Yes, the SNP won the local elections overall, had the biggest share of the vote, and ended up with most councillors. And yes, overall control of two local authorities and a share of power in several more is a great result. All of it remarkable for a party in government at the midterm.
And yes, the party made significant gains in our two largest cities. But it was Labour wot won ‘em. Even though in Glasgow, in reality, they were really only holding.
Beware the power of narrative and expectation to distort the facts….
But even if those on the ground didn’t really believe the hype, even the most hardened activists thought they’d do better than they did. So what went wrong? Or rather, why did Labour beat the SNP in Edinburgh and Glasgow?
1. Voter strategy Labour’s was better in both cities: the SNP went for broke and it broke.
The aim to extract two and even three councillors out of some multi-member wards worked better for Labour than the SNP. Some of this will be explained by the unintended consequences of alphabetical listing of candidates in some wards; in others, it will come down to low and differential turn-out, as well as the ability to make votes transfer across preferences (and Lallands Peat Worrier has performed miracles in setting this all out).
Was a role also played by the SNP starting from the wrong baseline of support? If where to place multiple candidates was based on the 2011 Scottish Parliament election showing, it was wrong. The baseline should have been the 2007 council result.
Was there enough voter identification done during and crucially, before the election to test the strategy? To some extent, it is a moot point: if the SNP was to take enough seats to be the dominant force in both cities, it had to go for it. But the failure to make the strategy work in all wards has resulted in the SNP losing experienced and committed councillors – Rob Munn in Edinburgh, for one – and missing out on having some excellent candidates elected – for example, Jonathan Mackie in Glasgow and Alison Lindsay in Edinburgh.
2. Candidates Johann Lamont promised a shake-up of who stood for Labour and duly delivered. Yes, there were still a lot of worthies and time-serveds around. But in Glasgow they had a big clear out. And in Edinburgh, they picked their new candidates carefully, people like Karen Keil in my own ward who is well-known in the area and has years of community activism behind her. She got elected.
There were some like her standing for the SNP, but not enough. In truth, the secret to selection for the SNP is contribution to party and cause, not to community. It’s an approach that doesn’t always work.
3. Leadership Gordon Matheson had a better and bigger profile; Allison Hunter did not, and for all her various and enormous strengths, being a frontispiece for the country’s highest profile council contest was never going to be one of them. The SNP could have managed this much more effectively than it did and saved a woman who has given a lifetime of service to the party she loves from public ridicule and humiliation.
Leadership played less of a role in Edinburgh, except for Steve Cardownie and Andrew Burns both surviving scares and only getting back by the skin of their teeth. Edinburgh voters were lashing out generally at its political establishment, methinks, but for the SNP, in particular, it’s time to change the leader.
Then there’s the Salmond question, which has been much commented on elsewhere. Did the Murdoch stuff have a bearing? Possibly. Scots, after all, are renowned for their attitude to luminaries who get above themselves. And Lamont’s performance in recent weeks, playing the couthy card, representing the view of the common people, might also have helped shape the psychology of voters to a small degree.
4. Manifestos Okay, now that hostilities are over, I can speak verily. The SNP’s manifestos for Edinburgh and Glasgow were rotten. They were so safe (anodised and neutralised by HQ no doubt) as to be meaningless. Labour went bold and gave electors something to vote for. Innovation and creativity in Edinburgh; big commitments in Glasgow (some might say, giving pensioners a cheque at Christmas amounts to bribery…). And it had an impact.
The SNP knows from its spectacular successes in 2007 and 2011 that a party needs to give people things to vote for. For some reason, this basic premise was forgotten in 2012. Far too many ifs, buts and maybes in the Glasgow document; not nearly enough specifics in Edinburgh’s.
5. Resources The SNP did not put nearly enough of its central resources into winning these prizes: its war chest is being filled for the coming referendum. By contrast, this election was one where Labour had to show some sort of a comeback and the threat to Glasgow was too big to ignore. Apparently, Glasgow Labour had two full-time party staff and a secondee from London, as well as all the usual full-time union officials working on their campaign. It showed.
The SNP might have emerged from this campaign with resources scarcely dented but at what cost in terms of momentum and electoral infallibility?
6. Philosophy This relates to the fundamental approach of both parties. Labour’s is one of bottom-up; the SNP largely of top-down in political terms.
Labour’s historical essence is grassroots – from community base into local government and then onwards and upwards. True, it had taken this approach for granted in recent years, but Johann Lamont is nothing if not a traditionalist. She realised – as others did – that the first step to recovery was to reconnect with its grassroots. To start building again, from the lowest base.
Holding Glasgow, making gains in Edinburgh – and in other areas like Fife – gives the party a solid base upon which to continue the recovery.
The SNP has always been a party where people arrive from adherence to the core cause. They come in from the top and the side and are then organised into branches: often, there is little connection to community nor engagement with community beyond party structures. Moreover, there has always been disinterest – and in some cases, disdain and scorn – for the role local government plays in the political firmament. Things have changed in the SNP in recent years, but not nearly enough. There is still insufficient support or respect for councillors from the centre: local government is viewed as an add-on, rather than the bedrock.
The key to success in Glasgow and Edinburgh is to learn lessons from cities like Dundee and areas like Angus where it has achieved real traction, connection and success at all electoral levels. All the building blocks of organisation and capacity are nurtured and resourced. In both local authority areas, there is a real synergy and connectedness across the layers of government in how the party approaches elections.
But the SNP in Glasgow and Edinburgh should not be disheartened: it made significant gains in 2012, just not enough to claim first prize. There are lessons to be learned, for future council elections, and even parliamentary ones. Crucially, resolving some of the weaknesses exposed by the 2012 campaign will aid the Yes campaign.
And for Labour, well, it’s a start but there is still a long way to go before the party can claim to have won back the hearts and minds of voters. Glasgow was a good hold: Edinburgh represents a decent gain. But one swallow – or even two – does not a summer make.