Monday, 7 May 2007

Start of The Braveheart Era?

"It's time". This was the slogan the Scottish Nationalists' campaigned on to turn what should have been a policy-driven Holyrood election into a referendum on independence and Blair's political legacy. The net result, as you will have seen, is a nationalist victory by the slimmist of margins (47 seats to 46) over Labour, which has been Scotland's biggest party for the best part of 50 years.

The decisive seat of Cunninghame North separates the two parties, and is hanging in the balance because it was won for the SNP by a mere 48 votes over the Labour incumbent Allan Wilson - significantly fewer than the number of spoilt ballots in that that constituency. The result also spells the end of the rainbow of parties which have hitherto figured in Scottish politics. The Socialists lost all six seats, while the Greens dropped from 7 to 2, with 17 Tories and 16 Lib Dems, who did disappointingly in comparison with predictions.

That the SNP is only one seat ahead means attention has shifted to the other big electoral issue: disenfranchisement. Widespread incompetence in the voting booths (who said Scottish education was the best in the world? My proud people cannot even follow basic instructions like 'mark your preference with a cross. Do not vote more than once') combined with flawed counting machines which broke down right left and centre and a cock-up regarding the distribution of postal ballots means 100 000 people were disenfranchised. Not to mention the bizarre incident of the disgruntled punter who took his golf club to the ballot boxes of Edinburgh West and destroyed significant numbers of votes.

This enormous number of spoiled ballots could have made a serious difference to the distribution of seats. Yet, in a situation reminiscent of the hanging chads incident, while the Electoral Commission is busy wringing its hands over what went wrong and, sensibly, advising a return to the traditional method of manual counts and metal boxes, the horse trading surrounding the formation of the new Executive is well underway and it is hard to see how we can now go back on those election results.

Coalition-forming, too, has thrown up some surprises. The media anticipated an alliance of SNP, Lib Dems and Greens which would form a very small overall majority. Lib Dem Leader, Nicol Stephen, however, has ruled that out now, on the basis that the Nats won't drop their demands for a referendum on independence. However, having read Iain MacWhirter's piece in today's Herald I am inclinded to disagree with this decision, however much I may dislike the idea of Scottish Independence.

The Lib Dems have already advocated more powers for the Scottish Parliament, particularly fiscal federalism and control over energy, through reopening the Constitutional Convention which led to the devolution settlement in the first place. The Nats must know that there is no majority in favour of independence in the House so any Bill would be voted down. The only way they can save political face is to advocate an Independent Commission to examine the relative merits of the status quo, greater autonomy, or independence itself - with non-binding results.

It is hard to see how such a commission could have recommended independence on any kind of non-ideological basis at the current time. As such, the Libs had little to lose - so long as they phrased the compromise properly. Now they have been cast in to opposition, and with them a long line of policies they would have done well to implement in the absence of a labour majority - particularly their commitment to PR and Local Income Tax, which the SNP also supports. Of course , there is no reason this cannot be accomplished on a consensual basis - but now the Lib Dems will be unable to make the running. And a minority government which could be taken down at any time might actually increase public support for embattled Nats when they see that noone is prepared to work with the largest party.

But I wait to be proved wrong. And the negotiations are not over yet. Not by a long shot.


Peter said...

I reckon the Senior Citizens' Party were the biggest losers from the voter confusion. If so, perhaps it's not such a bad thing - the old are over-represented in politics anyway.

In fact, maybe it should be a feature of a ballot paper that you've got to solve some kind of moderately difficult riddle before you cast your vote.

"Confusing ballot papers only disenfranchise the confused, and so are a credit to democracy." How about that for a political science exam paper question?

Consider This said...

so true - if you can't follow simple instructions then you shouldnt be voting in the first place.

When I was sent off to do some last minute campaigning in Glasgow I was mildly shocked to discover that a large number of people hadn't made their minds up on who to vote for on entering the polling station. It's not a tombola, you're not supposed just to shut your eyes and pick one...