Scottish Election 2011 Analysis Essay

The coalition government at Westminster has promised more devolution to Scotland. But in May 2011 Scottish voters gave SNP leader Alex Salmond a clear majority in the Scottish Parliament, thus making a referendum on secession from the UK inevitable by 2014. Rob Johns, James Mitchell and Chris Carman from the Scottish Election Study read the runes on what Scots voters intended at this historic election, and find that they were overwhelmingly rewarding Salmond and the SNP for effective leadership and government at Holyrood. The 2011 election may hence be more ‘ordinary’ than it appears, with voters responding to the same political cues that matter across the UK.

The Scottish National Party won majority control of government in the Scottish Parliament election on 5 May 2011, a result that confounded pre-election polls and commentaries. It also created a conjuncture unforeseen by the architects of devolution in the first Blair government, who deliberately chose a (broadly) proportional electoral system so as to minimise the risk of a Nationalist majority in Parliament ever moving Scotland towards independence. So this was an extraordinary result in historical context.

Yet looking closer at voters’ attitudes and choices, this seems a much more ‘ordinary’ election.  Using data from the ESRC-funded Scottish Election Study 2011, we show that the SNP won its majority for that most mundane of electoral reasons – most voters thought that the Alex Salmond and his party would do a better job in office than their rivals, including their chief rival and long the permanent party of government, the Labour Party.

For readers who are not full-time students of Scottish politics, we need to establish a couple of general points about Scottish Parliament elections.  First, Scots voters think that it matters a lot who wins at Holyrood.  Whereas local and European elections are often seen as a low-stakes opportunity to ‘send a message’ about politics at Westminster, clear majorities of voters north of the border regard the Scottish government (rather than the UK government) as responsible both for policy and outcomes in such key domains as health, education, and law and order.

Second, and as a result, voting in Scottish Parliament elections is not simply an expression of people’s national identity or constitutional preferences.  There is no paradox in the fact that SNP support has more than doubled between 2003 and 2011 while support for Scottish independence has flatlined. Voters can distinguish between choosing Scotland’s government and choosing Scotland’s constitutional future. When asked in our survey to say “How do you think the return of an SNP minority government would affect the likelihood of independence?”, only 7 per cent of respondents said that would make it ‘much more likely’.  The largest group, 42 per cent, said that it would ‘make no difference’.  So what used to be thought of as a major deterrent to voting SNP – fear of independence – no longer operates for many voters.

Of course, highlighting the absence of a reason not to vote SNP does not explain why voters did vote for the party. This is where the ordinariness of the 2011 election comes in. In an era of ideological convergence, parties tend to win elections by being seen as more competent than their rivals. And, in 2011, the SNP was widely regarded as the most competent party, especially compared with Labour in four key areas: performance, image, leadership, and willingness to stand up for Scotland.

We asked our respondents to rate the performance of various parties in government, both at the Scottish and UK levels.  Our Table below shows that voters were relatively impressed by the performance of the SNP minority government.  Indeed, since even popular governments usually win grudging respect rather than lavish praise, the SNP’s +36 rating is impressive. (Here we subtract the two ‘bad’ percentages from the two ‘good’ percentages). It is not surprising that the Scottish government was rated more positively than the outgoing or incoming UK governments.  More important is that voters did not believe that Labour would have done an especially good job if they had been in power at Holyrood. This gave the SNP a clear and crucial competence advantage.

Table: How Scottish voters rated the performance of the Scottish and UK governments, May 2011

The SNP also projected a more positive party image in 2011, as our first Chart below demonstrates. Not only was it seen as more capable of strong government, but respondents also rated it as more united, more trustworthy, and more interested in ordinary people.  Labour’s ratings were better than those of the other two top four parties. The Liberal Democrats received especially short shrift from a Scottish electorate unimpressed by their decision to join the Conservatives in coalition. But, in all cases, Labour trailed behind voters’ evaluations of the SNP.

