Saturday, 5 May 2012

Post election blog

So, where to start. I started my most prescient piece ever with a long anecdote about a particular result being summarised simply as "a good night for the Labour Party" and there is a temptation just to repeat that here.

And in many ways it was. A good afternoon anyway.

And not a result either of the two major Scottish  Parties saw coming. Maggie Curran frankly admitted that on Newsnight. The SNP, I suspect still in something of a state of shock, still can't quite decide between a line that it was a good result anyway and the maintenance that it only accorded with their expectations.

Bravado is in the nature of Electioneering, so too much can be made of Salmond's triumphalist speech to the Glasgow Conference but much more interesting is this written, entirely voluntarily, just over a week ago, by the man many claim to be Salmond's brain. Either he was making this up or the SNP's much vaunted election software is just as fallible (and rose-tinted) as everybody else's. More anecdotally, I have a friend in the SNP, whose task on Friday was to have been to advise on coalition negotiations across Scotland. I suspect that they did not do much travelling.

I don't seek to minimise the scale of our defeat last year, far from it, but it had fooled both sides into doubting the empirical evidence of the campaign. That Labour was doing worse than the response of the electorate indicated and that the SNP must be  doing better. Actually, the result reflected Scottish politics since Devolution. Labour did well in West Central Scotland but the further North and East you went, the more that support drifted away. The only exception being Aberdeen, where I suspect the only really sustainable genuinely different local media in Scotland meant that local factors played a significant part.

But when I say that things returned to normal, I actually don't mean the old normal, I mean the new normal.

From the sixties until the mid 2000's, Scotland had what the theorists describe as a majoritarian system. The best continental example being the Christian Democrats in post-war Italy. While in theory we had four major Parties, actually we had one major Party and three significant minor Parties. Support for each member the latter group ebbed and flowed between them, and sometimes encroached a bit on Labour's dominance but the given was that Labour was a always a significantly bigger Party (in terms of support) than any of the other three. First Past the Post magnified this advantage and, indeed, was one factor that made so many hesitant about the 1979 Devolution Scheme.

Now, all that has changed. Scotland has two major Parties, competing as equals.

So, even if Labour, on what we think of as a good night, has secured more first preferences than the SNP (in the absence of the data still my own strong suspicion), we will not be decisively ahead. Nothing like 1997 or 1999 ahead.

And that's a change. Possibly a strategic change.

It is illusory to try and read across between different types of elections given differential turnouts, differing electoral systems, different candidates being chosen and, indeed, different levels of government being elected. All that having been said, the best possible interpretation of Thursday's vote in a Scottish Parliamentary context is that Labour and the SNP might be more or less tied. That may be reassuring in the context of the new normal but it is far from being the old normal.

So there should, once the understandable triumphalism (or perhaps relief) of the moment has passed, (to which I plead as guilty as anybody) be a realisation that Scottish Labour still has a very long way to go.

What lessons can be learned? First, second, third and fourth, that you must fight the contest that you are actually in. Last May the infamous "Now that the Tories are back" manifesto did nothing of the sort. This year the roles were reversed. It was Labour who fought on what they would do if they ran the Council and the SNP who offered victory only as a "stepping stone".

Fifthly, that personnel are important. The cull of the old guard was surely a key element in turning round Glasgow as was the patent competence and confidence of Gordon Matheson when compared to his utterly inept opponent. Again a complete role reversal on 2011.

Sixthly, that you need to have something positive to say. Across all the local authorities where we did well, we had innovative and identifiable policies; Youth job creation, broadband and pre-school care in Glasgow; a co-operative council in Edinburgh; even some signs of life in North Lanarkshire.

If all of these lessons are taken in, and combined with the quiter but more efficient campaign organising that characterised 2012 as opposed to 2011, then it gives a basis to go forward. That's however all.

And, we don't need to forget that 400 miles away, Boris still won in London, or, perhaps more accurately, Ken lost. Actually, that might be the most important lesson of all.

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