Hamish Macdonell: Elections turn the SNP into a truly national party
FOR anybody who has even glanced at Scottish politics at any time over the last 50 years, there was one statistic which would have leapt out from the European election results yesterday morning: of Scotland's 32 local authority areas, 22 voted SNP.
The converse of this was equally astounding: Labour won the battle for the popular vote in just three areas, Fife, North Lanarkshire and Glasgow.
Even more galling for Labour managers was that, in winning four council areas, the Conservatives won more local authorities than Labour.
Scotland has been red in tooth and claw since the 1950s largely because of the urban and industrial areas in west and central Scotland, the places where Labour could (and sometimes did) put up a donkey with a red rosette and get it elected.
The procession of Labour MPs and MSPs from these heartlands became something of an election night ritual, giving Labour a solid base of parliamentary support regardless of what might be happening in swing constituencies or among wavering voters. Not any more.
Some of the previously solid Labour areas that turned away from the party over the weekend were South Lanarkshire, Edinburgh, Midlothian, West Dunbartonshire and Falkirk.
There were hints that the ground was shifting under Labour's feet in Scotland in 2005. Labour still dominated that General Election in Scotland, taking 40 of Scotland's 59 seats, but something crucial happened below the surface, something that could not be seen simply by looking at who was elected.
A lot of previously safe Labour seats were still won by Labour but the majorities were slashed. Seats which had 9,000 majorities saw this gap fall to 4,000, 6,000 majorities withered away to just 2,000. But Labour still returned the usual phalanx of MPs so nobody in the party really seemed to bother too much about what was happening on the ground.
By 2007, the fall-off in Labour support proved so dramatic that the SNP managed to win the Scottish Parliament election. But still, there were those in the Labour Party who did not see what was really happening.
They saw the SNP advance but argued, not without some justification, that the Nationalists were doing well in their traditional areas of north and east Scotland but had made little headway in west and central Scotland. Labour's traditional heartlands were still safe, they argued.
The came the Glasgow East by-election and the SNP's high profile victory in the heart of Labour Glasgow. This is just a blip which will be overturned at the next General Election, Labour claimed, sticking their heads further into the sand.
But the European election results should make every Labour manager and activist wake up at night in a cold sweat. Far from commanding the majority of Scotland's council areas, Labour can only be sure of its vote in 10 per cent of these areas. What the European elections showed was that, not only can the Nationalists win in every part of Scotland but they are winning in every part of Scotland. There is also every indication that they will continue to do so.
However, the real problem for Labour is that political momentum tends to gather pace in both directions. A party on the slide will find its rate of decline accelerating as voters desert in greater and greater numbers, activists disappear and money melts away. A party on the rise finds the opposite. For it, success breeds success, voters convert other voters, activists want to be associated with a winning side and the money pours in.
The real, crucial and most frightening part of this latest electoral disaster for Labour in Scotland is that the party has some way to go before it reaches rock bottom. It is difficult to see anything other than a Conservative landslide in the next General Election, whenever it is called and a substantial SNP win in the next Holyrood election too.
Many voters cherish a long, unbroken voting record for one party, almost as a badge of honour. "I voted Labour, my father voted Labour and so did his father," some voters will take pride in telling you.
But when that line is broken, just once, as it was for many voters last week, that invisible bond with the party is broken too and, by losing its traditional heartlands, Labour is just starting to appreciate how devastating that can be.
There really is no way of predicting how far Labour may fall over the next two years. If the economy starts to recover, then part of the traditional Labour vote may solidify, likewise, a new leader may spark a honeymoon period, of sorts, for the party.
But the real story of the European elections is that the SNP is now, properly and comfortably, a party of the whole of Scotland. The Nationalists have broken out of their traditional heartlands in north and east Scotland and swept Labour aside in places it likes to call home.
Political commentators and pundits may talk about the damage being done to the SNP's reputation by the kerfuffle over the Scottish Futures Trust, or broken promises on class sizes and student finance and while these issues will rouse some voters to turn against the Scottish Government, for the majority Alex Salmond is still popular.
It may be depressing for Labour to acknowledge it, but it does not seem to matter how much they rail and complain about Mr Salmond's administration, its popularity is still going up.
Labour's only hope appears to rest in those Labour voters who stayed at home for the European elections. These people were annoyed enough at Labour not to vote for the party but had not gone so far as to vote for anyone else.
These voters are still there to be brought back to the fold and Labour leaders must hope they can persuade enough of them to return to give them a fighting chance of at least contesting the next election. Otherwise, their prospects are very, very bleak indeed.
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