Chart 1: How Scottish respondents rated the overall images of the top four parties on four dimensions

In the May election the role of leaders inside Scotland was important for voters. Our second Chart below shows that the SNP’s leader, Alex Salmond, was more popular than his main rival for First Minister.  Labour leader Ian Gray suffered in terms of profile as well as approval: almost one in five respondents (19%) felt they knew too little about him to offer an opinion, and those that did rate him tended not to be very complimentary.

Chart 2: How the popularity of Scotland’s political leaders compared with those of their party

Note: DK here shows how many respondents said ‘don’t know’ when asked about a leader. The higher this level is, the less well-known is the leader involved.

However, these results belie any suggestion that it was the personal popularity of Alex Salmond that ushered his party into power – because the SNP was in fact slightly more popular than its leader. This is not to say that Salmond’s leadership was unimportant.  There may be an echo of Tony Blair and New Labour here. Survey data from the 1997 election suggest that Labour’s success owed surprisingly little to Blair’s personal ratings. Yet the key drivers of that triumph – that voters saw Labour as moderate, united, and competent (especially on the economy) – were obviously connected to Blair’s revamp of the party.  The same might be true of the Salmond-led SNP, which has unified around a pragmatic approach to independence. Insofar as the 2011 victory was created by Alex Salmond, it is because of what he had done to his party rather than to his personal appeal per se.

Finally, the SNP enjoyed its customary advantage when voters were asked to rate the parties in terms of how much each would stand up for Scottish interests.  This is not just a general impression. When we asked respondents: “Thinking now of the parties in Scotland, how effective do you think each would be at managing the impact of cuts from Westminster?”, the SNP again came out on top. It was rated as ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ effective by 64 per cent of those who answered the question, while the corresponding figure for Labour was 48 per cent.  This helps to explain why Labour lost ground in the run-up to polling day: the party’s strategists had made this a prominent campaign issue, seeking to present themselves as Scotland’s best defence against the Westminster coalition. But in making this choice they were in fact fighting on strong SNP ground. Together, these results look like a clear case of what has been dubbed ‘performance politics’ – in other words, electoral business as usual.  Scotland’s voters elected an SNP majority government because enough of them saw it as more likely than its rivals to do a good job in office.

Of course, even if the constitutional question was not the overriding concern for many voters when choosing a party, it was uppermost in commentators’ minds as soon as the scale of the SNP victory became clear.  We emphasised earlier that voters distinguish between choosing a Scottish government and choosing a constitutional future (just as they distinguish between voting in Scottish Parliament and Westminster elections – see the recent post on the Inverclyde by-election).  So the results of our 2011 survey can give little or no guidance on the outcome of any future referendum on independence – which the SNP has pledged to hold during this parliamentary term. Our central argument here implies that future Scottish election outcomes are hard to predict in advance – at least, without knowing which party will be seen as most competent.  Credibility is more easily lost than gained. So a rocky five years in the challenging fiscal and economic environment that the Scottish Government now faces could yet see the SNP vote fall as sharply in 2015 as it rose in 2011, if the party should lose its reputation for competence.

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This blog draws on research for the 2011 Scottish Election Study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the second in what will hopefully become a series of major surveys of voters at Scottish Parliament elections.  A representative sample of around 2,000 Scottish adults was surveyed on-line by YouGov both before and after polling day.  For more details see www.scottishelectionstudy.org.uk.

Introduction

1Since the 2015 British General Election, the SNP has repeatedly underlined how exceptional and historic the result was in Scotland. In the Guardian on 9 May, just after the election, SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon noted that:

The word historic is overused when it comes to elections and political events – but what we have witnessed in the past few days is properly deserving of that description. Whatever the future of Scottish and UK politics, the events of the early hours of Friday are a moment in time that will be studied and debated for decades to come.1

2To her party, the exceptional outcome of the election in Scotland now gives the British Government and Parliament a moral obligation to agree to the SNP’s demands, especially, for the time being, its demands on further powers for Scotland.

