The Scottish Parliament election 2016: the talking points so far

It would be tempting to ignore the Scottish Parliament election campaigns in 2016 because the result seems like a foregone conclusion: the SNP will form a majority government for the next 5 years. Yet, let’s not give in to that temptation by confusing the boring predictability of the result with its monumental nature. It will represent the peak of a transformation in Scottish electoral politics since 1999 that almost no-one predicted (apart from the Nostradamus-style harbingers of doom and wild optimists). As a result, it presents an intriguing mix of talking points: some of them relate to the specific issues that have arisen so far, while others are bubbling under the surface.

The big talking point: the likely result 

The SNP’s victory will happen despite an electoral system (‘mixed-member proportional’) designed to be far more proportional than the plurality system of Westminster: 56 seats from regional lists, using the d’Hondt divisor, offset some of the distribution of the 73 constituency seats determined by a plurality vote. Yet, they only make it more proportional. The SNP’s 50% share of the vote secured 56 of 59 MPs (95%) in the 2015 UK General election. If, as seems likely from the polls, it can maintain that level of support in constituency votes, it might already secure a majority before the regional votes are counted (one forecast is a total of 72, or 56%, of seats, compared to Labour’s 32 and Conservatives’ 18).

The likelihood of an SNP majority has produced a weird game of chicken in which we all know what will happen regardless of the campaign but the party leaders still dare each other to declare the result, knowing that admitting defeat opens you to claims of defeatism (as with Conservative leader Ruth Davidson) while hinting at victory wins you the most ‘arrogant’ prize. Further, while the smaller parties mattered in 2003, they have now become a sideshow. The most consistently serious party remains the Scottish Greens which may secure as many (4) seats as the former-coalition-government Scottish Liberal Democrats, with the increasingly comic UKIP likely to receive none.

Talking points in the election so far

The main talking point is that the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 did not settle the constitutional debate. Instead, the main opposition parties (and Scottish Labour in particular) have woven into their 2015 and 2016 campaigns the idea that the SNP will use any election victory to push for a second referendum. Yet, the only plausible trigger (in the short term) relates to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: if most voters in Scotland vote to stay in, and most voters in the UK overall vote to leave, it would ‘almost certainly’ prompt SNP demands for the second vote.

The prospect of a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum also prompted the main UK parties to promise substantially greater devolution (before the May 2016 election) to secure a No vote. So, the Scotland Act 2016 contains provisions to enhance the Scottish Government’s powers, including a greater ability to modify income tax rates and bands and reform some aspects of social security.

Greater devolution has prompted much debate but no resolution on how to use the so-called ‘Scottish rate of income tax’. What could have been a values-driven discussion about the benefits and costs of raising income tax to fund services, or about who should win and lose from taxation changes, has generally turned into a pedantic and (perhaps deliberately) confusing debate about the meaning of ‘progressive’ taxation (David Eiser describes a rise in SRIT as ‘slightly progressive’), the likely income from each 1p change in taxation, and the unintended consequences of greater higher-rate taxation in Scotland.  Further, since we all know the SNP will win the election, it is relatively hard to take seriously the tax plans of the other parties, including Scottish Labour’s planned 1p rise and the Scottish Conservatives’ unfulfilled hopes to reduce it (alongside its proposal to reintroduce tuition fees). Similarly, gone are the days when the Scottish Greens’ more radical income and land tax plans had any chance of success.

The lack of a settled constitution has also contributed to the lack of a proper debate on the SNP’s record in office – which is weird if you consider that, until recently, the main factor in the SNP’s electoral success in 2007 and 2011 is ‘valence politics’, which describes the tendency for political parties to promise similar things and run campaigns on things like the image of their leader, their vision for the future, and their image of governing competence. The SNP did particularly well to maintain an image of competence in 2011, but it is tempting to think that the popularity of Nicola Sturgeon, and the post-referendum bump for the SNP, has made this less of an issue in 2016. Opposition parties have been trying to maximise concerns about the performance of the NHS and Police Scotland, and the SNP’s failure to reduce the ‘attainment gap’, but there is little evidence to suggest that anything sticks – particularly when crises like the Edinburgh schools closures can generate attention but call into question Labour’s record on capital finance up to 2007.

Some important points are often not talking points …

One issue which could have hurt the SNP is ‘fracking’ because there is some internal division in the SNP about the Scottish Government’s decision to maintain a moratorium rather than complete ban on shale oil and gas development (Scottish Labour now supports a ban). Yet, the moratorium, along with with Sturgeon’s recent description of her position as ‘highly sceptical about fracking’ and the decision of the SNP’s leadership not to debate the issue at its annual conference, has meant that it can remain a non-talking point until after the election.

… but sometimes that’s a good thing

Perhaps the most promising non-talking point was Kezia Dugdale’s decision to ‘share with the world that I’m in love with a woman’, generally receive praise, and establish the Scottish Parliament as the home to an unusually large number of LGB party leaders. There is also some evidence to suggest that gender-based equality of selection is ‘catching on’ again (and reinforced by the high number of women in party leadership roles) after a few false dawns. Although the SNP will dominate party politics for years to come, some issues like ‘microcosmic representation’ are bigger than parties.

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