Sections of the media and the right wing of Scottish Labour have hailed Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar for having run “a good campaign” in the 6 May Scottish election. But Scottish Labour lost seats in the election, and ended up with a (slightly) lower share of constituency and regional list votes. Its overall score of 20% was only slightly higher than its poll ratings before Sarwar became leader.
Sarwar did not make any election gaffes and was articulate in the televised party leader debates. But the lack of improvement is the surprising thing, given that between 2017 (when Richard Leonard was elected leader) and early 2021 (when Leonard was ousted) Sarwar spent his time undercutting Labour by briefing the media against the party leader.
Even allowing for the restrictions on campaigning resulting from Covid-19, Labour’s campaign on the ground was particularly lacklustre. Reports from across the country indicate that few party members came out to leaflet and doorknock.
The big turnouts by campaigners in the 2017 and 2019 general elections were replaced by the traditional ritual of small-scale leafleting and knocking a few doors of already-identified Labour promises.
Younger voters, Labour-turned-SNP (Scottish National Party) voters, soft SNP voters and first-time voters were largely ignored. Instead, as if nothing had been learnt from the disastrous "Better Together" campaign of 2014, there was a dog-whistle appeal to soft Tory voters.
The much-vaunted 8% increase in the Labour vote in Glasgow Southside (candidate: Anas Sarwar) and the 6% increase in the Labour vote in Dumbarton (candidate: the equally right-wing deputy party leader Jackie Baillie) corresponded almost exactly to the decline in the Tory vote in the two constituencies.
It would not be unfair to describe Scottish Labour’s election "strategy" as an Anas Sarwar ego trip.
Although earlier suggestions that Labour list candidates might stand as “Anas Sarwar – National Recovery Plan” candidates were dropped, Scottish Labour leaflets appealed to voters to “use your second vote (i.e. list vote) for Anas Sarwar’s National Recovery Plan”. And they were dominated by the pictures and thoughts of Anas Sarwar.
Many e-mails to members were requests for money. Given the low level of on-the-streets campaigning, what the money was to be spent on was something of a mystery. Until billboard advertising featuring Anas Sarwar appeared shortly before election day.
Predictably, Sarwar’s election team consisted largely of right-wing sycophants and hangers-on. Their e-mail output was even worse than Sarwar’s. As a post on the Campaign for Socialism/Scottish Momentum Facebook page summed up one of them:
“Priceless. That’s the only way to describe that e-mail we’ve all just received from British Army 77th Brigade Specialist Reserve Officer Kate Watson, who now doubles up as Anas Sarwar’s National Election Campaign Coordinator. ‘If it wasn't for members like you, there would be no Scottish Labour,’ she writes. But it’s because of members like former Better Together Director of Operations Kate Watson that there nearly isn’t a Scottish Labour... The e-mail... informs me that I am ‘a member of a select family: members of the Scottish Labour Party.’ I can remember when I was a member of a mass labour movement. But now, thanks to the politics and actions of people like Kate Watson, I’m reduced to being a member of a dysfunctional nuclear family?"
It was the e-mail which Sarwar sent out on the Friday morning after election day which best sums up his self-centred charlatanism. Before a vote had been counted, before a result had been declared, Sarwar proclaimed success:
“We have run a massively positive and uplifting campaign, which has focused relentlessly on the priorities of the people of Scotland. And I couldn't be prouder of what we have achieved. Before a single vote is counted I can tell you one thing - we're back.”
This hardly tallies with the actual election campaign and subsequent results. Nor has there been any accounting by “Anas and his team” for the gap between reality and earlier campaign e-mails: “Experts say there’s just 0.5% between us and the Tories.”
Scottish Labour did badly – again – on 6 May 2021. And anyone not prepared to look that reality squarely in the face has nothing to contribute to any potential strategy for Scottish Labour’s democratic and socialist recovery.
The SNP won 64 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, in an electoral system designed to prevent any one party (specifically: the SNP) securing, or coming close to securing, an absolute majority.
The SNP won two constituency seats from the Tories and one from Labour. But their overall tally of seats increased by just one because their constituency successes reduced the number of their regional list MSPs by two.
The more of the 73 constituency seats a party wins, the fewer of the 56 regional seats it is allocated, even if it wins many list votes.
The Tories won 31 seats (same number as in 2016), Labour won 22 (down two), the Scottish Greens won eight (up two) and the Scottish Lib Dems won four (down one). Alec Salmond’s Alba Party and George Galloway’s All for Unity won no seats, and hardly any votes.
At 63% the turnout in the election was over 7% higher than in 2016. In fact it was the highest turnout in any Holyrood election since the Scottish Parliament’s creation in 1999.
The SNP’s share of the vote increased slightly in constituencies (48%, its best score ever) but declined slightly in regional lists (40%). The Tories’ share of votes was virtually unchanged (30% and 23%), while Labour’s vote went down by 1% in constituencies (22%) and in regional lists (18%).
There was much tactical voting by non-SNP voters. On average, Labour’s share of the vote fell by six points where a sitting Tory MP was under threat from the SNP, while the Tory vote fell by eight points where a sitting Labour MP was under threat.
Similar shifts occurred in many constituencies where there was a sitting SNP MSP, depending on whether Labour or the Tories were lying second.
Even on the eve of election day a high proportion of voters self-identified as undecided. Was it an election to elect a government? Or a referendum? Or a referendum on holding a referendum?
And for a layer of non-SNP-voters the key question was how to vote tactically against the SNP.
Also noticeable was the vehemence with which many voters expressed their hostility to the SNP. It was reminiscent of Scottish politics in the period 2014-16, though the venom then was mainly from SNP voters against Scottish Labour.
To maintain and build support from voters indifferent or hostile to independence, the SNP claimed that they were a safe pair of hands who had steered the country through the Covid-19 pandemic; to keep the faithful on board, they committed to a second independence referendum.
The Tories ran on opposition to a second referendum. Labour focused on a post-Covid "National Recovery Plan" and dismissed all talk of another referendum as a bit of an irrelevance.
The Greens, unsurprisingly, focused on the environment, adding on that they were also in favour of “securing our future as an independent European country.”
The Tories’ boast is that prevented an SNP majority at Holyrood (by hanging on to a couple of key marginals). The Greens’ boast is that they now have eight seats (although they had expected to win nine).
Labour’s boast is that they are “back on the pitch” and voters are “no longer ashamed to vote Labour” (apart, one assumes, from the 80% who chose not to do so).
That the SNP would win the election was never in doubt. The only question was whether they would win an absolute majority. At the time of writing it is not clear whether the SNP will enter into a formal coalition with the Greens or, more likely, form a minority government largely dependent on the Greens.
By any normal standards, the SNP/Green victory is a mandate for a second referendum.
At the same time, the election result underlines how divided the Scottish electorate is over independence. Anti-independence parties won 50.4% of the constituency vote, while pro-independence parties won 50.1% of the list vote.
The SNP will not be pushing for a referendum in the very short term, having promised to prioritise recovery from the pandemic. But that will only delay an inevitable clash with Tory-controlled Westminster.