It shouldn’t be too hard to find a decent post-election shindig in Scotland this weekend – unless, that is, you’re looking to celebrate with members of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party.
In 2016 a Tory tide swept through the Scottish parliament elections. It spilled over into the following year’s council vote, and kept the Conservatives bobbing away in second place as recently as last year’s Holyrood contest. But it is now receding, after the party lost 63 councillors to find itself stranded behind Labour in third place.
Tory misery is the other parties’ delight, with the SNP, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Greens all making substantial gains. For the eighth election in a row, the SNP has emerged as decisive winners, gaining 22 seats to reach its highest ever tally of councillors at 453 – the biggest win for anyone since the introduction of the single transferable vote system in 2007.
This system allows voters to rank options in order of preference, with votes for eliminated candidates and “surplus” from elected ones transferring to the next best option until the seats for each council ward are filled. If that sounds confusing, Scots have a simple slogan for anyone struggling with their ballot paper: “Vote til you boak.” (“Boak”, rhyming with “poke”, is the Scots word for “vomit”. Just keep ranking your options, in other words, until they’re too rank to rank.)
Judging from their collapse, the Scottish Tories have discovered the precise point at which the bile begins to bubble. The party has been quick to try to blame the English for their failure – another old Scots trick – but pleading Partygate only reminds voters that these people cannot distinguish between principles and excuses.
Despite a respectable result last year when they held steady at Holyrood, under Douglas Ross’s leadership the Tories have failed to renew the sunny centre-right sensibility cultivated by Ruth Davidson, who fronted their recent revival. Instead, Ross has delved into the paranoia and bitterness of his hardline unionist base, ranting about the Scottish Greens’ “extremist” influence and manifesting the same single-minded obsession over the issue of independence for which he denounces the SNP. His flip-flopping over Johnson’s fitness to be prime minister – calling for resignation before withdrawing the demand – has only reinforced the sense of a man out of his depth.
The main beneficiaries of Tory troubles have been their fellow unionists in Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who gained 20 councillors each. While the Liberal Democrats focused on moderate unionists and local issues, Labour ran a populist campaign around the cost of living, promising to alleviate price rises with a windfall tax on oil and gas. This is not only beyond local authorities’ power, but beyond Holyrood’s as well, and indicates the party’s reliance on the prospect of a Labour government at Westminster to distinguish itself.
Labour is regularly attacked as being too close to the Tories and too soft on nationalism at once, which its media-friendly leader, Anas Sarwar, sought to counter by ruling out coalitions with other council groups. Once the results were in, however, a Labour source explained to me that this was merely Sarwar’s “preference”, and that Labour’s Scottish executive committee would approve coalitions on a case-by-case basis.
Despite Labour’s gains – coming within one seat of beating the SNP in Glasgow – Scots are unlikely to deliver Keir Starmer a majority any time soon. Sarwar has made small inroads into the softest, most discontented bits of the SNP vote via single transferable vote. But it is not yet enough to swing a first-past-the-post election away from the SNP, so long as independence delivers 40% of voters into the latter’s camp.
Labour could irritate the SNP, however, simply by returning to main opposition status, and shedding the doomed aura that has shrouded their manoeuvres since 2015. The Tories are Nicola Sturgeon’s ideal opponents because they give her first dibs on the centre-left as well as the pro-independence vote. Facing an opposition that confidently shares the SNP’s “social democratic” measurements may force the SNP to work harder at matching rhetoric to action. And by tilting the balance of unionist parties back towards the centre-left, Labour has an opportunity to realign the defence of the union with the wider values of the Scottish public after years of Tory leadership.
The biggest success story of all, though, is the Scottish Greens. After winning a record eight seats at Holyrood last year, the Greens signed a cooperation deal with the SNP, turning their co-leaders into government ministers and giving them a range of concrete practical outcomes to campaign on. Despite murmurs about selling out, the party has been rewarded with 16 new councillors, almost doubling their previous result to 35. As well as expanding their Glasgow and Edinburgh groups to 10 apiece, the Greens found new footholds in eight councils across the country, from Shetland to the Scottish Borders. This, as well as their growing ability to win first-preference votes, suggests that they are becoming a genuinely national party and something more than a second, “principled” choice for voters.
While there was cause for celebration across all major parties but one, it’s worth remembering what they’re being elected to, and who by. Most Scots boaked before they could even bring themselves to vote, with a turnout of just 44%. The creation of a Scottish parliament was helped by the support of Scotland’s local authorities, who sought a bulwark against UK government hostility, but despite its early promise Holyrood has increasingly opted for centralisation over further decentralisation. This has been reinforced by austerity, which the SNP has preferred to hand down to councils rather than implement itself.
The electoral system makes it rare for any party to have overall control of these lumbering, cash-strapped institutions – only Labour in West Dunbartonshire and the SNP in Dundee have majorities – and councillors now have to begin their negotiations in the knowledge that they must share great responsibility without great power. As the cost of living crisis bites and potentially evolves into a recession, it will be the job of these new, expanded council groups to assert the importance of local government against central government – even, in the case of the SNP and Greens, when it’s their own people in charge of the latter.
If councillors can’t find ways of proving their independence and relevance to people’s lives, they could find themselves on the wrong side of the boak barrier next time round. And the Tories may be able to benefit from a period on the sidelines.