The last week has been a fond journey into nostalgia for me. Five years ago, I had a wake-up call to overt bias, while watching television coverage of the council elections. I detailed the experience in an earlier blog – the short version is that the BBC reporting of the Glasgow Council elections was nakedly at odds with all other television channels, by virtue of (solely for Glasgow) counting the defections from Labour’s group as representing ‘losses’, and therefore the reelection of those Labour council positions as ‘Labour gains’. This was the only deviation from their otherwise uniform accounting of council changes on the basis of comparison with the 2012 result: it was plain, it was done almost with an arrogance – in the election studio, they laughed at anyone pointing out that saying Labour’s ‘gains’ in Glasgow outnumbered the SNP’s was erroneous. And yet they were the only channel reporting the Glasgow result in this idiosyncratic fashion.
Fast forward from May 4th 2012 to last Friday. The results come in – and the SNP have increased their number of council seats from 425 to 431. But hold – the BBC say that it is a drop of 7 seats? Over the ensuing days, as BBC journalists confessed they had no idea where the figures had come from, it slowly emerged that the figures had been ‘adjusted’. Apparently, if subsequent boundary changes had been in place, the SNP would (‘probably’) have won 13 more seats in 2012 – seats which they in 2017 ‘lost‘. It is a bit like ‘seasonally adjusted averages’ – those unemployment figures that first made you start to doubt the veracity of the UK Government in its reporting of unemployment in the UK – where the adjustment (however it is calculated) becomes more important than the upfront real figure. Surely the modification is a secondary figure, and should not have the headline position? It is somewhat misleading – to say the least – if not introduced by the broadcaster with the appropriate caveats.
But the raw data come out like this: the SNP increased their votes by 21% with over 108,000 more first preferences in the transferrable vote system (39.6% turnout in 2012, 46.9% turnout last week) while holding their vote share on 32.3% from the previous council election (pedants may wish to quibble that the vote share dropped by 0.03% – does not really show up when figures are being reported to one decimal place). In contrast, Labour’s votes fell by 21% (20.2% vote share, so down 11.2%) – Conservatives were up 12% (25.3% vote share) – a straight accretion of the unionist vote, coalescing around the Conservatives as it drifted from Labour, as the SNP vote held up (indeed, with more turning out, held up very well indeed) – as shown by the graphic above. (Indeed, it is striking how poorly the Conservatives did, coming in 155 seats behind the SNP, compared to Labour being only 31 seats behind in 2012.) Yet the Conservatives were hailed as ‘the winners’.
The turnout is important – it was the highest for a council election (when they have not been held on the same day as the Holyrood elections) since 1977, and that can perhaps be attributed to Theresa May’s attempt to hijack the council elections to give some sort of ‘anti-second Scottish independence referendum’ position. Although increased, it is still nowhere near the levels of turnout that we would expect for June 8th’s General Election 2015 rerun.
With the figures for the Lib Dems (6.8%, up 0.2%) and the Greens (4.1%, up 1.8%) added in to the mix, one can read it as an overall 0.6% increase for pro-independence parties since 2012. So, with an increased voting percentage for pro-independence parties, that will be Theresa telt, then?
Well, not so much…of course. Even although they have been making noises about vote share and seats, the Conservative Government just wants one good statistic to say ‘drop in SNP support’, to try and legitimise their resistance to the Scottish Parliament’s support of the SNP’s elected mandate to have a second independence referendum as a direct consequence of the result of the EU referendum. If Nicola Sturgeon engages with that game, then it will be a perpetual one – the electorate supported you this time? Well, then it has to be next time as well. Supported by the electorate again? Well, best of three, surely. It starts to sound like the IRA after the Grand Hotel bombing in Brighton – they only have to be lucky once, we have to be lucky all the time.
