Kevin O’Donnell analyses the shift in Scottish political culture since 2007, and says the SNP is hiding its woeful record behind its independence agenda.
In 2009, four political theorists released a pamphlet entitled Valence politics in Scotland: Towards an explanation of the 2007 election. In it, Johns, Mitchell, Denver and Pattie sought to analyse voting patterns in post devolution Scotland following the process of class de-alignment which had occurred in the latter half of the 20th century.
They argue that the 2007 Scottish Election Study showed that “modelling party choice at the individual level shows that key valence variables – performance evaluations, economic competence and party image – have strong and significant effects” on individuals as they decide how to cast their ballot. In other words, party image and perceived competence, not class, were now the important factors for Scottish voters.
Dr Peter Lynch of Stirling University would later adapt the valence theory to explain the SNP’s landslide win in 2011 arguing, again, that Salmond’s strong leadership and perceived competence (not to be mistaken for success) in government saw the SNP carried comfortably over the line and Salmond back into Bute House.
National identity, I would contend, also played a large part in the SNP’s two election victories. The 2009 pamphlet concluded that “the SNP’s strong showing amongst voters seeking further devolution but opposed to independence is due in large part to it’s credentials as a battler for Scottish interests”. This, too, applied to the 2011 election.
But the 2011-2016 parliament has been very different. The Scottish independence referendum has, I would argue, rendered the valence theory dead, or, at least, temporarily defunct. In post referendum Scotland, Yes voters vote SNP (in the main) and No voters (although not exclusively) tend to vote for one of the three main unionist parties. In an increasingly divided society one’s entrenched constitutional stance determines how one votes.
If competence in government explained the 2011 election, then it will fall far short of explaining the predictable result of the 2016 election. Instead, a yearning for Scottish independence amongst a substantial minority of the Scottish population will likely see another majority Nationalist government elected until 2021.
Nicola Sturgeon, ever the canny political operator, was able to ride a wave of popularity on the back of the referendum to 56 out of 59 seats at the General Election in 2015. The SNP’s vote share, amongst those who voted, was not 45% (what Yes Scotland achieved) but 50% of the ballots cast. This was achieved, largely, by Nicola Sturgeon promising to “stand up for Scotland” but re-assuring many No voters that “this election is not about independence”. The historical tranche of the Scottish electorate which is unionist but SNP voting duly obliged the First Minister in returning a wave of “tartan MPs”.
It is in this context that we arrive at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election. Nicola Sturgeon fired the starting gun on her campaign this week. She stated that education would be front and centre of her parties campaign alongside the living wage (which is curious as the SNP have repeatedly voted against a living wage for procurement contracts).
She also made a statement which may prove to be significant. A statement which was noticeably absent from her successful General Election campaign. Nicola Sturgeon said “I believe today as strongly as ever that independence is the best future for our country. That is why in the coming months we will also lead a renewed debate about the enduring principle of that case”.
Far from reaching out to pro devolutionists, this time the First Minister has put independence front and centre of the SNP’s 2016 campaign. Out with the valence and in with the constitutional politics. It is not unreasonable to ask why, at this stage, having secured a successful route to No voters’ trust in 2015, the First Minister would now turn to independence.
I would contend that it is a smokescreen. A smokescreen for the SNP’s increasing failure to run, competently, progressively or social democratically Scotland’s devolved institutions.
As we head towards the 2016 election, and since the SNP came to power, there has been a drop in the number of pupils from deprived backgrounds passing exams. Coupled with falling numeracy standards amongst this demographic, this is a damning verdict of 9 years of nationalist rule.
Between May and October 2015, nearly 4,000 patients waited more than four hours (the Scottish Government’s A&E target) at Scotland’s newest hospital. Even the Tories, yes, the Tories, in England have invested more in the NHS than the SNP have in Scotland.
Colleges are on their knees with up to 140,000 places having been cut since 2007. Make no mistake, such cuts disproportionately impact the poorest, and women, who seek to re-enter the workforce. Despite their rhetoric of universities, under the SNP, the poorest fifth of the populace who go on to attend university lags stubbornly behind the poorest fifth of English youngsters.
And of course Ms Sturgeon persists with a regressive council tax freeze whilst local authorities are forced to make savage cuts to services.
The SNP go into the 2016 election against the backdrop of a litany of failures in government for which the poorest in Scotland have paid the price. Suddenly it’s not hard to see why ramping up the independence rhetoric becomes attractive for the First Minister.
It falls to Scottish Labour to offer a progressive alternative whilst holding the SNP to account. Scotland deserves, indeed, needs, a strong opposition in the face of nationalist political hegemony. Kezia Dugdale is setting about doing both of these.
If the 2016 election was to be fought against the backdrop of voting patterns explained by valence politics then the SNP would struggle. Their failures are mounting. But constitutional and identity politics continues to reign supreme in Scotland and the SNP are riding that wave. Yet Scottish Labour still owes it to the most vulnerable Scots to focus on the bread and butter issues. The SNP have made it clear they will focus on independence. We must continue to make the case for strong public services and progressive centre-left policies.
Valence politics, for the time being, may be dead in Scotland. But constitutional politics, as Canada shows, cannot reign forever. At some point the focus will be on changing lives in the here and now and, when that times comes, Scottish Labour must be ready to step up to the plate and deliver.