3That is what several SNP MPs argued in the House of Commons during the Second Reading of the Scotland Bill on further devolution of powers, one month after the election. Ian Blackford, for instance, declared: “The SNP won the election in Scotland conclusively. We stood on a mandate of powers for a purpose. Why does the Secretary of State [for Scotland, David Mundell] not deliver what the people of Scotland voted for: a powerhouse Parliament with full economic powers?”2 Similarly, SNP group leader Angus Robertson stated: “The Bill is a response to the referendum, but we now need an adequate response to the general election and the clear mandate for more powers that was delivered.”3 In summary, the SNP is arguing that the General Election result was so conclusive in Scotland that the British Parliament should take it into account when voting on the Scotland Bill, considering that there are only 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons, which makes it structurally impossible for Scottish MPs to force a majority vote, despite their near unanimity. As Angus Robertson put it during the same debate, “[t]he people have spoken, and the UK Government should respect their choice.”4

4One might disagree with the SNP’s assessment of what the mandate which it was given implies, but it is undeniable that the General Election result was historic, in at least two respects. First of all, beyond the fact that the SNP won a majority of Scottish seats in a General Election for the first time in its history, what is truly exceptional is that the Labour Party did not win a majority for the first time in more than half a century. Labour had won every single General Election in Scotland since 1959 in terms of seats, or since 1964 in terms of both seats and votes. Secondly, the 2015 outcome was historic because of the margin of the SNP’s victory: the SNP won all seats in Scotland bar three, one for each of the big Unionist parties (Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats).5 In other words, Labour didn’t just lose in Scotland in 2015: it lost all of its seats except one, and a rather unlikely one at that (Edinburgh South). Moreover, the SNP won exactly half of the popular vote (50.0%), which no party had managed to do in more than half a century. The Liberals had regularly won more than 50% of the vote in Scotland before 1918, and the Conservatives had won 50.1% in 1955, but Labour, despite its near-hegemony in Scotland since the 1960s in terms of seats won, never managed to reach 50% of the popular vote, although it did come close with 49.9% in 1966.

5This paper will not argue that the 2015 election outcome in Scotland was not historic: it undeniably was. Rather, the aim of this paper is to put this outcome into context and into perspective, through an analysis of General Election results in Scotland over the years, and then through a comparison between those results and Scottish Parliament election results. It will be argued that the 2015 election outcome was exceptional for another, less obvious reason, namely that it was the result of a convergence in voting behaviour in Scotland for General Elections and for Holyrood elections (though not – or not yet – for other types of elections), something which had not happened since the early days of devolution in Scotland.

General Election results in Scotland since 1997

Table 1- General Election results in Scotland since 1997, in terms of seats

1997

(72 seats)

2001

(72 seats)

2005

(59 seats)

2010

(59 seats)

2015

(59 seats)

Labour

56 seats/

78% seats

56 seats/

78% seats

41 seats/ 69% seats

41 seats/ 69% seats

1 seat/

2% seats

Lib Dem

10 seats/ 14% seats

10 seats/ 14% seats

11 seats/

19% seats

11 seats/

19% seats

1 seat/

2% seats

SNP

6 seats/

8% seats

5 seats/

7% seats

6 seats/

10% seats

6 seats/

10% seats

56 seats/ 95% seats

Conservative

0 seat/
0% seats

1 seat/

1% seats

1 seat/

2% seats

1 seat/

2% seats

1 seat/

2% seats

6Table 1 presents General Election results in Scotland since 1997. It starts in 1997 because those results will then be compared to Scottish Parliament election results, of which there were none before 1999. It displays the number of seats won by each party, as well as the share of seats which this represents, as there was a substantial reduction in the number of Scottish seats in the House of Commons (from 72 to 59) on the occasion of the 2005 General Election.

7Over the 1997-2015 period, General Election results in Scotland were extremely stable until the historic 2015 result, if only because Scots systematically gave seats to the same parties in the same order every time. From 1997 to 2010, Labour always came first, the Liberal Democrats second, the SNP third and the Conservatives fourth. In summary, what is noteworthy is not just that Labour always came first, but also that the SNP never managed to come better than third. Looking at the table more closely, one sees that the results were almost identical in 1997 and 2001 (there was one seat change in the whole of Scotland) and that they were completely identical in 2005 and 2010 (there were no seat changes at all). In other words, between 1997 and 2010, the only significant change happened on the occasion of the 2005 election, not so much because Scots modified their voting behaviour, but for a structural reason, namely the reduction in the overall number of Scottish seats in the Commons, the main consequence of which was a reduction in the number of Labour seats (from 56 to 41).

