Euan McColm: Unionists will unite with noses held

Labour and Tory voters are unlikely to give SNP second preference votes in PR elections says Euan McColm

Robin Sturgeon failed to join daughter Nicola and wife Joan as an election winner, blaming Unionist alliance. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Robin Sturgeon failed to join daughter Nicola and wife Joan as an election winner, blaming Unionist alliance. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Council by-elections – no matter what Jeremy Corbyn might have his wide-eyed followers believe – do not, generally, make big headlines.

When the Labour leader recently cited failure to cover a Labour victory in Ramsgate as evidence that the media was biased against him, he was talking nonsense. The party’s “triumph” was not splashed all over the papers because it was an insignificant story, of interest only to locals (and, it transpired, slavering Corbynistas).

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But a council by-election in Scotland last week did make the news; sometimes these normally trivial events merit the coverage.

Robin Sturgeon – father to a First Minister daughter, husband to a Provost wife – lost to Labour in a by-election in Irvine West.

It had been assumed – not least by SNP campaigners – that Nicola Sturgeon’s father would breeze this contest. His defeat, against expectation, was presented by opponents as a personal disaster for the First Minister. Meanwhile, Sturgeon senior – whose wife Joan is Provost of North Ayrshire Council – blamed what he called “the Labour-Tory alliance, the Unionist alliance, against the SNP” for the result.

Both the SNP’s opponents and Robin Sturgeon are, in this instance, to some degree correct.

The First Minister, like any savvy political leader, understands the importance to political parties of the impression of momentum. A successful party should appear to be going places, never resting on its laurels, always moving forward.

In the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum, the SNP had all the momentum it could have dreamed of. A huge surge in membership – from less than 30,000 to more than 120,000 – showed a party invigorated rather then enervated by defeat.

This explosion in membership led, last year, to the party sweeping almost all before them in the general election, winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats.

Who, then, would have bet against the SNP building on its overall majority in this year’s Holyrood election? I was not alone in calling that one wrong. In fact, although it still had another stonkingly-good night, the SNP lost its majority in the Scottish Parliament.

The Nationalists did exceptionally well in constituencies but the proportional representation system, which is used to select 56 of Scotland’s 129 MSPs on regional lists, meant Unionist parties were returned in reasonably healthy numbers.

Context is important: the SNP had a fantastic result but given the position from which the party began, the loss of its majority could only be seen as something of a setback. The First Minister had led her party not to defeat but to a less impressive victory than had been expected.

The failure of her father to win the by-election in Irvine last week marks another high-profile instance of that SNP momentum weakening. But Robin Sturgeon, though his response may have been rather graceless (I’m all in favour of politics losers saying little more than “I congratulate the winner”), was correct to say that a Unionist alliance had cost him the seat.

This alliance, however, was not formal. Sturgeon’s remarks suggested some kind of tawdry pact between the Labour and Tory parties but the truth is that constituents, acting without instruction or suggestion, voted in ways that should have come as little surprise to anyone.

Council elections are run under a proportional representation system, where voters rank candidates in order of preference. Given the current political climate in Scotland, surely nobody would expect a determined Labour or Conservative voter to give their second preference to the SNP?

The First Minister’s dad may have won most first preference votes in Irvine last week but Unionist voters cost him the seat.

This is a state of affairs for which the SNP and its supporters should prepare themselves in next year’s council elections.

The SNP’s story of momentum, of unstoppable progress, tells us that the party will sweep away Labour in councils it has dominated for decades. The last local government elections, in 2012, saw Labour knocked off its perch in a number of areas but the PR voting system acted as a cushion so that these falls were not so painful as they might have been.

Next May, the SNP will find that the second preferences of Unionist voters go to Unionist candidates and, I’d wager, the consequence will be that the SNP does not take overall power in a number of councils that it would dominate under a first-past-the-post system.

Local government has been starved of cash by the SNP since it came to power at Holyrood in 2007. The decision to freeze the council tax, while popular, has meant ever-diminishing budgets and frontline services have suffered.

Savvy Labour and Tory candidates will campaign on the issue of SNP cuts impacting on services – be they schools or bin collections – and may yet find that they win enough seats across pro-union parties to keep the Nationalists out of power in a number of councils.

The glittering prize next year is Glasgow City Council, for years a Labour stronghold. SNP victory in Glasgow would provide a huge boost to the Nationalists and deal a further painful blow to the Labour Party.

But the result in North Ayrshire last week tells us to assume nothing about the result in Glasgow next year.

Yes, it is unthinkable that the SNP will not win most first preference votes across Scotland’s largest city but it is entirely plausible that enough Labour and Tory politicians could be returned to create a ruling coalition.

Naturally, the SNP would decry Labour for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tories but that particular line of attack has already done the damage that it will.

Those former Labour voters who turned to the SNP are lost to the party for years to come. Those who remain, I believe, place the endurance of the United Kingdom high on their list of priorities.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon did not see the family dynasty grow last week. Instead, she saw a vision of things to come in our ever more binary political debate, where the constitution comes above all else.