The modern electoral history of the Scottish National Party has been a story of near-uninterrupted success. The standout moments were the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections when they defied the proportional electoral system to win a majority, and the 2015 General Election when they came within three seats of turning the entire electoral map of Scotland yellow.
It is difficult to maintain this level of success indefinitely and, since last year’s Scottish elections, some political opponents and commentators have speculated that we have passed the point of ‘peak Nat’. They point to the loss (albeit by only two seats) of the SNP majority in Holyrood and, more recently, to the small net loss of councillors and failure to take overall control of any of Scotland’s 32 local authorities at this month’s local elections. Recent polling for the General Election places the SNP somewhere between 41% and 44% – down from the 50% the party achieved in 2015.
All of this needs to be kept in perspective. By anyone’s reckoning, this is still a very strong position for a party that has been in government for 10 years to be in. The SNP remains comfortably ahead of their nearest rivals, the Scottish Conservatives, who are hovering around the 30% mark.
The problem for the SNP is that, in the narrative around elections, the direction of travel is often more important than the overall result. With the success that they have achieved in recent times, it is difficult for the SNP’s direction of travel to be anything other than downwards. The challenge for the party is therefore to paint a picture of what success looks like on June 8th and then win the ‘spin war’ that will inevitably follow on June 9th.
The stakes are especially high in this endeavour for Nicola Sturgeon’s party, because the result in Scotland will be intimately bound up with the question of whether there should or should not be a second independence referendum. A perceived poor result – even one which sees the SNP comfortably ‘win’ the election in Scotland – could prove highly damaging to Sturgeon’s indyref2 mandate.
So, under the circumstances, what would a good result look like at this election for the SNP?
In an ideal world, of course, it would look exactly like the 2015 result: 50% of the vote and 56 seats out of 59. But if polling is to be believed, that is probably too lofty a goal, and setting that as the benchmark for success would be asking for failure. The First Minister will therefore want to set the bar at a more attainable level. Here are three criteria which, if met, I believe will constitute a good night for the SNP:
1. 50+ seats: It seems to already be priced in to expectations that the SNP are going to suffer some losses on June 8. If they can limit these losses to no more than half a dozen and avoid falling below the symbolically significant 50 seat mark, Nicola Sturgeon will feel content with her night’s work.
2. 45% of the vote: While First Past the Post elections are traditionally all about seats, not national vote share, the referendum dynamic in Scotland means that the national vote tallies are of real importance to what constitutes success. If the SNP can remain at 45% or better, they will feel that they are at least keeping pace with the 45% Yes vote achieved in 2014. Falling below that would be portrayed by opponents as a step in the wrong direction for the independence movement. (There will be little help in this regard by adding the tally of the pro-independence Scottish Greens, who are standing in only 3 seats.)
3. Avoiding a ‘Portillo moment’: Yes, some losses for the SNP are already priced in, but which seats are lost is important. For the Scottish Conservatives, toppling Angus Robertson in Moray or (especially) Alex Salmond in Gordon, would be totemic victories. Both are in the Tories’ sights, but if the SNP can deprive Ruth Davidson of these scalps they will breathe a sigh of relief.
If they can achieve all three of these goals, the SNP will rightly feel they’ve had a good night. If they achieve none of them, the voices speaking of ‘peak Nat’ having passed will grow louder. If it’s somewhere in between, it will all come down to which side can most successfully portray their results in a positive light.
One thing not in doubt is that this is a high stakes election for Nicola Sturgeon and her hopes of forcing another shot at independence glory.
Main image by Christine McIntosh