8The overall impression of stability from 1997 to 2010 diminishes a little if one considers General Election results not in terms of seats, but in terms of votes, as table 2 makes clear.

Table 2- General Election results in Scotland since 1997, in terms of votes (%)

1997

(72 seats)

2001

(72 seats)

2005

(59 seats)

2010

(59 seats)

2015

(59 seats)

Labour

45.6

43.3

39.5

42.0

24.3

Lib Dem

13.0

16.3

22.6

18.9

7.5

SNP

22.1

20.1

17.7

19.9

50.0

Conservative

17.5

15.6

15.8

16.7

14.9

9Contrary to what was the case in terms of seats, Scottish voters’ party rankings were not always the same depending on the years. Labour still always came first, but the SNP did not always come third (as it did in terms of seats): it managed to come second in three out of the four elections concerned (in 1997, 2001 and 2010). Moreover, whereas there were almost no seat changes except when the electoral boundaries were redrawn in 2005, the share of the vote won by each party did evolve over the years. However, it did not evolve in the way that might be expected considering the 2015 election result. Where one might expect a steady decline in Labour votes and a steady rise in SNP votes over the years (which is what has characterised Scottish Parliament elections, as will be seen later), what one gets instead is two parallel curves for Labour and the SNP until 2010. From 1997 to 2005, there was a slight but steady decline in the percentage of votes won by both parties, followed by a rise in both parties’ share of the vote in 2010. In other words, only between 2010 and 2015 did the share of the votes won by the two parties follow a completely different curve.

10In summary, General Election results in Scotland were very stable between 1997 and 2010. Labour always came first, in terms of both seats and votes, and by far (winning between 69% and 78% of all seats, and between 39.5% and 45.6% of the vote). As for the SNP, it always came third in terms of seats, and came either third or second in terms of votes (winning either 5 or 6 seats, and between 17.7% and 21.1% of the vote). Until 2015, the SNP had never in its existence managed to win more than 11 seats in a General Election, as table 3 shows.

Table 3- SNP results in General Elections

Seats

Votes (%)

1970

1

11.4

1974 (Feb)

7

21.9

1974 (Oct)

11

30.4

1979

2

17.3

1983

2

11.8

1987

3

14.0

1992

3

21.5

1997

6

22.1

2001

5

20.1

2005

6

17.7

2010

6

19.9

2015

56

50.0

11The SNP won its first seat in a General Election (as opposed to a by-election) in 1970, and it has consistently won seats at every General Election since. Yet, until 2015, its only real breakthrough had been in October 1974, when it had managed to win 11 seats and 30% of the vote. Though impressive, those results are a far cry from the 56 seats and 50% of the vote that the SNP won in 2015.

12By contrast, the 2015 election was undoubtedly exceptional. The SNP came first at a General Election in Scotland for the first time in its history, and it reached the symbolic barrier of 50% of the popular vote. Also exceptional about the 2015 election were the big Labour scalps that the SNP took and, in many cases, the size of the swings which the SNP achieved, as the following examples demonstrate. In Paisley & Renfrewshire South, a traditionally safe Labour seat (under the name Paisley South until 2005) which the SNP took over with 50.94% of the vote (against Labour’s 38.64%), twenty -year-old Mhairi Black famously beat senior Labour candidate Douglas Alexander. In the 2010 election, Alexander had won by far with 59.6% of the vote and the SNP had come second with only 18.1% of the vote. In 2015, the SNP also won the seat of East Renfrewshire (with 40.57% of the vote against Labour’s 34.01%), a seat which Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy had held since 1997 (before which it had been a safe Conservative seat). Murphy had won 50.8% of the vote in 2010 and the SNP had only come fourth with 8.9% of the vote. In addition to those widely-reported cases (due to the high profile of the losing MPs), some constituencies saw even more impressive swings from Labour to the SNP. Glasgow North East, a normally safe Labour seat (and one of the most deprived constituencies in the UK), saw the largest swing in Scotland (a swing of 39.3%). The SNP won 58.05% of the vote (against Labour’s 33.69%), when it had only come a distant second in the previous General Election with 14.1% of the vote (against Labour’s 68%, which had given it a comfortable victory). Also notable were the swings of 36.2% in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill; 35.2% in Glasgow South West; 34.9% in Glenrothes; and 34.6% in Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath (the former seat of Gordon Brown), to name but a few.

