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The Scottish Parliament Election 2016: another momentous event but dull campaign

Abstract. The Scottish Parliament election in 2016 produced two surprising results: it represents a reversal of SNP/ Labour party fortunes so complete that we now take it for granted, but the SNP did not achieve a widely-expected majority; and, the huge surge of support for the Scottish Conservatives was enough to make it (easily) the second largest party. A mistaken sense of inevitability of the result – another SNP majority – helped produce a dull campaign and keep alive the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence. This article has four main sections: putting the 2016 election in recent historical context; considering the implications of consistently high SNP support on the constitution; highlighting key issues in the election campaign; and, examining the SNP’s policy agenda from 2016.

Introduction

The Scottish Parliament election in 2016 was momentous, but not entirely for the reasons we expected. The main outcome is the SNP’s third victory in a row since 2007, which is likely to keep it in office until at least 2021. The results eclipse the former record by Scottish Labour, which governed Scotland in coalition with the Scottish Liberal Democrats from 1999-2007. The SNP also improved its constituency votes and seats, but lost enough ground in the regional list to deprive it of a second outright majority in a row. Consequently, given such high expectations for the SNP – on the back of its ‘landslide’ victory in 2011 and thumping win in the UK General Election in 2015 – its third Holyrood election victory in a row can be interpreted as a further indicator of its success but also a sign that its dominance should not be taken for granted. Its circa-45% share of the vote was enough to produce a majority in 2011 but not 2016.

Further, while the now-predictable decline of Scottish Labour seems almost complete, this time the main beneficiary was the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party which became the main opposition in Holyrood for the first time. The Liberal Democrats have also seen their fall from grace confirmed by a second poor showing which relegates them to the fifth and smallest party in Holyrood.

The historical significance of these trends is difficult to overstate. In the first Holyrood election in 1999 it seemed inevitable that Scottish Labour would be the largest party, with the SNP likely to represent an opposition party well off the pace. The early years were premised on the idea that, with devolution secure, the biggest party could focus on the political reforms associated with ‘new politics’, combining key measures associated with symbolic politics (including the greater representation of women and participation in politics beyond the ‘usual suspects’) and substantive policy change.

This expectation continued in 2003 but ended in 2007 when the SNP became the largest party by one seat. In 2011, its ‘landslide’ victory to secure a majority of seats – and trigger a process which led to a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 – seemed extraordinary (particularly since Holyrood uses a mixed-member-proportional, not plurality, system).

Now, in 2016, the SNP has become so dominant of Scottish politics that its majority seemed inevitable. This sense of inevitability was bolstered by its showing in the UK General election 2015, when the party that always previously secured a small minority of seats – its highest ever number of seats was 11 (of 71, from 30% of the vote in October 1974) – won 56 of 59 (aided by a plurality system which exaggerated the effect of its 50% share of the vote). By 2016, on the back of several opinion polls, many expected its electoral dominance to be complete (although compare Philip, 2016 with Carrell and Brooks, 2016a).

Consequently, although the change over 17 years is phenomenal, this recent sense of inevitability helped produce a dull campaign. In all other Holyrood elections there was either the promise of novelty (from 1999) or high competition between the two main parties (from 2007), to produce a sense of the high stakes involved. So, we saw meaningful competition to accentuate important differences between parties on key policy issues or portray a party’s better vision and image of governing competence. This time, we knew that, for the most part, one manifesto counted far more than the rest.

It is also difficult to find evidence of success when the other parties have tried to interrogate the SNP’s record in government on issues such as health, education, and policing (Cairney, 2016b). This limitation helped produce, in early post-election commentary, a feeling (albeit with limited evidence) that the SNP didn’t need to rely as much on this image of governing competence, since so many of its new members and high number of voters seem to remain enthused more by the implications of SNP electoral success (more constitutional change) than its record in office. SNP spokespeople countered with the argument that the election represents a public vindication of its record.

So, we need to wait for detailed analysis on the role of valence politics and, in particular the parties’ images of governing competence, which was so central to SNP success in 2007 and 2011 (‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’ – Johns et al, 2013: 158).

