Thursday’s election results have cost Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray his job. But where did it all go wrong for Scottish Labour?
The headlines from the election show the scale of the disaster for the party. A parliamentary majority for the SNP – something that was supposedly an impossibility under the Additional Member System. Labour has twenty constituency MSPs less than the notional figure of 35 going into the election. And it has a total of only 37 representatives in the 129 member strong Parliament, a drop of seven.
Analysis of the total numbers of votes cast shows a slightly different picture. Labour’s vote in the constituencies fell by just 0.5%. And in several of the key losses its share of the vote actually increased. It was the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote that allowed the SNP to make so many gains across West and Central Scotland at Labour’s expense.
But everyone knew that Nick Clegg’s party was extremely unpopular and that its vote would fall considerably. It hardly took a political Nostradamus to predict that. So why did the SNP pick up pretty much all of these votes instead of Labour?
It’s a complex question. So let’s step back a little. This election was effectively a two party fight, and so we have to look at how both the SNP and Labour approached it.
In years gone by the Scottish National Party was a single issue protest movement. It had its high points in certain Westminster elections and was always very good at winning by elections. But its single purpose of securing Scottish independence never looked like being fulfilled.
Alex Salmond has changed all that in his second spell as party leader.
Salmond returned from Westminster to take over in 2004 after a disastrous spell in charge for John Swinney. His party was at a low ebb and a Labour – Liberal Democrat coalition was running Scotland.
In the 2007 the SNP became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament. And over the last four years Salmond has skilfully controlled a minority administration. And he has now secured a majority to govern the country.
Alex Salmond may be arrogant. He is nowhere near as funny as he likes to think he is. And his supercilious approach to debating annoys many. But he is an extremely clever political strategist and is clearly the dominant political figure in Scotland.
Salmond realised that he needed the votes of those who do not believe in Scottish independence in order to be in a position to govern. He fought off the SNP fundamentalists who believe in independence or nothing and set about making the SNP a party that can make devolution work, taking a gradualist approach to the long term goal of a separate Scotland. And that is something that Labour has never fully come to terms with.
In contrast Labour has looked in this campaign like a party living on past successes. It delivered devolution for Scotland and appeared to believe it had a right to govern the country thereafter.
The party’s removal from government in 2007 was seen by many as an anomaly. Few appeared to recognise at that time that it marked a change to the Scottish political landscape. The SNP was not taken seriously as a party of government. And so the party stumbled forward rather than making the reforms that were necessary.
I wrote during this election campaign of the mistaken focus of Labour’s campaign which concentrated on the Westminster coalition. Labour performed well in Scotland in last year’s general election and the strategy seemed to be, quite simply, to repeat that approach. But this fundamentally underestimated the sophistication of the Scottish electorate.
Scotland is an anti-Tory country in the main. And for Westminster it saw Labour as the best party to represent this view. A Scottish election however is very different. There was no chance of a Tory government. Indeed not even Annabelle Goldie would have expected her party to increase its numbers in the Parliament.
In addition, the tone of the attacks on the coalition may well have alienated many of the former Lib Dem voters that the party should have been trying to attract.
And Labour did not manage to land a single hit on the SNP’s record in government. It was new territory for Salmond’s party to be entering an election as the incumbents. But Labour did not capitalise on failed promises to hold an independence referendum, introduce a local income tax, cut class sizes or write off student debt.
I also mentioned Labour’s lack of leadership in an earlier blog. The SNP has been criticised for running a presidential style campaign based around its leader – but this has proven to be an effective strategy. The comparisons it invited between Alec Salmond and Iain Gray did not help the Labour cause.
Labour has also failed to offer any real policy alternatives to the SNP government. The constitutional position, the big disagreement between the parties, was not an issue in this election. So the question for many voters became whether to stay with a government that they viewed to be doing a largely decent job or to vote for an opposition that offered little new.
To summarise, Labour attempted to take on a strong opponent with a poor campaign that had the wrong focus and lacked leadership. And the electorate punished it for these failures.
It is also worth noting the differing strategies that the two main parties have adopted to the Additional Member System used in Scottish elections.
In all past Scottish elections Labour MSPs were largely elected as constituency representatives. The party decided not to place its key candidates on the regional lists, fearing this would show a lack of confidence in its ability to win seats.
The SNP meanwhile had all of its biggest hitters fighting constituencies, but with the fall back of being at the top of the lists and thereby able to secure election in any case.
Now I don’t like list systems. And one of my criticisms of the AMS is precisely that candidates can lose yet still be elected by the back door. In my view it should be one or the other. Fight a constituency or seek a list place but not both.
The consequence of the SNP strategy, and the party cannot be criticised for using the rules to its best advantage, has been very significant. Many leading SNP figures effectively became “shadow MSPs”, campaigning over the period of a parliament for another shot at a constituency while using their role in Parliament to raise their profile.
And this has worked, and worked big time. Look at how many of the new Nationalist constituency MSPs has now secured were list MSPs in the last parliament.
The irony is that the position has now flipped, with the SNP securing most of its representation in constituencies whereas Labour now has more list MSPs.
But Labour’s approach now means that the vast majority of those who lost their constituency seats are out of Parliament entirely, while the list representatives are in the main newcomers, leaving the party with a relatively inexperienced group.
Iain Gray has, rightly in my view, taken responsibility for the crushing electoral defeat and resigned his position.
But the Scottish party now is making exactly the same mistake as the UK party did following last year’s general election by delaying the contest for his successor until the autumn. This will lead to a long period of uncertainty, leaving Gray as a lame duck leader in the interim.
And you can be sure that Alec Salmond will point this out at every conceivable opportunity.
Scottish Labour now faces a massive challenge if it is to recover from its worst election result in living memory. It must regroup and refocus – and it must do so quickly. But first it must face up to why it was defeated so badly last week, and make sure that it learns the lessons for the future.