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Hooray for Holyrood? The Scottish Parliament Election, Brexit, and Sleepless Nights for Jeremy Corbyn

It’s 6th May, the morning after the night before, and there’s a new Scottish Government. To a great extent it will actually be the same one as it was yesterday, because the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) has won its third successive victory, although this time it has fallen just short of a majority. The SNP has 63 seats, with 65 required for overall control, but this gives them a very strong position to form a minority government or, if they wish, a formal coalition. Nicola Sturgeon will once again be First Minister of Scotland.

The Conservative (Tory) Party has made large gains, becoming the second party in Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament. There have, though, been large Labour Party losses; the once-predominant party of Scotland has finished third in terms of seats. The Green Party has come fourth, albeit some way behind. The Liberal Democrats, for whom Scotland was once a happy hunting ground, came fifth.

This is a new and intriguing balance of party political power in Scotland. It comes after an election campaign which largely focused on issues which have been devolved to Scotland from London (for instance, the SNP centred much of its attention on health, education and support for small businesses), but the political context of Scotland is also about to shift. The UK Parliament recently passed the Scotland Act 2016 as a reward for voting to stay in the UK, so this will be the first Scottish Parliament and Government to use the increased powers granted in the Act.

Attention south of the border (i.e. in the rest of the UK) is likely to focus on the impact of yesterday’s election on the wider constitutional situation of the country, not least because the Brexit referendum looms very large now – there are less than two months before it takes place. The 2014 referendum on Scotland’s secession from the UK is widely seen as definitive-for-the-time-being, with even the SNP leadership being cagey about whether and when a successor plebiscite could be held under normal circumstances. Indeed, all Scottish parties seem to accept that a pan-UK vote for Brexit would be the only possible catalyst for a second independence referendum in the near future.

The status of Scotland within the UK in the context of the Brexit vote was an election issue in yesterday’s election, but ‘Europe’ in wider terms was largely off the radar during the campaign; it will be intriguing to see whether and how the last weeks of campaigning on the referendum follow different paths in Scotland and England. The election result reinforces Scotland’s government as a pro-EU voice, since the SNP is by far the largest party. Indeed, the Tories, now in second place at Holyrood, can be expected to be less divided on the Brexit issue than their English equivalents, given its potential to catalyse the break-up of the UK. The SNP will campaign for a Remain vote, not just because it wishes Scotland to remain in the EU, but because it needs a pro-Remain vote in Scotland to justify a second independence referendum, on the ground that Scotland would have been taken out of the EU against its wishes. In that sense, yesterday’s vote could be crucial, because it confirms the SNP’s political primacy; I would expect the campaign for a new independence referendum to begin on June 24th if the UK votes to leave the EU.

In Scotland, yesterday’s vote may well also reinforce the sense of difference in political culture from the rest of the UK, especially since the Labour Party is crashing there while making small inroads in England. Labour and the SNP are not natural allies, although both are on the centre-left; many Labour activists or supporters would rather vote Tory than SNP. Thankfully, UKIP isn’t making the same progress in Scotland as in England, or Wales (where at the time of writing it had won six seats in yesterday’s Welsh Assembly elections). This is probably because the SNP has already got the nationalist vote ‘north of the border’, and the political culture of Scotland is more left-wing than that of England.

It’s too early to see any impact of the Scottish Parliament election on UK-wide opinion polls, although this is likely to be minor: most voters in England will notice what happens in Scotland only peripherally. I predict that its main pan-UK impact will be in the Westminster Village, the bubble of politicians, officials, lobbyists and media figures that surrounds the UK Parliament, rather than the public imagination. However, this does not mean there will be no direct impact on wider UK politics.

The initial signs here are that the main casualty of the Scottish election could be Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party. He faces significant opposition within his party, from the Blairite right-wing. His election to the leadership of the party owed everything to its members; most of his MPs have been distinctly tepid about him and his leadership. Although Mr Corbyn was not significantly involved in the Scottish Election, leaving that role to Kezia Dugdale (the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party), the third place result is seen as a direct rebuff for him. This is because his election as UK Labour leader was driven by a wish to pull the party to the Left of where it had been in its years in power (1997-2010), or even in opposition (2010-15).

Mr Corbyn has long been on the Left of his party, but part of his support has come from those who see a tactical advantage in moving Left to shore up the party’s vote in its heartlands (Scotland, Wales, the North of England and London). Clearly, he has not so far managed to improve the party’s fortunes in Scotland; in Wales, which also voted for its devolved Assembly yesterday, Labour remained the largest party but lost support to both Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalists) and UKIP. If the vote for the Mayor of London also goes against Labour – the results are not due until later tonight, or even tomorrow morning – then it is quite possible a coup will be mounted against him. However, this is not likely until after the Brexit vote, for a variety of reasons. The first is practicality: there are less than two months to go. The second is tactics: most anti-Corbyn MPs are pro-EU, and would not wish to inflame the Brexit debate at a delicate moment in a way that could reduce Labour’s energy to campaign for a Remain vote. The third is strategic: there is less clarity about who the anti-Corbynites would rally behind as a new leader than about why they are opposed to the current one, and without greater certainty about this they are unlikely to wield the knife.

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