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9 May 2022

Scotland’s cosmopolitan turn

The rise of the Greens and the repudiation of Alex Salmond’s Alba shows why Scotland remains a progressive beacon.

By Rory Scothorne

Last Thursday’s local elections in Scotland were a sleepy affair, at least as Scottish local elections go. In the 15 years since the electoral map was reshuffled by a new, proportional voting system in 2007, Scottish councils have seen two genuine upheavals, as historic realignments over austerity and independence filtered through to local authorities in 2012 and 2017. The Scottish Tories’ loss of 63 seats last week will hurt, but it pales in comparison to the Liberal Democrats’ 95-seat collapse in 2012, or the stunning defenestration of 133 Scottish Labour councillors in 2017. It also leaves the majority of the Conservatives’ 164 gains from 2017 intact.

There were no truly spectacular victories, either. While the other Holyrood parties all turned in respectable results, Tory deterioration produced no landslides. The SNP’s 22-seat gain reversed a smaller decline in 2017, but they couldn’t be expected to match their acquisition of 62 new councillors in 2012. Labour expressed delight at winning 20 seats and overtaking the Conservatives in both vote share (21.7 per cent) and number of councillors, but it was not — as Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has suggested — their best day in a decade.  

There has only been one other local election since 2012, when Labour gained 46 seats, and the party’s electoral high point since then remains the 2017 general election, when it won 27 per cent of the vote in Scotland. Overtaking the Conservatives promises a different and possibly more sustainable kind of recovery than that result, which also saw a consolidation of the Scottish Tories’ 2016 Holyrood success. But any comeback from Labour’s subsequent low point of 19 per cent in 2019 remains fragile and ambiguous.

Underneath the churn, Scotland’s councils have been given something of a reprieve after a decade and a half of profound electoral turbulence. They may be grateful for it: those years have been stormy for good reason, with public spending cuts forcing local authorities to make the toxic choice between balancing budgets and meeting even their most basic responsibilities to constituents.

One council that hasn’t been given a break, however, is North Ayrshire, where a minority Labour administration had been creatively resisting austerity with a Community Wealth Building agenda akin to the “Preston model”. The ambitious municipal socialism of Joe Cullinane, the council leader — which offered a wide range of support to young people and a huge expansion of new council-owned housing — was nevertheless pushed gently but tragically into third place behind the SNP and the Tories.

The SNP’s ability to hold and even expand its power under such circumstances is remarkable. While the party at Holyrood easily blames Westminster for its limitations, it’s trickier to attribute SNP-led councils’ woes to an SNP government. Excluding Covid-19 funding, Scottish councils have endured deep cuts to their day-to-day finances under the SNP, while large chunks of council funding have been subject to ring-fencing to meet Scottish government priorities. The SNP’s 2007 promise to replace council tax with something fairer has been left to rot over a supposed lack of “consensus”. Instead, the local levy has been frozen until recently, further inhibiting local fiscal manoeuvre.

The rising popularity and legitimacy of the SNP and the Scottish Parliament, where election turnout hit a record high of 63.5 per cent last year, has been powered in part by downward pressure on a floundering and overcentralised system of local democracy, which was described last year by the Electoral Reform Society as one of the “least local” in Europe. Turnout for this election was just 45 per cent — the second lowest since Scottish local government was reorganised almost three decades ago. The relative stability of the result suggests that any discontent is being registered more through disengagement than rebellion.

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While Scotland’s era of electoral disruption appears to have been paused, the local elections confirmed some slower, subtler changes that will be no less transformative over time. The Conservatives are down but not out and are continuing to establish themselves as a major power in the affluent rural north-east, borders and south-west of Scotland. The party actually made gains (albeit for complex reasons, including their having stood too few candidates last time) in Aberdeenshire and Moray, as well as retaining first place in Dumfries and Galloway, the Borders and South Ayrshire with minimal losses.

The Tories’ recent inroads into more urbanised areas were beaten back, however, with terrible results in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fife, North Lanarkshire and elsewhere. Those losses have provided an opportunity for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats (both of which gained 20 seats) to secure themselves as the voice of what might be called “civic unionism”. This is relatively urban and progressive, and thus capable of competing with civic nationalism for constitutional undecideds (who tend to have voted No in 2014 and Remain in 2016) in a way that the Conservatives’ rural, insular and right-wing approach cannot. For the Tories to regain some initiative here, they would need to replace Douglas Ross — who represents Moray, and you can tell — with someone more like its former leader Ruth Davidson, who was MSP for Edinburgh Central.  

The SNP’s appeal remains thickly spread across all of Scotland, and they saw particular successes in places like Fife and Angus that blend urban and rural. But, as in 2017, they still have to compete fiercely with Labour in some of the historically depressed post-industrial areas that were once the latter’s heartlands. In North Lanarkshire the SNP surged ahead of Labour, but they fell to within one seat of losing Glasgow and had a terrible time in West Dunbartonshire, where Labour now has overall control.

While the SNP once looked capable of supplanting Labour entirely, Anas Sarwar’s party has managed to halt its decline for now, and is placing its hopes for renewal on the idea that some voters are starting to prioritise economic relief over constitutional politics. That optimism is being pitched as a desire to “move on” from the independence issue, but it is worth noting that Labour has also been helped by the national question; many, if not necessarily all, of their 20 new seats were gained thanks to the transferred votes of unionist Tories and Liberal Democrats under Scotland’s single transferable vote system.

As with last year’s Holyrood election the one sign of genuine novelty in Scottish politics comes from the Scottish Greens, who almost doubled their councillors to 35 to secure their best result. That success is in part down to an increasingly professionalised campaigning machine, which — as with last year’s record Holyrood result — made careful use of focus groups to improve the party’s appeal on the doorstep. Those focus groups are helping the party to overcome its bittersweet status as a widespread second preference, moving on from a ballot-box outburst of principle to a more solid and pragmatic first choice for a growing cohort of voters.

The improved campaigning approach has allowed the Greens to tap into some profound demographic changes in parts of Scotland, with particularly good tallies coming in areas of the big cities — Southside, Hillhead and Langside in Glasgow; Leith and Leith Walk in Edinburgh — that are filling up with educated, financially precarious young people. Yet the party has also begun to make its mark in other regions too, expanding its representation in the Highlands and Orkney and gaining its first representatives in eight further councils. The Greens’ decision to go into government with the SNP has been politically vindicated for now, providing the party with a practical agenda to support its emphasis on cosmopolitan values.

In fact, if no single party obviously dominated the election, it was nevertheless a commanding result for broad-brush “progressive” opinion. Not only were Tory losses redistributed among four centre-to-left parties, but the fundamentalist strain of Scottish nationalism represented by the Alba Party was humiliated for the second year in a row. Despite some interesting policy work in the background, Alex Salmond’s split from the SNP has devolved into a bizarre double-issue party — for independence, against trans rights — and it duly lost every single one of its councillors and failed to gain any new ones.

The results may be local, but there is a global lesson here. While in much of the Western world social conservatives have made impressive political gains by tapping into economic discontent, the growth of the Scottish Greens and the survival of the liberal centre are just the latest indication from Scotland that it is eminently possible to make national identity and cosmopolitanism mutually reinforcing.

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer