. Despite throwing everything into making this a campaign against another independence referendum, despite completely ignoring all other policies except opposition to a second independence vote, the Tories still could only come a very very distant second. Their gains were almost entirely at the expense of Labour, and they failed to make any significant dent in support for pro-independence parties despite a low turn out favouring a Tory pensioner vote. The SNP stayed more or less where they were and in fact made a few minor gains, while the Greens have also made a few gains, despite the fact that there was a very low turn out which traditionally favours the Conservatives. It’s the best result in local elections that the SNP have ever had, which is a peculiar definition of the defeat that the Unionist press will be trying to spin this as.
The Tories threw everything they had into making this a referendum on a referendum, they’ve spent a lot of money, and though they won some local battles by taking votes from other Unionist parties, they still failed to win the wider war. All they’ve done is to position themselves as the party of the Union come what May. But we already knew that. If projections from these council elections bear up in June, the Tories will fail to make any great breakthroughs in Scotland in the General Election, and their single minded campaign to attract votes on the basis of opposing another independence referendum will have failed. The independence movement cannot be complacent, we’ve got a lot of work to do, we need to do everything we can to get the vote out in June, but it’s looking like another SNP landslide in the General Election.
The realignment of Scottish politics is continuing. Labour have declined into irrelevance, the Lib Dem resurgence failed dismally to resurge, and the choice now facing Scotland is between an outward looking internationalist social democratic Scotland, and an inward looking nostalgic right wing Tory Britain. That’s going to be a much easier fight for the independence movement to win than a fight against a Unionist campaign that’s headed by the Labour party and its pretence that there’s a progressive veneer on the reactionary British state. That’s a campaign that we can win, and that we will win. These council elections give the independence movement every reason to be cheerful.
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