What on Earth Happened to the SNP?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

by Adam Ramsay

6 July 2024

SNP members look on during the UK election count.
SNP members look on during the UK election count. Credit: Lesley Martin/Reuters

The Scottish National party had a gruesome night, losing 36 seats to Labour and three to the Lib Dems (with one still counting). The fact that they had one gain – from Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, no less – won’t be much of a consolation.

In fact, according to polling expert John Curtice, the only reason Labour’s vote share across the UK is up at all on 2019 is that it surged by 17% across Scotland. In England, it held steady, and in Wales, it actually fell.

There are a few different ways to look at why this happened, so let’s run through them.

A vast centre-left swing vote.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that, as the SNP became Scotland’s dominant party over the last 20 years, they never really created a loyal base. Instead, they persuaded the 65% or so of the Scottish population broadly on the centre-left to be open to a number of options – to think about each election differently. That produced an enormously volatile electorate, capable of producing vast swings between various progressive parties. As we saw this week.

‘Vote Labour to get rid of the Tories’.

For the first time since 2010, Labour had a more compelling message. Two of my neighbours – both people who support independence – said to me before the election that they “just had to vote Labour” as the simplest way to get rid of the terrible Tory government this time. As I wrote earlier this week, this didn’t necessarily make sense in our specific constituency, where it was an SNP/Labour run-off. But the feeling that this time we’re all just going to suck up whatever we don’t like about Labour and vote for them – because the Tories just need to be gone – certainly permeated the election in Scotland, and swung former SNP voters (and some former Tory voters) behind Labour.

Reversion to the mean.

The SNP first took power at Holyrood – very narrowly – in 2007. In 2010, they won just six MPs at Westminster. In 2011, they won an outright majority at Holyrood. Since the opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999, Scottish voters have – increasingly – treated the different parliaments differently. The SNP have often performed much worse at Westminster elections than Holyrood elections, because they aren’t running to be the UK government, and it’s often hard for them to break through the ding-dong between the candidates for prime minister. In one sense, this election is a reversion to that mean.

No clear Scottish theme.

Another way to look at this is that the SNP just didn’t have a clear message in this election. In reality, there have only been four Westminster elections where they have won more seats than Thursday night: October 1974, 2015, 2017 and 2019. In 1974, North Sea oil had just been discovered, and they were able to break into the UK narrative with the slogan “it’s Scotland’s oil”. 2015 was months after the independence referendum, and David Cameron chose to focus his campaign on fearmongering about Labour teaming-up with the SNP in Scotland, putting the party at the centre of the UK-wide media coverage. 2017 and 2019 both came on the back of Brexit, and Scotland being pulled out of the EU against its wishes. This time, there just wasn’t anything like the same obvious Scottish angle, and so voters were, to some extent, following the UK narrative, and choosing between the UK-wide parties.

Declining salience of independence.

While support for independence hasn’t fallen (or, for that matter, risen), the issue is clearly less salient among Scottish voters than it was in 2015, 2017 or 2019. As memories of the two referendums fade, other issues start to dominate. Lots of independence supporters have responded to Westminster blocking the Scottish government’s mandate for a post-Brexit independence referendum by giving up hope that it’s going to happen any time soon. Many of these people – clearly – were willing to swallow their disagreement with Labour on the issue in order to vote the Tories out this time.

Lost activists.

As independence has become less salient for some, and as diehard pro-independence supporters have become frustrated with the SNP’s failure to deliver it, the party has lost activists – a number of whom have defected to Alba. While proportionally the SNP still has the biggest membership of any political party in the UK, its dominance in terms of street campaigning is nothing like what it was after the 2014 membership surge.

No clear message.

If there wasn’t an obvious Scottish angle in the UK-wide election, then the SNP also failed to inject a clear message of their own into the election. I live in one of the seats they just lost relatively narrowly, and had various leaflets and Facebook adverts targeted at me. While they had lots of good policies, I couldn’t really sum up what they were trying to say in a sentence.

Ditching the Greens.

Shortly before the election, former first minister Humza Yousaf ended the governing partnership between the SNP and the Greens under pressure from people on the right of his party, who perceived that the association with the leftwing Greens was damaging them.

