By Kumar David –
SNP and TNA have shared trajectories; What did Scotland say in the elections?
It is surprising that most commentators, especially the UK media, seem to have drawn all the wrong conclusions form the May 7 elections. It seems a bit odd for me to say it, but the Conservative Liberal Democratic (C-LD) coalition lost ground and Labour gained. What an odd thing to say you may think but did you realise that the outgoing C-LD government jointly led by Cameron and Clegg commanded 364 seats between them in the Commons and the Tory majority government now has only 331 seats? Ok add the 8 seats the Liberal Democrats retained; the (former) coalition partners retained only 339 seats. Where did 25 seats disappear to – be patient till I let you into some secrets.
The hub of the matter is the fortunes of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Labour Party. Labour was wiped out in Scotland collapsing from 41 seats and 42% of the popular vote in 2010 to just one seat and 24% of the vote in 2015. The Tory vote in Scotland hardly changed and it hung on to its solo seat; the LD vote collapsed from 19% to 7.5% and seats from 11 to just one. So Scotland was a Labour and LD charnel house. The SNP won 56 of 59 Scottish Westminster slots and raised its poll from 20% in 2010 to 50% in 2015. Interestingly the Labour increased its overall UK poll by 1.5% but lost 26 seats. Well no, let me explain; it increased its seat tally by 14 outside Scotland but since it lost 40 in Scotland its net tally declined by 26. To repeat; Labour improved its position outside Scotland but it did so badly in Scotland that its net position was a setback.
Taking Labour and the SNP together, for reasons I will justify presently, their combined tally rose from 264 in 2010 to 288 in 2015, which almost exactly matches the decline in C-LD seats from 364 to 339. The Liberal Democrats were wiped out in Scotland to the benefit of the SNP which grabbed all but one, and in the rest of the country LD lost another 39 of which the Tories took about two-thirds and Labour the other third. Since LD and Tories were in coalition prior to the elections the shift of mainly English voters between them within the ‘home team’ is a mere rearrangement; the desertion from the alliance to Labour outside Scotland however is an anti-government protest, not large but not insignificant either. More significant as a protest against the policies of the Cameron-Clegg coalition is the shift in Scotland from Labour to SNP whose manifesto was substantially to the left of Labour’s.
What did the SNP say?
The SNP manifesto was far more an old style Labour manifesto of pre Tony Blatcher years than Labour’s own stand in the last two decades. Here are quotes from the easy to read PDF version.
“The SNP will never put the Tories into power. We will offer to work with other parties to keep the Tories out of power. We do not want any more spending cuts. We would like more public spending. In our plan we would like to see more money spent on: Skills, National Health Service (NHS), public services, roads, rail, water and power. We will use our votes at Westminster to stop the NHS in England from going private. We do not want Trident nuclear weapons to be renewed”.
It does not end there; it is an anti-austerity, left social-democratic and in truth a moderately anti-capitalist programme. This flavour comes across strongly.
“We will make the tax system fairer (and) people who earn more will give a little bit more to help with free public services. The SNP will support more spending on the NHS. We want to see spending in the NHS go up by £2 billion by 2020-21. We will make sure university education in Scotland stays free. When people come to live in the UK from other countries it is called immigration. We think immigration is good for our economy and our society. We will vote to get rid of The House of Lords because it is not elected by the people. We want to stay part of the European Union; it is good for business and supports jobs”.
To this, Scotland gave an overwhelming mandate; the SMP rose to 56 in 2015 from just six in 2010. Most gains, significantly, were from Labour; the logic is that Scotland is poorer and more working class than the rest of the UK and the electorate shifted substantially leftward outflaning Labour. Commentators who read the Tory victory as an expression of support for Cameron’s small government, cuts in social welfare, and milder than Greece austerity, have got it horribly wrong in relation to Scotland and mildly wrong for the whole UK. True this policy package was not defeated in England, but even there it suffered setbacks.
