Clarifying moments

Sunday National, 8th May 2022.

One reason I like elections is they are clarifying moments. Or ought to be. In life, it is all too easy to fall into an echo chamber. If you work with people with similar views, live near folk who mostly seem to share your values, if you consume only media which reinforces your worldview, if you idle away your time thinking Twitter is a simulacrum of the real world and the people you meet there are representative of the wider public – then your confrontations with reality are always going to be interesting.

And elections are always a confrontation with reality. Either your political judgement will be borne out – or you’ll discover you’re living in a quite different ward, or town, or country to the one you thought you knew and understood.

I suspect a number of folk of a range of political hues will be reappraising their ideas about Scottish politics this weekend. If you marinaded yourself in the worldview articulated by much of the Scottish press, you’d think we lived in a country in which the majority of the electorate intensely dislikes the incumbent government in Holyrood, are convinced it is incompetent from top to toe, believe the SNP have reduced Scotland’s greatest cities to slums, under the worst civic leaders in Britain, who were doomed to go down in disaster and defeat on Thursday.

The promised catastrophe didn’t materialise. Instead, the SNP outperformed every other political party in vote share, number of seats, and in terms of gains made. The Tories got clobbered. It turns out the silent majority Douglas Ross called on to help his party lock the Nats out of town halls is so quiet because it doesn’t exist. As Tory support collapsed, Scottish Labour finally got a little more yeast in their numbers, outperforming the Conservatives by a mighty 2% on first preferences, and achieving their second worst local government performance since devolution. Which is something to celebrate, I guess. And despite a helping hand from the GMB, and an appalling write up for the administration across much of the media, they couldn’t displace the SNP’s lead in Glasgow. Alba Rising didn’t.  

If any of these outcomes surprise you, then perhaps you’ve been spending too much time in a bubble. This isn’t just a phenomenon of new media, by the way. It operates even more powerfully at the level of the mainstream press. Because journalists enthusiastically consume each other’s copy – and because the news bulletins pick up their headlines from the papers – it is all too easy for a circular political conversation to break out, with everyone confirming everyone else’s take on what’s important, and what’s really cutting through with the punters.

You only need to take a look at the circulations of all mainstream publications to realise they reach a much smaller segment of the electorate than is often supposed. The same goes for broadcasting. In this country, most political reporting is the stuff of palace gossip – who’s up and who’s down, scoring the acting of the main performers, partisan spin, and more and less educated guesses about what’s really going on. “My sources tell me–,” “my sense is–,” “I’m hearing–” It is a mercy for political pundits that they’re only rarely held to account for their mispredictions, false projections, wishful thinking, and crashing mistakes.

Some outlets seem disinclined to take their medicine from the electorate this weekend. Diehard Toryism is entitled to its own house journals, but it isn’t entitled to is its own facts. Take this Saturday’s front pages in the UK’s press. This was a difficult moment for them.  The facts are simple. Their boy in Number 10 is in a spot of bother. The Tories have lost well in excess of 400 seats this week, with over 60 losses in Scottish councils alone. The coalition of voters which propelled the Conservative majority into parliament in 2019 is being eroded on different fronts, urban, suburban, rural, richer and poorer. Local elections are often awkward for incumbents, but Boris Johnson’s reputation as an election winner has taken a battering.

This isn’t the ordinary mid-term blues, but a series of losses which are intimately associated with – stronger, attributable to – the Prime Minister’s behaviour, and the steps his party colleagues have taken to insulate him from the political consequences of that behaviour. Reputations are like mirrors. They don’t survive being cracked. Having done their best to manage expectations about the scale of their losses on both sides of the border, the Tory election machine has lived down to those expectations. By any reckoning, this is a predicament for the governing party and its chosen leader.

But pick up a newspaper in the UK, and you wouldn’t know it. The morning after the night before, the Daily Mail went with “Now it is slippery Starmer in crisis,” having told its readership just a day earlier than losing 400 seats or more would be a “disaster” for the Prime Minister. Struck by the same sudden inspiration to focus on the Starmer investigation, The Sun led with “Are you going to korma quietly, Sir?” with a photo of the Labour leader beside a friendly police officer. For the Telegraph, the main takeaway was “Victory for Sinn Fein stokes united Ireland fear.” The Express, by contrast, just decided to tell consoling lies to itself and its readership, falsely claiming “Bullish Boris back on track as “red wall” keeps faith” after “better than expected” local results. But facts are, as they say, chiels that winna ding.

In Scotland, by contrast, we will probably see a concerted effort this weekend to crown Anas Sarwar’s Labour Party as the real winner of this election. And yes, there are some gains here, with twenty new councillors being added to Labour’s local government tally and finally catching up with the collapsing Tories on first preferences.  However, Sarwar seems determined to squander any practical benefit his party might derive from this very modest progress. Before the election, you will remember Sarwar decided to tell the media that Labour wouldn’t be engaging into coalitions in local government, characterising this work of finding local consensus “playing the game of political party stitch-ups.”

It was difficult not remember that line on Friday afternoon, when the final tallies came in from Glasgow wards – putting the SNP one seat ahead of Labour on 37 to 36, with ten Greens holding the balance of power between the two parties, leaving the two surviving Tory councillors to stagger around the wreck of their campaign and the decimation of their group. On the other side of the country, the tally was 19 for the SNP, Labour 13, with 12 Lib Dems, 10 Greens and just 9 Conservatives in Edinburgh. In the capital, the magic number for a majority is 32 – just what a new Labour-SNP coalition could command.

If Labour wants to be involved in its decision-making, they will need to play nicely with the other children. Mr Unity seems disinclined. On Saturday, he churlishly dismissed the prospect.  “Let’s not try and pretend the Greens are neutrals in this election,” he said, characterising “the Greens are a branch office of the SNP.” This is one way to make friends and influence people, I suppose, but it just underscores how little savvy Sarwar really has, writing off the possibility of any Labour-Green cooperation in Glasgow before the ink is dry on the election returns.

Sometimes what sounded like a smart line on the campaign trail becomes a problem after election day. We’re already finding out: this dumb line was always dumb.

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