cottish politics are at the brink of a new
era. The official campaign for the first Scottish Parliamentary
elections is about to start and the election will be held
on May 6th 1999 - just over two years since Labour was
returned to Government at a UK level.
The outcome of the first Scottish Parliaments
will be extremely difficult to predict for two main reasons.
The first is the emergence of new voting patterns in Scotland.
The second is the new electoral system of the Parliament
which is designed to retain the constituency link while
being broadly proportional.
Opinion polls for over the last year have
shown a marked difference between voting intentions for
Westminster elections and the new Scottish Parliament, with
Labour continuing to poll well in the former, and the SNP
do well in the latter. Since early 1998, Labour and the
SNP have been roughly running neck and neck in voting intentions
for the Scottish Parliament, with the SNP briefly taking
the lead last summer, and Labour taking a small lead since.
The Scottish Parliament will also see electors
get two votes - one for their FPTP constituencies and one
for the top-up regional seats, with the SNP consistently
doing slightly better in the second. The February 1999 System
Three/Herald poll showed Labour on 41% and the SNP on 39%
on the first vote and tied on Labour 38% SNP 38% on the
second vote. This is a gigantic change in terms of Scottish
electoral patterns even from the 1997 election when Scottish
Labour polled 46% to the SNP's 22%.
Labour has never been run this close for generations
and the party is not used to it and has been clearly rattled
and caught unprepared. One aid for the SNP surge has been
the decline of the Tory and Lib Dem vote since the 1997
election; then the Tories polled 18% and the Lib Dems 13%,
whereas now polls have consistently put them both at about
What this has meant is that Scottish politics
for the first time ever has become a two party contest between
Labour and SNP, and this is something Labour has yet to
acknowledge. Given that we are still a little away from
polling day, and the Tories and Lib Dems may stage a recovery,
we need to be cautious about the changes going on, but it
seems that Scottish politics may be slowly shifting from
an asymmetrical system of one-party Labour dominance which
has shaped and distorted Scotland for at least two generations,
to a genuine two party competitive system: a fundamental
realignment of politics north of the border. This new system
would involve two roughly equal voting blocs being able
to pose as alternative governments offering Scots voters
a choice about who runs their affairs.
All of this is aided by an electoral system
which will produce politics without absolute majorities.
The Scottish Parliament's electoral system involves 129
members with 73 elected by FPTP (72 Westminster seats with
Orkney and Shetland divided into two) and 56 Additional
Member Seats (AMS) which act as a regional top-up in each
This electoral system will overnight transform
Scottish politics with Labour's one party hold over Scotland
being abolished based as it has been more on the distortions
of the FPTP system than Scottish Labour's electoral strength;
in 1997 Labour won 46% of the vote yet took 78% of the seats.
Politics will then come down to two defining
alternatives as government coalitions: Labour and Liberal
Democrats vs. SNP and Liberal Democrats. The arithmetic
of any Parliament may aid the former coalition, while the
Lib Dems have said they are unwilling to form an administration
with the SNP at the moment as long as they wish to have
a referendum on Scotland being independent.
In the long-term people will have a choice
about who they want to run Scotland's Government with different
options on offer other than Labour. At some point, some
combination of the non-Labour majority will coalesce and
form an administration; this will be helped by the inevitable
return of the Scots Tories at some point from the political
ghetto they have been put in as a price for Thatcherism.
Scottish politics will be utterly changed
by the processes unleashed in the Scottish Parliament elections.
Labour's one party hegemony across Scotland will be ended
at a national level, while the party will have to think
anew about fighting its first real competitive elections
in forty years. The SNP, on the other hand, will have to
abandon the politics of protest, oppositionalism and opportunism
which it has been so good at over the years and develop
into a serious political party looking for power. There
is ever sign that Alex Salmond, SNP leader, is prepared
to take the tough decisions to develop the SNP, but he will
meet bitter resistance in parts of the party, particularly
from its fundamentalist wing.
The new politics of the new electoral system
will transform Labour's one party fiefdoms in the West of
Scotland: Glasgow and its surrounding areas where opposition
parties win no to little representation. In the 1997 election
Labour in Glasgow won 10 out the 10 seats on 60% of the
vote. Under the new system, the SNP, Tories, Lib Dems and
even ultra-left Scottish Socialist Party would all stand
a chance of winning representation in Glasgow and thus,
reflecting the city's diversity more. What this will mean
is that across swathes of West and Central Scotland, significant
numbers of SNP and Tory MSPs will be elected and this will
change the nature of politics in these areas and the parties
themselves for the better. The SNP, until now, has been
positioning itself as a party competing for the same vote
as Labour but doing spectacularly badly about winning seats
in Labour areas. All six of the SNP's Westminster seats
are rural, ex-Tory seats out with the Central Belt, whereas
the new electoral system will emphasise the urban, centre-left
appeal of the SNP by themwinning seats in areas like Glasgow
and the West of Scotland.