Let me slip in a word about the smaller parties in Wales and Northern Ireland which mostly held their marginal positions; Democratic Unionists (8), Sinn Fein (4), Plaid Cymru (3), and Ulster Unionists (2). The non-regional (national) small parties also managed a few seats; SDLP (3), UK Independence Party or UKIP (1) and Greens (1). Ultra-right anti-immigration UKIP was expected to do much better like its sister party, Marie Le Penn’s National Front (NF) in France. It actually did poll a well, 3.9 million votes (12.6%), compared to LD’s 2.4 million (7.9%), but the vagaries of the first-past-the-post (FPP) guillotine held it down to just one seat in the Commons. [NF took 25% of the vote and came first in the 2014 European Parliament elections in France]. It may be safe to speculate that far-right UKIP/NF politics is unlikely to make headway in the UK in the foreseeable future unless there is a switch to proportional representation.
Shared trajectories with the TNA
Though it would be wrong to make too much of it, it is not far-fetched to see some shared trajectories with the rise of the TNA as monopoly power in the North after the 2013 NP Provincial Council elections where it collected 78% of the votes and bagged all but 8 of the 38 Council seats. The SNP polled only 50% but FPP gave it 56 of 59 Scottish seats. I see four parallels, not in numbers but in the political domain, as follow. The Tamils were outraged with the Rajapaksa gang for obvious reasons and Scotland rejected Conservative cost and welfare pruning austerity budgeting.
Second the flag the SNP nailed to its topmost mast was standing up for Scotland. The declaration with which its leader Nicola Sturgeon opens the PDF manifesto is: “My vow is to make Scotland stronger at Westminster. With your support, we can secure a better future for you, your family and Scotland. Voting for the SNP will bring in MPs who will stand up for Scotland’s best interests. Scotland’s voice will be heard more loudly than ever before”. Not much different from what Tamils expect of the TNA.
A third crucial reason is that the SNP makes absolutely no reference to Scottish separation. It seems that the referendum issue has been put on the backburner. The manifesto contains no mention of a repeat referendum. I see this as very similar to the TNA turning its back on Eelam and working within the framework of a unified Lanka. As with the TNA, so with the SNA, this made it possible for all Tamils and Scots who were fed-up with the Rajapaksas and the Tories, respectively, but divided on the session issue (in both instances only a minority favour separation) to vote for a nationalist but non-secessionist entity. This is of crucial importance; I am convinced that had the TNA or the SNP been perceived as secessionist by their own communities, both would have lost support. Both Tamils and Scots are in the majority opposed to secession but both want strong parties in parliament that will stand up for the interests of alienated communities.
The fourth and final reason for the SNP’s success is what it substituted for secession; a demand for real regional autonomy. Its stand: “We will make sure that promises made to Scotland during the referendum are kept. We want the Scottish Parliament to be responsible for things like employment laws. This means things like setting how much the minimum wage should be, welfare and benefits and equality laws. This means making sure things are fair in our society”.
David Cameron’s promises to Scotland at the time of the referendum were so substantial that they amounted to a promise of de facto federalism – I don’t think he used the term because of the complications of the so-called ‘English Question’ (If federalism, then what to do about England). He offered massive concessions because in civilised societies federalism can be discussed soberly and referenda conducted without riot, civil commotion and the murderous application of the military stengun. In less civilised societies mention of the right to self-determination is a worse profanity than threatening a person’s mother with dire consequences. But apart from principles, self-determination is not of practical importance at this time – Tamils are simply not interested in Eelam any longer. But they know that given federalism and a free hand to improve themselves, they can make a good job of it. The TNA is right to demand much greater autonomy and de facto federalism, but it will be a long while coming. I suspect President Sirisena and PM Ranil aren’t opposed; it’s just that they wet their pants every time they reflect on the rage of the masses stirred up by men in robes and in starched national dress.