John Curtice: Mixed messages for everyone – except Salmond and Clegg


Thursday's pot pourri of elections produced one clear winner, the Scottish National Party, one clear loser, the Liberal Democrats, and mixed messages for both the Conservatives and Labour.

In securing an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament the SNP certainly stole the show. Although the opinion polls had registered a dramatic swing to the SNP during the course of the campaign, none had suggested the SNP were doing well enough to secure an overall majority. But in practice seats that had hitherto been safely Labour fell like ninepins. The nationalists even outpolled Labour in terms of both votes and seats throughout Glasgow and the West of Scotland.

The SNP's success blighted what was otherwise a reasonably good if far from outstanding night for Labour. The BBC projected Labour's performance as the equivalent of a 37 per cent vote in a general election, up 10 points on its doleful performance in the local elections that coincided with last year's general election. That confirmed that Labour are politically competitive once more, though it was only enough to put it two points ahead of the Conservatives.

At roughly 800 seats, Labour's net gains fell short of the target of 1,000 seats that some commentators suggested the party needed to show it really was back on the road to recovery. Part of Labour's problem was that its vote increased most in traditional Labour territory – the North and working class seats with relatively large levels of unemployment – a pattern that reduced the yield its advance produced in terms of seats.

The Conservatives suffered in Scotland too, leaving the party with its worst ever result in Scotland. But in Wales the party enjoyed a modest increase in support and claimed second place in the Assembly from Plaid Cymru. Meanwhile its performance in the local elections was on a par with last year's. For every seat it lost to Labour it seemed to gain one from the Liberal Democrats, leaving the party with a surprise net increase in seats. For a party in government, the Conservatives will doubtless see this as an achievement.

But there was little to temper the carnage suffered by the Liberal Democrats. Its projected national share in the local elections was, at 15 per cent, its worst ever local election performance since the party's formation in 1988, costing the party nearly 700 seats. Together with the Conservatives, the party's vote fell particularly heavily in wards it was defending and in wards with large numbers of students – the party appears to have lost a significant portion of its core constituency.

Little wonder Nick Clegg has already signalled that he and his colleagues are to adopt a more robust approach in their dealings with the Conservatives in future.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University

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