Still, this legacy of the 2014 referendum can be found in the election debates in 2016. While the SNP has been looking for ways to keep alive, but postpone, a second referendum, the three main opposition parties continue to describe the SNP as a one issue party or extol the possibilities for policy change already afforded by further devolution in 2015. Of the few substantive issues to be discussed without a referendum frame, perhaps only educational attainment stands out because it is the issue on which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has asked to be judged (while ‘fracking’ remains the issue that many in the SNP leadership would like to ignore).

Overall, this election comes with a strong sense of unfinished business elsewhere. In the short term, it has been overshadowed either by UK party politics (in the run up to local and mayoral elections) or the ‘Brexit’ referendum (June 2016) on the UK’s future in or out of the European Union. In the longer term, the SNP’s continued dominance keeps the issue of Scottish independence high on the agenda.

This has been the introduction to an article  that I am writing for Scottish Affairs (to be published in August 2016). You can find the full paper here:  Cairney 2016 Scottish Parliament election 2016 in Scottish Affairs 11.5.16

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Is politics and policymaking about sharing evidence and facts or telling good stories? Two very silly examples from #SP16

Sometimes, in politics, people know and agree about basic facts. This agreement provides the basis on which they can articulate their values, debate policy choices, and sell their choices to a reasonably well informed public. There are winners and losers from the choices, but at least it is based on a process in which facts or evidence play a major part.

Sometimes, people don’t seem to agree on anything. The extent to which they disagree seems wacky (as in the devil shift). So, there is no factual basis for a debate. Instead, people tell stories to each other and the debate hinges on the extent to which (a) someone tells a persuasive story, and (b) you already agree with its ‘moral’ and/ or the person telling you the story.*

Silly example one: the Scottish rate of income tax (SRIT)

The SRIT is a great example because it shows you that people can’t even agree on how to describe the arithmetic underpinning policy choices. My favourite example is here, on how to describe % increases on percentages:

cashley blair m srit

This problem amplifies the more important problem: the income tax is toxic, few politicians want to touch it, and they would rather show you the dire effects of other people using it. Currently, the best way to do this is to worry about the effect of any tax rise on the pay of nurses (almost always the heroes of the NHS and most-uncalled-for victims of policy change). So, if you combine the arithmetic debate with the focus on nurses, you get this:

cashley et al nurses srit

What you make of it will, I think, depend largely on who you trust, such as Calum C for the SNP/ Yes versus Blair M for Labour/ No. Then if you want to read more you can, for example, choose to read some Scottish Labour-friendly analysis of its plans to increase the SRIT by 1p while compensating lower earners (a, b), see it as a disaster not criticised enough by the BBC, or take your pick of two stories on the extent to which it did a ‘U-turn’.

This is before we even get to the big debate! 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 (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.

So, your choice is to (a) do a lot of reading and critical analysis to get your head around the SRIT, or (b) decide who to trust to tell you what’s what.

Silly example two: who should you give your ‘second vote’ to?

The SNP will gain a majority in the Scottish Parliament 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.

So, if the SNP wins almost all of the constituency seats, the competition for votes has taken on an unusual dimension: all the other parties will be getting all or most of their seats from the regional vote.

This situation has prompted some debate about the extent to which SNP-voters should (a) vote SNP twice (#bothvotessnp) to secure a very small number of extra seats in the regions where they don’t win all constituency contests, or (b) give their ‘second’/regional vote to a Yes-supporting smaller party like the Scottish Greens or RISE.

Here comes the silly bit. When John Curtice sort-of-seemed-not-really to suggest that people should choose option b (see original report by the ERS, described in The Herald) you’d think that he’d put a bag of shit on the SNP’s doorstep and the ERS had set fire to it and rung the doorbell.

So, unless you are willing to read about the kind of sophisticated calculations discussed in the ERS report, your next choice is to listen to a story about (a) people out to get the heroic SNP by duping voters into increasing the chances of more Union-loving MSPs (e.g. Labour or Conservative) getting in through the back door, or (b) those plucky heroes, such as the Greens or RISE, standing up to the villainous SNP.

In both cases, it is inevitable that many people will base their decisions on such stories, which is why they look so silly but matter so much.

 

*For the most part, the cause is the ‘complexity’ of the world and our need to adapt to it by ignoring most of it. To do so, we (just like policymakers) use major cognitive short cuts – including our emotional, gut, and habitual responses – to turn too-much information into a manageable amount. This process helps make us susceptible to ‘framing’ when people present that information to us in a particular way.

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Scottish politics