Where did it all go wrong for the SNP?

11 Jun 2017

Thursday’s general election saw some major losses for the SNP, with former leader, Alex Salmond, and current deputy leader, Angus Robertson, among the notable casualties. Both occupied seats in the North East of Scotland, and both lost their seats to the Scottish Conservatives.


It was not just Ruth Davidson’s party who made gains north of the border. In the wake of a late surge under Jeremy Corbyn, Scottish Labour regained some key seats, while the Liberal Democrats had some notable successes as well.


Overall, it will go down as a mixed night for the SNP. On the one hand, they will continue to argue that they are in an enviable position; they continue to hold the majority of Scottish seats, a position which would have seemed outlandish a mere three years ago. Their vote share remains comfortably ahead of any opposition party, and they will remain an important force at Westminster.


Yet, there can also be no doubt that senior SNP figures would have been disappointed with the outcome of the election. The loss of aforementioned respected parliamentarians and a decline in vote share should not be ignored, and the SNP will be keen to address the issue of why they lost over a third of their seats.


There are several reasons as to why their fortunes declined. In areas regained by Labour, it appears Corbyn’s positive campaign resonated with voters. Initial polling had Scottish Labour struggling to hit 20%, with one Panelbase poll having them falling as low as 13%.


Last month’s local elections saw Labour falling further behind the second-placed Conservatives in Scotland. Yet, on Thursday night, slight increases in vote percentage were enough to ultimately regain once staunch Labour seats.


Alongside the slight increase for Scottish Labour came a massive boost for the Scottish Conservatives, as they consolidated their place as Scotland’s second party. Their tally of thirteen seats was the most impressive total they have achieved north of the border since 1983. Now significant portions of Scotland’s map, almost uniformly yellow in 2015, have unthinkably gone blue.


As in the 2016 Holyrood elections, it is likely that Ruth Davidson’s positioning of the Scottish Conservatives as the party of the union has proven fruitful. Throughout both the local and nationwide elections, the party emphasised the possibility of a second independence referendum, painting it as divisive and unnecessary. Their 13.7% increase of the vote in Scotland would have, at least partly, come from disaffected centrist Labour voters who were either not enamoured with Jeremy Corbyn’s UK-wide party, or who believed the Scottish Conservatives were stronger than Labour in their defence of the union.


Nevertheless, there has been another shift in voting, perhaps more understated, which may explain the shift in many rural seats that the SNP lost. In spite of the party’s ardent pro-European stance, thirty-six per cent of SNP voters opted to leave the EU in last year’s referendum. While Scotland’s urban areas, such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, all opted for Remain by a comfortable distance, many rural constituencies had a significant numbers of voters who preferred the idea of Brexit.


The Remain vote in the council area of Aberdeenshire, which notably contained the seat of Alex Salmond, was only fifty-five per cent. Every seat in Aberdeenshire was occupied by the SNP prior to the general election; now every seat within the area has turned blue. Even more notably, the Remain vote in Moray was fifty per cent. Moray was Angus Robertson’s seat at Westminster. It was, of course another seat comfortably won by the Conservatives.


In many respects, it appears the stigma attached to the Conservative party in Scotland from the Thatcher era has largely disappeared. Their rural successes in England have been replicated up north, with most of their newly gained constituencies located outside Scotland’s urban centres.


Contrary to that, the SNP’s newfound success in urban areas once dominated by Labour (such as Glasgow and the West of Scotland) has perhaps come at the expense of certain rural strongholds. The SNP’s loss of Moray, for example, wasn’t just notable for the fact that the seat was occupied by Angus Robertson. It was also, unlike most of their current constituencies, a longstanding SNP stronghold, held by the party since 1987.


The SNP’s surge in 2015 allowed them to achieve remarkable success in urban and rural constituencies alike. Yet, as has often been shown in England with the divide between where Labour and the Conservatives tend to win seats, being able to maintain that is incredibly difficult.


Harsher critics of the SNP will perhaps cite other factors for their defeat. It could be argued their manifesto was uninspiring and devoid of fresh ideas, contrasted with Corbyn’s bolder approach. Not too unlike many of their opponents up north, the SNP sometimes fell into the trap of arguing why people should vote for them in order to keep the Tories out, instead of arguing why they were genuinely the best choice like they did back in 2015.


Their 2015 campaign also contained a certain zest and urgency in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum that this one lacked. In spite of having already occupied Holyrood for a decade, the prospect of new SNP MPs across the country seemed like genuine change, with notable names such as Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander ousted as a result.


While many will interpret the results on Thursday as a negative for the SNP in spite of them still holding the majority of the seats, Nicola Sturgeon and her party will no doubt take solace in the fact that the pendulum has swung both towards and against them in recent years, ensuring that gains will once again be possible if they regain momentum north of the border.


The election’s hung parliament ensures that uncertainty remains prevalent within UK politics, something the SNP can seek to take advantage of.




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