Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Well thank god for that. Finally, after years of wait, we have a decisive answer to the UK’s core constitutional questions.
Except, we don’t. In truth, this election was always unlikely to produce a decisive outcome- and it played out largely as expected. In winning 64 seats, the SNP is better off than it was on May the 5th. It has been the largest party at a fourth consecutive election, and with a vastly bigger vote share than any other party. In a system where a majority is deliberately difficult to achieve, it has come close. Add the eight Green MSPs, and they will say there is enough of a mandate for a referendum. They already are- with Nicola Sturgeon asserting that a Second Referendum on Scottish Independence was a “case of ‘when, not if’”.
Except, if this election was a boxing match, it was one decided on points. The SNP did not land a knockout blow, and did not gain a majority. Many voters clearly dislike Independence. The Conservative vote rose by an average of 3% when holding constituencies where the SNP were second, with Labour’s dipping on average 6%. Where it was Labour first and SNP second, the Conservative vote dipped 8% and Labour’s swelled 5%. In other words, Labour voters disliked Independence enough to vote Conservative, and Conservative voters felt the same way about Labour. More tellingly, and as has been reflected in a string of c50-50 polls on Independence, within constituency votes, the three main Unionist parties won 50.4% of the vote. On the lists, however, the three main Independence parties won 50.1%.
So when Nicola Sturgeon says IndyRef2 is a case of “when, not if”, she does so knowing that, with polls at 50-50 and the electorate split down the middle, when is very important. Both her and Boris Johnson know that calling a referendum now would be a massive political gamble, even if not in a pandemic. This is probably why Sturgeon will resist SNP hardliners pushing to take their right to ask for a referendum to court. She has already called the idea that the debate would end up in court as “absurd”.
There is another factor Sturgeon will be well aware of, that will affect her thinking. That factor is, of course, Coronavirus. The argument that ‘now is not the time’ for a constitutional debate is proving persuasive. A poll two days before election day showed that only 42% of Scots wanted a second referendum in the next-five years- a 7% drop in one month. Even some who want Independence, therefore, do not want a referendum now, or even in this party’s lifetime.
Waiting until the next electoral cycle- 2026- goes against every pro-Independence party’s manifesto. Sturgeon herself has stated she wants one by the end of 2023. There are also practical concerns in delaying; each day the SNP wait allows Westminster more time to show the strength of the Union. Expect the SNP to delay a referendum until at least the back end of this Parliament- and blame the Westminster government for ‘trapping’ them as it does so. Unless something drastic changes, my prediction is a slow moving, limbo phase, with the two sides shadow boxing.
Thank god, then, for the decisive answer to the constitutional question.
By way of postscript, it is worth drawing reader’s attention South for a moment. The Scottish results have rightly been the focus of the post-electoral glare. But perhaps just as important are the results down South. Up and down the country, Conservatives are ecstatic. Labour lost 8 Councils and 327 Councillors. The Conservatives gained 13 and 236. More telling is the Hartlepool by-election. Not only had Labour won every single election in that seat previously, but it was the biggest swing to a ruling party at a by-election since WWII. In fact, it was almost twice as big a swing as that in second place. The truth is, Labour lost most of these votes in 2019 to the Reform/Brexit Party, who won 26% of the vote in 2019. For Labour, this was a loss of -14.8%; with the Brexit Party no longer competitive in Hartlepool, its votes broke almost unanimously for Brexit-backing-Boris.
These results, as well as the ‘Red Wall’ collapse of 2019, underscore something shocking- Labour is no longer the party of the working class. Where 27% of working-class voters intended to vote Labour, 52% intended to vote Conservative. The Conservative culture war has rendered Labour a party for cities and cities alone – as underscored by Sadiq Khan’s successful re-election campaign and Andy Burnham’s increased majority.
Is there hope? Some detect a cracking in the Conservative’s Southern stronghold. Sadly for Labour, the beneficiaries are likely to be the Liberal Democrats. In America, Richard Nixon won a swathe of traditionally Democrat seats in the South in 1968, as the Democrats became the progressive party on race instead of the Republicans. Labour has always been the more progressive party; the question to ponder from England’s results is whether a geographic flip is set to happen in the UK now, with Johnson’s ‘Northern Strategy’ echoing Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’.
Who said local elections were boring?