Election Reflections 2016 from Scotland

Thursday May 19th 2016

Bernard Harkins Labour

Article by Bernard Harkins, Labour Candidate, Scottish Election 2016, Midlothian North and Musselburgh.

So another election campaign has ended and we are left to reflect on the 2016 result which has resulted in another SNP victory.

Here are some thoughts about the campaign and what happened in Midlothian North and Musselburgh.

The run-up to the election

I started the short campaign in a mood of optimism.

Although the polls had been consistent in showing a strong SNP lead, the message that we were getting from voters was that our support was staying with us and the more voters we spoke to, the more we were hearing concerns about being unable to get an appointment with a GP or that it was difficult to even register with a surgery.

There was also a large group of people telling us that they were undecided and another group telling us that they had voted for the SNP the last time and that nothing had changed.

I also thought that it was positive that we started these elections with a clear message about using the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

When I stood in the previous election in 2011, there seemed to be little to choose between our message, aside from a policy on knife crime and the message of the SNP.

This time however, we were putting forward policies that were clearly different from the SNP mainly on income tax, the council tax and fracking.

I took part in a number of hustings and some SNP candidates were clearly uncomfortable that their line on taxation and the council tax was very similar to the Tories.

The message that we had been developing from the end of last year onwards, clearly reflected the change in leadership at the UK level and whilst some views were expressed privately and sometimes not so privately, as to whether the party was moving in the right direction, those Labour Party members involved in the campaign could scarcely contain their enthusiasm when the party produced a leaflet with the words:-

Socialism — Solidarity — Equality

More than one activist said that they could not imagine the party producing a leaflet with such a strong left of centre message even a year ago.

In the initial stages of the short campaign we also seemed to be making the running across the news agenda with our message on taxation with the first leaders debate focusing on this issue.

The release of the Panama Papers also meant that the issue of taxation and tax avoidance featured heavily in the news for another week or so.

Around this time I attended a rally at Portobello Town hall which was addressed by Jeremy Corbyn and Kezia.

Both spoke well, but the thing that stuck with me afterwards was how many people said that Kezia had really nailed it that day and was clearly growing into her role as leader of the party.

After that and reflecting from a few weeks later the whole election campaign seemed to go a bit flat.

The issue of the school closures in Edinburgh and the impact of the Private Finance Initiative started to grab the headlines, there was more talk about the European referendum in the news and when we were speaking to voters there were still a lot people saying that they still did not know how they would be voting.

Campaigning stepped up a gear in those last few weeks but although as an activist you always get that extra adrenalin as you approach polling day, large numbers of the electorate seemed to be disengaged from the whole process.

Even amongst SNP supporters there seemed to be a distinct lack of window posters.

Nevertheless, as we moved into the getting out the vote stage of the campaign the feedback we were receiving spurred us on to polling day.

Polling Day

The predictions that there was going to be a low turn-out seemed to be borne out initially.

I left my first polling station of the day around 11am, after the traditional early morning rush which had resulted in a rather disappointing turn-out of 15%.

Out of all the polling stations across Midlothian North and Musselburgh by teatime only one was reporting that it had been really busy, interestingly, given the eventual result, this is one which traditionally attracts a higher Tory vote.

By the end of the night voters had come out and turn-out reached 54.7% up from 51% in 2011.

At the count all of the parties started their sampling of ballot papers and it soon became apparent that the SNP had held the seat.

The eventual result gave the SNP both an increased majority and share of the vote.

As happened in much of Scotland that night the Tories also increased their vote.

We were still in second place but our share of the vote was down.

So, though a small group of party activists had worked hard and well together, ultimately we were all disappointed with the result.

It’s the Constitution Stupid?

We are still in the early weeks of analysing what happened in this election.

I am glad to see that Kezia Dugdale will be staying on as leader and that no one is seriously suggesting that we engage in another round of leadership elections.

In terms of issues, the constitution is already a topic that is emerging as one which party members are looking to discuss further, with Home Rule and Federalism again being mentioned.

Personally, my politics remain more based on the ideas of solidarity across borders, rather than the politics of national identity, but I guess we’ll see where this debate ends up in the coming weeks and months.

Locally, the referendum only came up occasionally during the campaign, when it was raised, it was usually in the context of Better Together and not in a positive way.

As one of our members said, reflecting on the election result, it looks like it’s taken people nearly 30 years to forgive the Tories for the miners strike, is it going to take the same again for Better Together to be forgotten?

Or, is it still the Economy?

Then again, maybe it’s still the economy which voters judge things by more than any other measure.

Much has been written about “Middle England” and how political parties to try to address and respond to their concerns, less so about “Middle Scotland.”

Many political commentators remarked that the SNP were cautious about how they would use the new tax powers and that their plans for the council tax were less ambitious than had been hoped.

So, for many voters on the main issues that the election was fought, the SNP have presented themselves as the party most likely to carry on with the status quo.

Something that may well have had a particular appeal for “Middle Scotland.”

Whether the SNP can persuade the more cautious elements of “Middle Scotland” as to the merits of the arguments for independence will clearly be a defining issue for the future direction of Scotland.

And Finally…..

The past 6 years have been some of the best years of my life.

I consider it a real privilege to have been selected twice, the first time in 2010, by Labour Party members in Midlothian North and Musselburgh to fight two Scottish Parliament elections.

Having the opportunity to meet voters and party activist who still believe in the Labour Party and that it represents a cause still worth fighting for is a humbling experience.

The 2016 Scottish Parliament elections in Midlothian North and Musselburgh were fought by all parties in a positive spirit, we may have some fundamental disagreements about our respective political world view, but we all managed to keep things civilised.

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