Saturday, May 5, 2012

The SNP's victory in numbers

Many thanks to DougtheDug on the previous thread for clearing up a point that had been bugging me for a few hours. I could distinctly recall that the SNP won fifteen more councillors than Labour in 2007 - this time the gap is thirty, and yet the BBC and others are reporting that Labour have made a slightly bigger net gain in seats than the Nationalists. The explanation for this discrepancy, of course, is that 2007 isn't being used as the baseline for the figures. Now, there's certainly a case to be made for taking into account seats that have changed hands in by-elections over the last five years, but to count as "Labour gains" seats won back from Glasgow First (ie. seats Labour "gained" from themselves) is without a doubt grossly misleading. To give a more meaningful idea of the direction of travel, here is the number of councillors won by each party yesterday, with changes from the 2007 position -

SNP 424 (+61)
Labour 394 (+46)
Conservatives 115 (-28)
Liberal Democrats 71 (-95)
Greens 14 (+6)
SSP 1 (-)
Others 201 (+8)

So not only did the SNP secure the most seats, they also enjoyed the biggest gains. Not a repeat of last year's landslide, but unambiguously a victory.

Not that you'd know it if you listened to Sarah Boyack. No, she would have you believe that Labour, unlike the SNP, weren't remotely interested in the overall number of seats they won in Scotland, but instead in "gaining the trust" of individual communities. That's the sort of sophistry that can easily make your head hurt, because uttered with conviction it can almost sound like a plausible distinction to draw - except of course that the best way of measuring which party has been most successful in gaining the trust of individual communities is to look at who won the most seats throughout the country. Evidently this is Labour's stock line for the occasion, though, because Duncan Hothersall tried a variation on it when I queried him on Twitter -

"There were 32 elections in Scotland yesterday. The idea that there is one national result is farcical."

Hmmm. I presume by the same token that Labour's victory throughout England and Wales is a mirage simply because the Tories held on in Harrogate.

* * *

In the mid-1990s, the perception was that the SNP had performed exceptionally well in local elections, in spite of finishing some 15-18 percentage points behind Labour in the popular vote. And until 2007, Labour used to regularly crow about the SNP having "lost every single election in its history". So this notion that Labour can be said to have performed well on Thursday in spite of being clearly defeated by the SNP is rather new and startling, and it demonstrates just how thoroughly the underlying assumptions of Scottish politics have been turned on their heads in a very short space of time.

* * *

Although the SNP's lead over Labour is gratifying, to my mind the much more important factor is the net gain in seats. I once read a suggestion that the reason Labour unexpectedly lost the 1970 election was that by shedding so many local councillors between 1967 and 1969, their local organisation had simply withered, and they could no longer compete with the Tories' national network of footsoldiers. Campaigning methods may have been transformed since then, but the number of councillors still correlates with strength on the ground, so an extra sixty in the bag can't be a bad thing in the run-up to the independence referendum - and nor can six more Greens, as it happens.

One thing is for sure - the overall number of seats won is far more significant in respect of the independence referendum than who controls Glasgow. It's been said a number of times that winning Glasgow would have been a crucial stepping-stone towards a Yes vote - but how, exactly? On the list of people whose voices are going to carry some weight in the referendum debate, the leader of Glasgow City Council ranks about 594th. Indeed, there are even circumstances in which taking control of a flagship council can ultimately prove an electoral millstone - we need look no further than the Glenrothes by-election for evidence of that.

* * *

There was an amusing period yesterday when the running tally on the BBC News homepage showed the SNP in third place throughout the whole of Great Britain, ahead of the Liberal Democrats. That didn't mean the party was in line to become the UK's third party of local government, because only seats up for grabs this time round were being taken into account. Nevertheless, for the SNP to come so close to beating the UK Lib Dems "on the day" was nothing short of astonishing. As I write this, the Lib Dems stand on 431 seats throughout Britain, and the SNP are on 424.


  1. The SNP's result compared to the Lib Dems UK-wide is of course still remarkable, as the English council elections had three times as many seats up for grabs (3638) compared to the 1223 in Scotland.

    Had the SNP's results been scaled up proportionately, the results in England would have looked like this:

    SNP 1,263
    LAB 1,188
    CON 785
    LIB 289
    GRN 26

    Or across the whole UK:

    LAB 2,158
    SNP 1,687
    CON 1,005
    LIB 431
    GRN 40

    So the SNP wouldn't be the 3rd-biggest UK party, but in fact the 2nd-biggest...

  2. Yes, it looks like the SNP's performance in Scotland was only really bettered by Labour in Wales.

  3. An Duine GruamachMay 5, 2012 at 3:03 PM

    The thing is that Labour simply cannot accept it when they lose.

    We saw this is 2007 - many Labour people plainly considered 2007 to be a draw because they lost by only one seat (and, besides, had more constituency MSPs, despite a lower vote share).

    It was the same in the 2009 Euro elections - despite the SNP hammering them by vote share, they called that a draw as well because both parties won the same number of seats.

    Labour types still deny that the Tories won in 2010 because they didn't get an overall majority - you'll often see them taunting Tories with the "fact" that they've not won since 1992. They just can't accept that they were beaten.

    Even in 2011, as unambiguous a result as you're ever likely to see, many claim that the SNP win is really illegitimate because of the low turnout.

    So we really shouldn't be surprised that they think they've won the local elections this year as well. They remind me of Old Firm fans - they've never lost a game, just been cheated by the ref, so it doesn't count.

    Of course, they may simply be innumerate, which their record in government and proposals in opposition make a distinctly likely scenario.