IF A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, runs the question, could it set off a tornado in Texas? The mathematician Edward Lorenz suggested it might. Lorenz, a pioneer of chaos theory, described how the tiniest action could have huge consequences. Anyone who’s ever said “go on, then – one for the road” will know the truth of this.
What about if something – a political party, for example – decides not to create a flap? Might the consequences be equally remarkable? I think so.
In 2007, the SNP won the Holyrood election by a single seat, enough for them to form a minority government with Alex Salmond as First Minister. The nationalists’ was a wisp of a victory. And for a few days, at least, it seemed it might not even stand.
The constituency of Cunninghame North, in Ayrshire, had been held since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament by Labour’s Allan Wilson, a former trade union official.
A defeat is a defeat, of course, but there was a curious aspect to this result: more than 1,000 ballot papers were discounted as spoiled. Many papers transported to the mainland from the island of Arran were judged too soggy to be counted.
On the basis that this was a rum do, Wilson wished to challenge the result by way of an election petition. He hoped that, by using this procedure, the election in Cunninghame North would be re-run.
Wilson’s gas was soon at a peep, however, when the Labour Party decided that he should not go ahead, that the result should be accepted.
We will never know how a re-run might have gone, whether Wilson would have retained his seat, but Labour Party members must surely find themselves wondering “what if?”.
A few days ago, I received a message from a chum in the Labour Party. It read: “Have the whisky and the revolver ready.” A minute or two later, this activist followed up: “Seriously, this is off the chart bad. I’ve deluded myself with canvass numbers long enough. It’s reality now.”
Eight years after Scottish Labour took the decision not to challenge the Cunninghame North result, the party is clinging on to life. Polls show more than half of Scots plan to support the SNP. Every pro-independence supporter (and some opponents) will place their faith in Nicola Sturgeon’s party on Thursday. Meanwhile, the votes of Scotland’s unionists will split between Labour, Tory, and Lib Dem. The numbers are bad for Labour; the first past the post voting system will be fatal.
There has been for some time, among Labour members, the belief that something could be done to revive a party which once dominated the Scottish political landscape.
That notion’s dead now. Even Labour’s most optimistic campaigners seem resigned to the party’s fate in Scotland. Activists have gone from believing, in the aftermath of last year’s independence referendum, that Labour might win more than half of Scotland’s 59 Westminster constituencies, to persuading themselves that they’d at least get into double figures, to hoping that leader Jim Murphy might hold his East Renfrewshire seat. If there is to be a last man standing, they say, then let it be him. Scottish Labour believed, at the start of the general election campaign, that raising the prospect of another Tory government at Westminster would prove a winner. But the party’s warning that more SNP MPs would mean a greater likelihood of David Cameron returning to Downing Street failed to gain traction.
The SNP’s line – that the party’s MPs would happily support a minority Labour government and, in the process, keep it honest – has struck a chord with a great many more voters.
Those voters who support the idea of the SNP propping up Labour’s Ed Miliband would have thrown their all behind whatever First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had proposed, but the fact remains that she has come up with a proposal that seems reasonable, and puts Labour under pressure. Reject the SNP, goes the logic of Sturgeon’s pitch, and you risk letting the Tories back in.
There was a weakness in Sturgeon’s strategy. She has repeatedly said that, under no circumstances, would the nationalists support a Tory government. In fact, her party’s MPs would do whatever they could to prevent Cameron from enjoying a second term in office.
In playing that card early, it appeared the SNP leader had given Miliband an out: if the nationalists would never vote alongside the Tories, then what concessions did he have to make for them? The SNP could decide whether to bring down a minority Labour government – should such a thing emerge after 7 May – and reap the whirlwind in Scotland, or it could support it in parliamentary votes and keep it afloat.
Throughout the campaign Miliband – who, even critics concede, has given a good account of himself – has maintained this line; there would be no deals between the Labour Party and the SNP and if the nationalists didn’t like this then let them dare vote against him and hand power to Cameron. Let them bloody well dare.
On Thursday night, on BBC1, Miliband reiterated his determination that he would not cut a deal with Sturgeon. But he did it in a way that played into his opponents’ hands.
The Labour leader said that a Labour government was “not going to happen” if the price for it was doing a deal with the SNP.
This was consistent with Miliband’s previous remarks but his language allowed the Nats to argue – not unconvincingly – that the logical conclusion of the Labour leader’s view was that he would let the Tories into government before he’d work with the SNP.
Before he spoke, the onus to prevent another Conservative government had been on the SNP, afterwards it had fallen to Labour. If Ed Miliband lets the Tories back into power, said Sturgeon, then Scotland would never forgive his party.
After Miliband stumbled off stage, a message arrived from another chum of mine in the Labour Party. It read: “That’s us f***ed in Scotland.”
It looks like that may be a reasonable assessment. I wonder if all of this might have been prevented had Labour’s butterfly flapped its wings in Cunninghame North eight years ago.