It is time to set the Scottish parties free
Unprecedented is not what it used to be. The splintering of the party system and the increasing willingness of voters to shop around means that the previously extraordinary has become rather routine. To take one example, prior to this week, in no election since 1918 had more than three parties polled over a million votes each*; this year, six did so. But nowhere was the scale of the unprecedented more obvious than in Scotland.
It wasnâ€™t just the size of the SNP victory, far outshining their previous Westminster best of eleven seats set back in October 1974, and eclipsing even their 2011 Holyrood landslide; the near-whitewash went beyond what any other party has ever achieved in Scotland. For comparison, the previous record was the Liberalsâ€™ 52 seats out of a possible 58 way back in 1880 (Labour never managed more than 56 out of 72 seats, in 1997 and 2001). Swings on a scale usually only seen in the most extreme by-elections were repeated again and again.
Whatâ€™s clear is that a profound political change came over Scotland during and immediately after the referendum campaign. The SNP made two charges against their opponents and both have hit home. The first is that Labour MPs, in campaigning for the Union with the Conservatives, were essentially no better than Red Tories. Logically, this holds no water other than for those for whom independence is the only issue worth discussing but it seems to have stuck anyway, perhaps due to Labourâ€™s ambivalent attitude towards cuts, austerity and public spending reinforcing the perception that they were Tory-lite.
The second charge, however, is harder to shake off: that the Scottish Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative Parties are merely branch offices of the â€˜Londonâ€™ parties, jump to the UK tune and are as such un-Scottish or even anti-Scottish. Having their own leaders north of the border makes little difference: who really calls the shots to an MP â€“ the Scottish leader, who has little direct control or power over him or her, or the Chief Whip or leader in Westminster, who can determine their promotion prospects? Again, that logicâ€™s a little unfair: why shouldnâ€™t a unionist party operating in an all-UK parliament organise across the whole country?
But logic is frequently trumped by emotion and identity, which is why the Scottish party structures exist in the first place. However, because the essence of the charge is correct, that partial solution fails. There will always be an unresolvable contradiction as long as an MP has two masters, one in Scotland and one in London. (MPs have, of course, always had two masters: their party and their constituents. However, voters tend to accept that as part of the deal that goes with primarily voting for candidates as party representatives rather than individuals. The party itself having two heads is a different matter.)
The workable solution then is for the Scottish sections of the parties to become wholly independent from their current forms. While radical, this wouldnâ€™t be without precedent. The Scottish Greens are independent of the party in England and Wales; the Scottish Unionists were at one time a separate party from the Conservatives. No doubt it the Scottish sections did go their own ways â€“ with their own policies and manifestoes, and they would have to have these if the separations were not to be a sham â€“ life would become more complex. It would, for example, lessen the prospect of any Scot serving as prime minister. That said, until England or the regions of it enjoy similar devolved powers to Scotland, that will be difficult anyway. Indeed, symmetrical devolution to England is the essential political accompaniment to match party reform.
The alternative, however, as long as Scots place such a premium on national identity, is to hand the SNP a lasting and substantial starting advantage.
At this point Iâ€™ll be partisan. To my mind, Murphy struck me as an excellent choice to lead Scottish Labour but as Iâ€™m neither Scottish nor Labour, my judgement may be suspect. Certainly the voters north of the border havenâ€™t agreed. Even so, his defeat may be a blessing in disguise: he should run for and lead Labourâ€™s Holyrood delegation. How the Lib Dems come back is more difficult and will first require them to define what they are for. For the Conservatives, the matter is more simple and is to do with historic legacy as much as anything. Disassociating from the Thatcher inheritance and developing a more local interpretation of a centre-right party will remove the glass ceiling of 15% the Scottish Tories are stuck beneath, particularly with the Lib Dems in collapse and the SNP actively chasing Labourâ€™s voters with strongly left-wing rhetoric.
Given that the Holyrood elections take place in less than a year, with the Scottish locals in 2017 and â€“ if Sturgeon can match or surpass Salmondâ€™s achievement in Holyrood â€“ the prospect of another referendum at the backend of the decade, thereâ€™s no time for delay: change must come within months not years.
p.s. The Conservatives came in for some criticism before the election for sticking to their 40-40 strategy of targeting a relatively limited number of defences while simultaneously looking to make the same number of advances; the argument being that, given the polls, they were overstretching and so exposing their flank of middle targets to Labour. CCHQ hasnâ€™t always got its targeting strategy right over the years but on this occasion it couldnâ€™t have planned it much better. Getting that right has markedly improved the Tory vote efficiency.
p.p.s. On the subject of predicting where the election result would end up, I hope some readers exercised the caution I advised last week on not being overly reliant on the polls and considering both the possibility of the Tories doing far better than was being projected, and of the Lib Dems doing far worse. (I accept I also suggested considering Labour doing far better but itâ€™s a percentage game and any losses there should have been more than offset by the gains elsewhere).
* Thatâ€™s not quite true: there have been various instances where two parties in an electoral pact have both polled over a million, such as the SDP-Liberal alliance in the 1980s, but thatâ€™s a technicality; this year, six distinct electoral forces all cleared the million mark.