Ian Swanson: SNP popularity surge took Labour by surprise

Landslide ... the SNP took 56 out of the 59 seats in Westminster. Picture: Jon Savage
Landslide ... the SNP took 56 out of the 59 seats in Westminster. Picture: Jon Savage
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ANYONE who thought the excitement had gone out of Scottish politics when the independence referendum delivered a No verdict in September 2014 has been proved comprehensively mistaken by the events of the past year.

The 2015 general election was Scotland’s most dramatic ever and the SNP’s sweeping victories left Labour, the once unassailable party of power north of the border, reduced to a single Scottish seat at Westminster.

Meanwhile the Nationalists’ eight years in power at Holyrood has done nothing to dim their popularity as the government here, according to the polls.

Given the SNP’s electoral successes in 2007 and 2011 and its surge in support after the referendum, the party’s advance did not come as a total surprise – but the scale of it was beyond anything anyone had expected.

This time last year, opinion polls were showing Labour with a narrow lead over the Conservatives at UK level. And in Scotland, voters were saying their preferred outcome would be a minority Labour government with the SNP holding the balance of power.

After much talk of hung parliaments and an almost universal agreement that no party would emerge from May’s election with an overall majority, the result – a Tory overall majority – was a shock.

But the even bigger shock came in Scotland, where the SNP took 56 out of the 59 seats. The main UK parties each ended up with just one MP north of the border.

The massive turnover, with dozens of long-serving MPs, big names and familiar faces swept aside, was a dramatic contrast with the no-change 2010 general election in Scotland when every seat was held by the party which had won it five years earlier.

Up until now, many Scots who voted SNP at Scottish Parliament elections had continued to back Labour when it came to Westminster because the general election was seen as choosing a government for the UK – and that meant Labour or Tory.

But in 2015 they abandoned that approach and voted SNP, perhaps hoping the result would be a minority Labour government dependent on SNP support, but clearly believing the SNP influence was more important than the Labour government.

It was another measure of how far Labour had fallen in the eyes of the Scottish electorate. Whether it was down to a lacklustre record or its alliance with the Tories in Better Together, the party was no longer the default home for people’s votes.

Despite its huge numbers, the SNP did not find itself holding the balance of power thanks to the Tories’ overall majority. But the Nationalists have still managed to play a key part on a whole range of issues – from fox hunting in England to human rights law.

Labour’s Ian Murray, MP for Edinburgh South, has kept the flag flying in the Commons, not least during the passage of the Scotland Bill. And the party chose a new leader in Scotland, replacing former Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy with Lothian MSP Kezia Dugdale.

The general election result looked like confirmation that the tectonic plates of Scottish politics had shifted.

Labour’s era of dominance was well and truly over, the SNP had become the prevailing force of nature.

But, of course, that doesn’t mean the shape of political life north of the border has been determined for the foreseeable future. The other lesson of recent years is that things can change very quickly and precedent can often be a poor guide.