The Scottish Parliamentary constituencies of Falkirk West and Falkirk East, both within my UK constituency of Falkirk, wrapped at 0700 Friday. A poorly designed ballot paper leading to over 1200 spoils could just about have affected the results; an interesting detail, but no more than that now. The quite literally stunning fact is that Falkirk West, formerly ‘Independent’ Dennis Canavan’s unusual seat, is now an SNP-held constituency and the SNP is the largest party in the Scottish Parliament.
So, three questions. Why? How? And, what now?
First, many of my constituents wanted ‘a change’ – although nothing more defined than that was articulated. Iraq was mentioned on the doorstep, of course, but by surprisingly few and didn’t amount to a core reason for the shift to SNP. Cash for honours wasn’t mentioned once. Yet nor were the sound economy, widely recognised by those on the doorstep, high employment levels, nor the new hospital being delivered locally by the Scottish Executive, reasons enough to vote Labour.
For what it’s worth this early on, I think the the ‘why’ turns around the Scot’s treating these elections as a mid-term protest opportunity, sure, but combined with a sense of Scottish identity which has strengthened immeasurably since 1999. The desire for self-definition and greater autonomy is profoundly in evidence now and all parties must accept that.
Second, the ‘how’. Labour focused on the likelihood that the SNP would obsess about independence and that the latter would cost £5000 per household in extra tax. The SNP said; ‘look, whether we go any further on independence is up to you in future and in the meantime you can have a change and try before you buy’.
It’s easy to say now that since few Scots want independence they weren’t convinced by the tax message, but would a tighter public policy based campaign have let Labour to victory? I don’t think so. Labour did the best we could and the SNP were slick and effective, but the fact is that the ‘why’ ruled the ‘how’ here. Actually what truly ruled was the ‘why not’?
So, what now? Well, Scot Menzies Campbell, who hopes for a tight UK election result in 2009, will worry that the Lib Dems couldn’t possibly do the UK deal if he went along with the SNP in Scotland now. But Nichol Stephen, the Lib Dem leader in Scotland, will point out that denying the SNP ‘victory’ could badly damage the Lib Dems in future. Jack McConnell will seek a rainbow coalition with the Lib Dems and the Greens, but it’s the Lib Dems who are the king-makers.
Many New Statesmen readers will call for an SNP ‘win’ to be respected, but if they support PR then is post-election deal making behind closed doors also something they support? If the consensus of elected MSPs is against the SNP then that is what will prevail.
Finally, what of Prime Minister Brown? A strong performance over the next two years will enable him to lead Labour to victory in Scotland and the UK in 2009 regardless of who becomes First Minister. But also regardless of who is First Minister, he will need to pay close attention to his, and Labour’s, relationship with the Scots.
We have to work out what ‘a change’ means and make it something tangible a Labour administration can deliver. Without that, desire for ‘a change’ and mid-term protests could keep the SNP in business for a long time to come.