THE easiest question to answer about Thursday’s election is “Who lost?” Answer: “The Liberal Democrats”. They lost a little over half the 150 seats they were defending, just as they seem to have lost around half their vote too.
As proved to be the case south of the Border as well, the party showed little or no sign of recovering from the battering it suffered just 12 months ago.
Indeed, Liberal Democrat support was at its lowest in a local election since 1978 – that is the last time the party was in a close relationship at Westminster.
On that occasion, keeping Labour in power as part of the Lib-Lab pact proved to be toxic, just as embracing the Tories in a coalition has proven to be now.
Last year, the SNP was the clear beneficiary of the Liberal Democrats’ distress. According to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey, nearly half of those who had voted for the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 general election switched to the SNP 12 months later. In contrast, less than 5 per cent switched to Labour.
However, there never was any guarantee that the SNP would necessarily profit in similar fashion this time around. GB-wide opinion polls have persistently shown that many a former Liberal Democrat has now switched to Labour, while English local elections have shown that former Liberal Democrat voters living in areas of traditional Labour strength – as much of Scotland is – have been particularly willing to move in that direction.
And indeed it seems likely that, in contrast to last year, this time Labour in Scotland profited from the Liberal Democrats’ distress too.
There were, for example, heavy falls in Liberal Democrat support in both Aberdeen and Fife, yet in both places Labour’s support rose more than did that of the SNP.
Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, where the Liberal Democrats suffered what was arguably their worst reverse of all, the increase in Labour support (5.2 points) was only slightly below the 6.5 point rise enjoyed by the SNP.
These patterns may well be a clue as to why answering what might be thought to be the more important question – “Who won?” – proves to be rather difficult.
The SNP certainly won more seats than Labour. But then it has to be borne in mind that wards in more rural parts of Scotland are smaller than those in urban and typically more Labour parts. Indeed, in 2007, the SNP won slightly more seats than Labour even though (in the local elections) they won slightly fewer votes.
Equally, the SNP now has more councillors than ever before. But, in part, that reflects the fact that in contrast to the position before 2007, the SNP no longer has to suffer the slings and arrows of the first-past-the-post electoral system.
Meanwhile, so far as making demonstrable progress is concerned, the gains made by the SNP were matched by the gains made by Labour.
Overall, there was evidently hardly a cigarette paper between Labour and the SNP, as compared with the long run of Scottish electoral history that still represents a considerable achievement by the Nationalists. But as compared with where we were just 12 months ago, it is difficult to avoid the impression that it does not represent something of a setback. Certainly, as compared with the position a week ago, it is Labour, not the SNP, who have gained most from this latest verdict from the ballot box.
And, in part, at least one of the reasons for that turnabout almost undoubtedly lies in the disaffection of former Liberal Democrats.
• John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University