13The 2015 Scottish results were clearly singular in the sense that they were different from all previous General Election results in Scotland. However, it remains to be seen whether they were completely unprecedented in the wider sense that they can be compared to no other election results in Scotland.

Comparing General Election and Scottish Parliament election results in Scotland

14A comparison between General Elections in Scotland and Scottish Parliament elections (also known as Holyrood elections) shows that until 2015, both types of elections had given very different results. Party rankings resulting from the number of seats won almost systematically diverged. As was noted earlier, the 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010 General Elections all saw Labour come first, the Liberal Democrats second, the SNP third and the Conservatives fourth. By contrast, the first two Holyrood elections (in 1999 and 2003) saw Labour come first, the SNP second, the Conservatives third and the Liberal Democrats fourth, while the last two saw the SNP come first, Labour second, the Conservatives third and the Liberal Democrats fourth. In other words, in Holyrood elections, Labour hasn’t always been the winning party – it lost the last two elections, by the narrowest of margins (one seat only) in 2007 and then by a wide margin in 2010 – while on the other hand, the SNP has always come better than third, which was until 2015 its typical ranking in General Elections. Moreover, while in General Elections, there were hardly any seat changes over the 1997-2010 period, except when forced by a significant reduction in the overall number of Scottish seats in 2005, Scottish Parliament elections have been marked by a steady and marked decline of Labour over the years, as well as by a spectacular rise of the SNP since its low of 2003, as table 4 reveals.

Table 4- Scottish Parliament election results, in terms of seats (total of 129)

1999

2003

2007

2011

Labour

56

50

46

37

SNP

35

27

47

69

Conservatives

18

18

17

15

Lib Dems

17

17

16

5

Greens

1

7

2

2

SSP

1

6

0

0

SSCUP

-

1

0

0

Independents

1

3

1

1

15Labour went from winning 56 seats in 1999 to winning 50 in 2003, 46 in 2007 and finally 37 in 2011. By contrast, after losing seats between 1999 and 2003 (when it went from 35 seats to 27), the SNP gained at least 20 extra seats at each subsequent election (winning a total of 47 seats in 2007 and then a record 69 seats in 2011, a result which gave it a total majority in the Scottish Parliament, the first party to do so since the Parliament’s creation).

16Holyrood elections have therefore been characterised both by a much greater degree of instability and by tougher electoral competition than General Elections in Scotland.As a consequence, the party systems that have resulted from these two types of elections are very different. General Elections have given birth in Scotland to a “predominant-party system” (to use Giovanni Sartori’s phraseology), in other words, a pluralist system in which one party regularly wins an absolute majority of seats in Parliament, though not necessarily a majority of votes.6 Scotland has had such a system (with Labour in the role of the predominant party) since the 1960s. Post-May 2015, the question now is whether General Elections will continue to give birth to a predominant-party system in Scotland, but with the SNP having replaced Labour in the role of the predominant party. As for the party system born of Scottish Parliament elections, it has – for the time being – been very different: not a pluralist system with only one big party, but a pluralist system with two big parties (Labour and the SNP), two medium-sized ones (the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – though the latter might have become a small party as a consequence of their participation in the 2010-2015 British coalition government), and one small party which has consistently been represented in the Holyrood Parliament, namely the Scottish Greens.

