Polls of voting intentions in Scotland for May’s UK general election continue to suggest a huge increase in votes and seats for the SNP – and a remarkable flip-over in its position relative to Labour in previous UK elections.
Indeed, if intentions turn into actual votes on the day, the SNP may go a long way towards reversing the 2010 situation. But let’s exercise a little caution, allowing for second thoughts and collywobbles in these last weeks. Let’s entertain the possibility that the SNP may end up with closer to 30 than 50 seats. That would still be some flip-over.
A complete retrospective explanation of either of those outcomes would no doubt acknowledge many factors and influences: personalities, gaffes, enthusiasm, antipathies and the actual as well as the political weather on polling day. But if we seek out the minimum set of conditions and factors behind such a shift, greater or lesser, an explanation is already possible.
Reasons for change
This explanation has four components: convergence of interests and anxieties as a more important factor than enthusiasm and commitment; the social basis of a switch of votes from Labour to the SNP; the power and influence on offer; and the effects of the first-past-the-post system. That last factor is important but it is the least interesting. It is simply that the electoral algorithm awards seats disproportionately to votes. This worked in Labour’s favour and against the SNP in the past and this time it is likely to work the other way round.
The other factors, taken together, are very interesting for three reasons. One is that they are sufficient to account for either a bigger or smaller shift in actual votes. Secondly, they are key underlying factors liable to be obscured in the sound and fury of political battle. Thirdly, they will lead to ambiguities in what the election result means, raising more questions than answers about the electorate’s direction of travel.
In Scotland as elsewhere, recent kinds of social segmentation have erased old solidarities and reduced mutual direct contact and awareness. In other parts of Europe, not just Scotland, this has motivated a politics of longing as well as protest (whether anti-austerity or anti-immigration): longing for new or restored community solidarities to replace what has been lost. That is undoubtedly part of what we are seeing in the big surge in SNP membership and in the high-profile enthusiasm of sections of its supporters. However, activism isn’t sufficient to win elections (or even referenda). Convergence of interests and anxieties is.
Social changes working for the SNP
The basis of convergence towards the SNP is Scotland’s social configuration – as it was for the convergence that previously worked for Labour. For most of the electorate differences in income and affluence are small enough that there are overlapping interests and anxieties across a wide range of social segments and across the country.
People can be members of the new precariat anywhere and across social segments (cleaners, nurses, teachers and academics among them, for example). Likewise for some degree of reliance on adequately funded or affordable services and amenities: including health and education services and affordable housing. Likewise needs for secure if not always nice jobs and for adequate rather than cripplingly meagre “welfare”. There are very real differences in the kinds of need and anxiety, yes. But there is enough similarity in kind and worry for convergence on parties that offer to serve those interests.
For decades trust has remained vested in Labour, at least at UK elections, across a range of professional as well as traditionally working-class social segments. That trust has crumbled and its spread diminished just as the SNP’s reach across the same and more social segments has increased nationwide. It is this overlap in sources and reasons for support that has made a big, or biggish, switch to the SNP a distinct possibility.
It has become more probable since the referendum. The Yes vote drew on much the same range of social segments, interests and concerns. Five surveys between early March and early April indicate that as many as 84% of Yes voters intend to vote SNP in May. It is a powerful transfer of support that reflects SNP success in linking independence – or the greatest possible powers for Scotland extracted from Westminster – with commitment to making incomes more equal and more broadly to a “fairer” society and greater “social justice”.
Crucially, the Yes voters now intending to vote SNP include many who have switched from Labour: 40% of those who voted Labour in 2010 said Yes to independence and now over three quarters of those say they will vote SNP. According to the British Election Study (BES), a similar proportion of that group want greater efforts from government to make incomes more equal; and again three quarters believe the SNP has that commitment whereas only 48% now think Labour does. From the data available it would be unsafe to infer that all those likely to vote SNP share these goals in exactly defined terms. But fuzzy and broad agreement about greater fairness is enough to explain much of the convergence of votes behind its twin aims.
Conversely, of course, the majority No vote was the product of a quieter convergence of its own, cutting in different ways across a somewhat overlapping but overall rather different range of social segments and permutations of interests and concerns. Again according to the BES, as many as 90% of those now intending to vote Labour voted No in the referendum. However Labour does not fall heir to anything like the carry-over from the referendum benefitting the SNP. The differences in interests, anxieties and priorities of the No voters account for that.
Against this background the crucial factor of power and influence fully kicks in. Labour’s claim to be the only route to a Labour government in the UK, and the only provider of protection against a Tory one, no longer holds water: if only for a reason well within recent memory. In 2010 Scottish voters returned 41 Labour MPs and still got a Tory-led coalition.
This time there are two game-changers and a further consideration. A likely hung parliament at Westminster creates the possibility of increased leverage on a UK government of whatever colour or colours. A vote for the SNP may still produce a Labour government. Then there is whatever link voters make between more powers for Holyrood and amelioration of equality and fairness. To the extent voters are influenced by one or more of these thoughts, they may well think a vote for the SNP worth a punt.
Problems with convergences
But hold on. The votes aren’t in yet and convergences of voters’ interests are prone to crumble, at least at the edges, especially under the hard pounding of an election campaign. There are fears and doubts that may prevent intentions firming into votes for the SNP on polling day. One might be the fear of accidentally allowing Cameron to slip back into No 10. Another might be fear of the possibly perverse consequences of getting full fiscal autonomy – more austerity, not less. Because voter convergences are not the same as firm party allegiances, there is no telling what anxieties may cause wobbles and defections.
The present convergence does look likely to hold up well enough to carry the SNP quite some way, past the UK general election and probably next year’s Scottish elections too. But a second problem with convergences is that in the longer term they can crumble quite badly. That is what happened to convergences Labour relied on in the UK and Scotland on from 1997 onwards: they fell apart slowly at first, then rapidly in Scotland.
Finally, there is a deeper problem and it has highly unpredictable longer-term consequences. Voter convergences are based on contingent and partial overlapping interests and rely on fuzzy, generalised agreements as to key political values and goals such as “social justice” or, indeed, “greater equality”.
The problem is that election success based on such a convergence results in many more questions than answers about the direction of travel – for the society as a whole and, indeed, for the party that has to hold those interests together somehow, with all their tensions and potential contradictions. What kind of Scotland will emerge in coming years? Current political developments leave that impossible to forecast.