Fabian member Mark Davidson has been looking at the figures from Thursday and its not as simple as some Nationalists are suggesting.
Thursday’s General Election is only a few days gone although it seems like much longer. There has been much to digest. The surge of popularity for Corbyn’s Labour surprised just about everyone, and meant May was not only denied the strong mandate for Brexit she desired, but lost her majority as well.
Meanwhile in Scotland, the SNP lost about a third of their votes and over a third of their seats. Much was made before the election of “unionist tactical voting” and at first glance one might assume that’s what was at play — after all Labour, Conservatives and the Lib Dems all made gains at the SNP’s expense.
However, as one looks at the numbers, things are more complicated than that. The first narrative that should be addressed is that the tactical votes of No-voters switching from Labour to Conservatives cost the SNP seats. It is something suggested by the BBC’s Andrew Neil, and retweeted enthusiastically by many SNP supporters:
It is a compelling narrative. The Conservatives are on the rise. Their clear stance on being against a second independence referendum combined with a charismatic leader in Ruth Davidson has led to them almost doubling their vote share since 2015. However, the assumption that this new support is coming purely from former Labour voters, and this in turn caused the SNP to lose seats, is false as we shall see.
The primary reason the SNP lost so many seats is very simple. They lost almost 500,000 votes (the 1.7% figure in Andrew Neil’s tweet is as a proportion of the entire UK - more usefully this is a 13% drop when only accounting for Scotland). This is more than Scottish Labour lost between 2010 and 2015 (around 330,000). It is a staggering number. We’ll address where those votes went in a minute, but the first thing to point out is that if everyone who voted SNP had stuck with them this election, they’d had have more votes than the Tories in 10 out of 12 seats (see Con 2017 vote and SNP 2015 vote in table below).
The two remaining seats, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, both had very small Labour votes in 2015. In both these constituencies, Labour increased their vote. Not only that, had everyone who voted Labour in 2015 instead voted SNP tactically to ‘keep the Tories out’, the Conservatives still would have taken those seats. The full table of results in the seats Conservatives gained can be seen below.
That’s not to say there weren’t some significant changes between the unionist parties. However, the most obvious examples were not Labour to Conservatives (or vice-versa) as some SNP supporters have suggested. Instead there was a considerable drop in the Liberal Democrat vote in constituencies such as West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine; Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk; and Gordon (Alex Salmond’s constituency) which seems to have gone directly to the Conservatives, helping the Tories to gain those seats.
So the falling vote share of the SNP is the clear reason they lost not only 12 seats to Conservatives, but also 9 seats to the Liberal Democrats and Labour as well. There is no widespread evidence of Labour to Conservative tactical voting, and where it exists it wouldn’t have mattered if the SNP had held onto their votes from 2015.
One issue I haven’t touched on of course, is where did these 480,000 votes go? A decreased turnout of 260,000 in Scotland suggests many may have stayed at home. As for the rest, did they all move across to Corbyn’s Labour, who in turn lost a significant number of votes to the Conservatives? This seems to be a popular opinion among SNP voters. However, neither the election results or the pre-election polls back this up.
The last Survation poll which put SNP on 40%, Labour on 25% and Conservatives on 27%, showed the net change from the SNP to Labour was roughly the same as the net change from SNP to Conservatives.
Understanding this, starts to make more sense of the Conservative results. They gained somewhere between 8–18% in almost every seat regardless of how many existing Labour voters were in 2015. The most obvious example of this was in Banff and Buchan where the Conservatives gained more votes (6800) than the total Labour and the Liberal Democrats managed between them in 2015 (5000). Given Labour’s and Liberal Democrats’ combined totals were higher in 2017 than 2015, it seems logical to assume the increase in Conservative votes came from a reasonable number of 2015 SNP supporters switching to Ruth Davidson’s party in 2017:
Taken together, the results of the general election should inform not only what the SNP learns from a pretty disappointing night, but also what Labour can learn. It is clear a drop in SNP support did not automatically transfer back to Labour as many in both the SNP and Labour assumed it might. Instead, the Conservatives’ stance on Brexit, combined with the personal appeal of Ruth Davidson may have convinced many former SNP voters to switch allegiance.
Understanding this means it would be a mistake to assume there is a ceiling to Conservative support in Scotland, and Labour should guard against complacency in this regard. The Conservatives will look to build on this result and will now be aiming to be the biggest party after the next Holyrood election. Only a fool would underestimate the real possibility of this coming to pass.