17One might object that differences in electoral systems partly explain such differences in outcomes and in party systems. In Holyrood elections, the semi-proportional Additional Member System is used, meaning that Scottish people elect both constituency MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) through the majoritarian First Past the Post system also used for General Elections, and regional MSPs through a proportional list system. In other words, if electoral competition has been tougher in Holyrood elections, it is partly as a result of the differences in electoral systems. However, one element that can be compared directly is the number and share of constituency votes won. Whether one looks at Holyrood election results in terms of constituency votes only, or in terms of both constituency and regional votes, one comes to the same conclusion: voting behaviour has generally differed from voting behaviour in General Elections, as can be seen in table 5.

Table 5- Scottish voters’ order of preference, in terms of votes, in General Elections (GE) and Scottish Parliament elections (SP)

1997 GE

1999 SP

2001 GE

2003 SP

2005 GE

2007 SP

2010 GE

2011 SP

2015 GE

Labour/
SNP/
Tories/
Lib D/
Others

Labour/

SNP/

Tories/

Lib D/

Others

Labour/
SNP/
Lib D/

Tories/
Others

Labour/

SNP/

Tories/

Lib D/

Others

Labour/
Lib D/

SNP/
Tories/
Others

SNP/
Labour/

Tories/

Lib D/
Others

Labour/
SNP/

Lib D/

Tories/

Others

SNP/
Labour/
Tories/

Lib D/

Others

SNP/

Labour/

Tories/

Lib D/

Others

NB: in the case of Holyrood elections, the order of preference is the same whether one considers constituency votes only, or both constituency and regional votes.

18Until 2015, Scottish people had always voted differently in Holyrood elections from how they had voted in the General Elections that immediately preceded them, except in the very first one, in 1999, when people were new to voting for the Scottish Parliament.

19Let us now compare the 2015 General Election to the Holyrood election that preceded it (which occurred in 2011), so as to establish to what extent the 2015 result was unprecedented. Such a comparison reveals that the 2015 General Election was less exceptional than commentators unfamiliar with Scottish politics might have thought, as to a large extent, it was the result of a convergence in voting behaviourfor Scottish Parliament elections and General Elections. This convergence is apparent in at least two respects. First of all, Scottish voters’ party rankings were identical in 2011 and 2015: in both cases, their order of preference wasSNP/ Labour/ Conservatives/ Liberal Democrats/ Others (as can be seen in table 5). As was noted earlier, such convergence in voting behaviour had only happened once in the past, on the occasion of the 1997 General Election and the 1999 Holyrood election. Secondly, in both elections, the SNP won very comfortably over the Labour Party: the margin of the SNP victorywas colossal in 2015 (50.0% of the vote against Labour’s 24.3%), but it had already been very significant in 2011 (45.4% of the constituency vote against Labour’s 31.7%), as table 6 shows. Moreover, the same table reveals that the share of the vote won by the medium-sized parties (the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats) was very similar in 2011 and 2015. The small parties (the Greens, for instance) do not tend to field constituency candidates in Holyrood elections, preferring to concentrate their efforts on winning regional list votes, meaning that a comparison between General Elections and Holyrood elections is in their case impossible.

Table 6- Results of the 2011 Scottish Parliament election (constituency votes only) and the 2015 General Election in Scotland: number of votes and share of the vote

2011 Scottish Parliament election (constituency votes only)

Number of votes (share of the vote in %)

2015 General Election (Scotland)

Number of votes (share of the vote)

SNP

902,915

(45.4%)

1,454,436

(50.0%)

Labour

630,437

(31.7%)

707,147

(24.3%)

Conservatives

276,652

(13.9%)

434,097

(14.9%)

Liberal Democrats

157,714

(7.9%)

219,675

(7.5%)

UKIP

-

47,078

(1.6%)

Greens

-

39,205

(1.3%)

Others

21,534

(1.1%)

8,827

(0.3%)

20Thirdly, and more generally, we might be witnessing a convergence in party systems for both types of elections. Since the 2015 General Election result, several senior Scottish politicians (such as Lord Steel for instance7

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