The SNP were right not to play that game – they would have undermined their already existing mandate, preemptively won at Holyrood last year if they had. To paraphrase Derek Bateman, how many votes do we need to emphatically record-beatingly win? When your record of support has set records in both the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments, then what can be obtained by repeating them time after time, except by giving the Unionists hope that you will inevitably one day fall as you jump through an infinite number of hoops coated with increasingly flammable materials.
As I have said before, trying to hijack the council elections for a national/constitutional issue is a grossly irresponsible approach of the Conservative Prime Minister – and perhaps shows how much they truly value local government (although given their contempt for devolved governments in the UK, that is not really a huge surprise). Fundamentally, using council elections as some sort of referendum on a national issue skews the quality of representative elected – their intention in standing is not one driven by local issues, but purely to serve the national party leader. This started to manifest itself with depressing speed, as the announcement that a series of Orange Order candidates had succeeded in being elected (without declaring their membership of said organisation, as required) to BOTH Labour and Conservative council posts was followed by some of their somewhat extremist Twitter account activity. A Moray independent councillor (who had, like many notionally independent candidates, stood as a Conservative candidate 5 years earlier) resigned, and a new Dunblane Conservative councillor (swiftly exposed as an extremist BritNat troll) was under pressure to do the same – but had been ‘talked out of it’ by the Conservative Party.
Two out of nine Stirling Conservative councillors had similarly had their Twitter ‘backstory’ brought to light. On the one hand we can see a ‘barrel scraping’ exercise in terms of trying to get candidates for the unionist parties (particularly Conservative in Scotland) at this time – on the other there is a chill that these ‘shock troops of the union’ have been called upon, and a true indication that there is no level of racism, hatred or violence that will not be stooped to by the Union’s defenders, in order to oppose the assertion of self-determination in Scotland.
And in Stirling we might also see the exception that makes the rule of council elections have nothing to do with national or constitutional issues that are not in any way a part of the remit or competency of councils to handle.
For, in 2014, Stirling Council had an impact on the referendum question, in their approach to host Armed Forces Day in Stirling over the same weekend that commemorated the 700th anniversary of the battle that consolidated Scotland’s independent status, Bannockburn (as seen here, here and here). As it turned out, their little escapade – trying to divert numbers from the paying 700th anniversary event to the free ‘British’ event – did not exactly work out, with noteably larger numbers paying to attend Bannockburn. But they provided the opportunity for the media to parade something packaged as anti-independence, and ignore something more related to Scotland’s history as an independent nation. That had an impact, in the run up to the referendum that year.
In the end, that is the same role that is fulfilled by Theresa May trying to make every election another means of casting doubt on the SNP’s mandate – an excuse to distract, undermine and ignore. The truth of it – as shown by the reportage of the council election results, where some in London and abroad assumed that the Conservatives, with a mere 22.5% vote share, finishing 155 seats behind the SNP, had ‘won’ the election – does not really matter: it is just an opportunity to misrepresent and shout as loudly as possible – knowing the mainstream press will happily only listen to – and volubly echo – that narrative.
Last week, the Conservatives (assisted by Labour and the LibDems) threw everything they had at the SNP, to try and break through against them…even producing leaflets that mentioned no council-related policies – only ‘opposed to another independence referendum’. The SNP vote held firm. The press – led by the BBC – ignored that, adopting something akin to a New Labour education approach, where ‘everyone wins’ – except the winners. The result did not matter – they already had the script. And the script is about momentum for a very specific narrative – and not one that ends with self-determination.
“How many elections can we win hands down and still be angling for another referendum – like dookin’ for apples? I see the Unionist Press now indicates that the loss of any SNP seats [in the General Election on June 8th], which seems inevitable to me, will be taken as failure and loss of credibility even if Yes parties win an overwhelming number of seats and 50 per cent of the vote. They, on the other hand, have only to win a seat or two or even hold Edinburgh South to claim a major victory. This is the world of distorted democracy we inhabit.” (Derek Bateman, 19/4/2017)