What will be the consequences of this political
movement? In the short term, politics may actually get more
acrimonious, nasty and bitter with Labour and SNP fighting
out a war of attrition for the same voters. Old Labour politicians
will be incensed at the prospects of the SNP winning a number
of seats in what are still seen as Labour heartlands, while
the SNP will be heartened that its strategy of defeating
Labour is beginning to show fruition. However, in the long
run, a politics that abolishes no go areas for political
parties and ends the old one party must be good for the
quality of politics.
The Scottish Parliament will also change the
political parties culturally and organisationally. In terms
of cultural politics, all the parties will now be forced
to emphasis their Scottish credentials and out do each other
to see who can best lay claim to be 'Scotland's party' (SNP),
'Scotland's oldest political party' (Tories), or offering
policies 'Made in Scotland' (Tories again). This is a politics
of positioning, but does have to connect to parties developing
a genuine Scottish agenda.
In terms of party organisation, the parties
all need to develop their policy, research and administrative
work to make it more Scottish-based and autonomous. The
easiest area to devolve should be party administrative functions
with party selection of candidates developed in a Scottish
context; Scottish Labour, showed some of the potential pitfalls
in candidate selection with fears of London intervention
in the selection for candidate panel, concerns over a Blairite
purge, and then when the regional list was being made up
charges of cronyism due to lack of one member, one vote.
However, the greater challenge will to develop
policy and research work that is based in and relevant to
Scotland. This will be a challenge to all the parties who
although they have been issuing Scottish election manifestos
for over twenty years have - with the exception of the SNP
- just been borrowing on the parties research and strategic
work down south and adapting it. The biggest dilemmas that
will be faced over the next few years will be by Scottish
Labour, given it has been Scotland's leading party for forty
years. It has agreed in the work of the Scottish Constitutional
Convention to an electoral system which could be seen as
against the party's narrow self-interest. Labour is now
undertaking a learning curve about a new kind of Labour
politics with emphasis on alliance, coalitions and compromise
breaking from the old labourist traditions.
One of the defining features of Scottish politics
is that Labour-SNP hostility disguises the fact that both
parties and sets of voters share many values and priorities
both being centre-left, social democratic parties. A new
consensus may emerge in the Scottish Parliament excluding
the question of whether Scotland should or should not be
independent, and it would focus on developing public services
in a more integrated, holistic way, while bringing more
transparency and democracy to Scottish public life, from
the quangos to local government. In the latter, there is
now widespread agreement that proportional representation
should be brought in to tackle the more extreme abuses of
one-party rule at local level.
A Scottish politics defined by Labour and
SNP competition for the banner of Scottish social democracy
throws up new dilemmas and possibilities. First, the 'Salmond
Labour' voters - the crucial swing voters in the new elections
- Labour voters who are now considering voting SNP for the
Scottish elections - could become the harbingers of a new
political age. Second, both party leaderships are attempting
to develop modernisation agendas which are actually remarkably
similar: stressing a low tax, enterprise Scottish economy
which show the problems in renewing Scottish social democracy.
Third, Labour's ambiguities about 'the Blair
project' and divisions between Brown and Blair camps has
prevented the development of a radical Labour agenda; instead
the party has united around a high profile Helen Liddell
inspired 'bash the Nats' hard Unionist message which carries
with it the potential for Labour to be seen as anti-Scottish.
Scottish politics are entering exciting times.
Scottish voters have extraordinarily high expectations of
the Parliament across a range of economic and social issues,
and they do not yet brand the Parliament as being associated
with 'politics' and 'politicians'. This gives the Scottish
Parliament a golden window of opportunity to reconnect politics
to everyday life, before it is quickly branded as another
talking shop or part of the governing elite. This is a once
in a lifetime chance: we dare not blow it.
Gerry Hassan is Director of the Centre for
Scottish Public Policy and editor of 'A Guide to the Scottish
Parliament: The Shape of Things to Come' published by the
Stationery Office, £6.95.