Hard as it is to believe, the morning of Friday 19th September 2014 did not just mark the end of the Scottish Referendum, but the start of the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. As the votes were counted, and it was becoming increasingly clear that No would win the day, you could sense the change in tactics from the political parties in the early hours of the morning. The SNP swiftly moved on from the result being ultimately a defeat, and began to frame the sheer size of the voting bloc that Yes comprises as a sign of things to come.
For Labour, the party may have helped win the battle, but some ominous thunderclouds can now be heard in the distance, and will have unsettled the senior leadership.
For all the parties the last week has seen the foundations onto which 2016 will be held, and is it clear that the campaign machinery is booting up once again.
The era of Salmond is over. The campaign that he led brought the independence movement further than anyone else in the history of the party. For reference, in 2010 there was 491,386 for the SNP, in 2011 there was 902,915 votes cast. In 2014, some 1.4 million Scottish people voted Yes. Of course, as it is often pointed out, Yes voters don’t necessarily translate into SNP voters, but a remarkable number nonetheless.
However with the membership of the SNP having now doubled in less than a week since the referendum, the party will not likely be too worried about the distinction between Yes and SNP voters. With 50,000 plus members the party has ironically been energised by the loss of the referendum. It has been clear that many Yes voters have been looking for a berth following the 19th September and the SNP have reaped the rewards.
There will be disappointment within the SNP that some of their heartland areas, such as the Western Isles, Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Perth all went No, but this would have been balanced out by the Yes vote that came from Dundee City, and most importantly Glasgow City.
A calculation often made is that once someone votes Yes, they tend to not revert back to No. The SNP can take some comfort that chances are their heartland constituencies will still come out and vote for them in 2016, all the while they continue to dig deeper and deeper into key Labour territory.
While a new leader hasn’t been appointed, all expectations are that Nicola Sturgeon will take the SNP into the next election. She has a few problems to face. Firstly, does the party commit to another referendum if they win another overall majority? Polling suggests most people do not want to go through the process again, and it would be an easy stick with which to bash the SNP in the run up to polling day.
However if she doesn’t put it into the manifesto, many of the tens of thousands of new members may not be happy, and a situation could arise where breakaway parties suddenly emerge. With popular pro-independence groups such as National Collective, Radical Independence, Labour for Independence and the Scottish Socialist Party all waiting in the wings, it will be quite a challenge to balance aspirations with stark reality.
Constitutional reform will dominate the political bubble for the next two years, but public engagement will likely drift. What will come to the fore is perhaps the single biggest issue which every major party has avoided for the last seven years.
Local Income Tax has long been a controversial topic. Since the SNP have been in power, the freeze on the Council Tax has been a popular policy. However there is an increasing acknowledgement that the freeze is not sustainable. The matter was brought up a number of times during the independence debates, and some Local Authorities are continuing to plan to leave COSLA next year.
The SNP had a commitment in their manifesto to look at creating a new local income tax system (although no commitment to implement one) ahead of the next election. The money in people’s pockets, the services they receive and employment levels in public services will likely dominate many of the debates in 2016.
Getting work underway on this will be vitally important for whoever leads the Scottish Government administration into 2016. To get it wrong could alienate many of the key groups that the SNP have been successfully courting.
Glasgow. It is all about the Glasgow result. Even five years ago the idea that Glasgow of all places would return a majority Yes vote in an independence referendum seemed wildly unlikely. Now the new reality has landed, and senior party members must be worried. Indeed, even within Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont’s own constituency, support for Yes stood at around the 54% mark.
A great deal of anger has been directed towards Labour by those working class groups in Glasgow who would normally have voted for them. The Yes Scotland and SNP teams have built a successful narrative that Labour is united with the unpopular Conservative Government (never mind that the SNP usually worked with the party when in minority government) and that is having an impact.
Since 2011 and the electoral wipeout experienced by Scottish Labour, promises have been made to reform the party. Most of these have been internal and their success has not yet been measured. The move to Edinburgh as the party HQ has not gone ahead and while Lamont may be leader in Scotland it is clear that some in the party have little regard for the new way of working.
But fundamentally, internal change is not enough. Scottish Labour has given too much ground to the SNP. Their membership is nowhere near that of the SNP, even before the massive boost received this week. There has to be a course change, otherwise the days of Labour seats never changing colour will be over. The SNP are already talking about taking 30 seats next year – a remarkable sea change if it was accomplished.
Policy work will be at the heart of a reborn Scottish Labour, and it is very likely the party will carry a more leftist view going into 2016. The politics of the centre can only take a party so far, especially one that is leaking voters elsewhere. As mentioned above, Labour could be leading the way on Council Tax, presenting a fairer deal for local authority workers and service users, making people pay their fair share, and providing high quality service provision for users.
At the moment Scottish Labour looks like it could have a worse election night in 2016 than it did in 2011, something which many inside the party would not have thought possible. There is still time to turn things around but swift and decisive action is required.
The Other Parties
It is generally agreed by commentators that Ruth Davidson had a good election, and with the Conservatives in the driving seat with constitutional reform, she could be well placed to help deliver more powers for Scotland. Indeed it is likely that the party could actually see some growth in Scotland, although whether this would be enough to win seats remains to be seen.
The Liberal Democrats have bigger problems. Polling has put them at around 3% which would be a disaster. While the party can claim to perhaps have produced a federal roadmap for Scotland it will likely fall on deaf ears. They continue to be punished more severely for the Coalition, and Willie Rennie has a huge challenge to hold onto what the party has before they can even think of growing.
Waiting in the wings of course is the Green Party. Along with Davidson, Patrick Harvie has had a great referendum and this has paid dividends with a massive boost to the party membership, and could see them sweeping up a lot more of the regional votes. There is a good chance the Green Party could replace the Liberal Democrats in the Chamber as the third biggest party in the Chamber.