In reality, Scottish Greens had their best ever set of results at a Westminster election by far – passing or approaching 10% in a number of seats, particularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but also in Orkney and Shetland. While many of these voters will have been people who backed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party last time, the SNP would have hoped to add them to their number this time. The party has long relied on the broader pro-independence left coming in behind it in first-past-the-post elections. Yet it seems that a number of Green voters in the major cities decided not to do so this time.

I suspect, though, that the break-up had a bigger mathematical impact in another way. In the last fortnight of the election, the SNP seemed to finally hit on an actual message – that it was to the left of Starmer’s Labour. And yet this felt a little incongruous given the events of the previous weeks, meaning leader John Swinney’s line that his was the most leftwing manifesto failed to land with progressive voters.

Falling turnout.

Many independence supporters who voted SNP in the last three Westminster elections simply stayed at home. They knew that a vote for the SNP in this election wasn’t actually going to bring independence any closer, and clearly didn’t feel particularly motivated to turn out for other reasons, either. As across the UK, turnout was down in this election in Scotland.

Leadership change.

This was, of course, compounded by the fact that the SNP had only just gone through a leadership change. While John Swinney has been around the top of Scottish politics for a generation, most people probably couldn’t place him ideologically in the way they could with Nicola Sturgeon: he has, largely, been a quiet technocrat. Worse, he secured the top spot by cutting a deal to make Kate Forbes – from the right of the party – his deputy first minister. Convincing people to vote SNP because you can rely on them to stick to progressive values when Labour capitulates to the right is a lot harder when you’ve just capitulated to the right of your own party.

Gentle style.

It’s not just content that Swinney struggled with, but style. He is a gentle soul, rather than a natural bombast. And, as Ed Davey showed, for third parties to cut through into the UK-wide political narrative – which is what most Scottish voters are following in the run-up to a Westminster election – you need some panache.

Reform’s vote was smaller in Scotland.

The Tories only lost one of the six seats they won in Scotland last time. If they’d had a collapse similar to that in England, the SNP would likely have picked up those seats, counterbalancing some of those they lost to Labour and the Lib Dems. But, whereas in England Tory seats fell because large whacks of their electorate opted for Reform,

Nigel Farage’s party didn’t do quite as well in Scotland, allowing the Conservatives to keep all but one of their seats.

17 years of Scottish government.

Ask Labour members why the SNP vote collapsed, and they’ll tell you that voters are as frustrated with the SNP’s failures in government as they are with those of the Tories. And there is certainly a degree of truth to that: the party has been in power for 17 years, and, while Scotland is now a better place to live than England because of how we’ve been protected form the worst of austerity and privatisation, it probably isn’t a better place to live than 20 years ago.

The SNP would contend that they don’t have the powers to do any more than they already are, which is why they need independence. We can talk about the truth of that argument another day, but if people’s lives aren’t getting better, and you’ve been in government for 17 years, it’s not surprising you will start to feel the effects of political gravity.

Scandals and fuck-ups.

All of that is compounded by the fact that the sense of the SNP being shiny and clean compared to the sleaze at Westminster has started to wear off. There were the Alex Salmond sex trials, the Sturgeon campervan arrest, Michael Matheson and iPadgate. Likewise, while the early SNP years were marked by a sense of getting things done – most prominently the new Forth Road Bridge – the last few years have seen a number of fuck-ups: most notably a whole debacle about the building of ferries.

What next?

The next Scottish parliament election is scheduled for 2026, and polls currently have Labour and the SNP neck and neck. It’s perfectly plausible that John Swinney will get his feet under the desk as first minister and prove popular. Unlike in this week’s election, he won’t be a sideshow struggling for attention, but the leader of the incumbent government. It’s perfectly possible he will lead his party to a fifth straight victory, despite this week’s upset.

Similarly, unlike before 2015, the SNP is still in first or second place in every seat in Scotland. Taking back large numbers of them next time doesn’t seem implausible if, as seems likely, Starmer’s government quickly loses popularity. The salience of independence may well grow again, especially if people get the idea that Westminster isn’t going to solve their problems, even when Labour has a huge majority.

But it’s also true that the SNP has long pulled together a precarious alliance of voters from different social classes. It will, by the next Holyrood election, have sustained this coalition for two decades, making it the most successful leftwing party in 21st century Europe. Could this general election mark the beginning of a terminal decline? We’ll see.

Adam Ramsay is a Scottish journalist. He is currently working on his forthcoming book Abolish Westminster.

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