SNP success: a view from the outside

By Mike Hedges

While a lot of discussion has been about the Conservatives’ success in previous Labour strongholds at the 2019 election, the major political breakthrough of the 21st century has been the phenomenal success of the SNP.

In 2010, Labour, despite losing the general election, won 42% of the vote and 41 seats in Scotland, with the SNP winning six seats and under 20% of the vote. This completely changed by 2015 when the SNP took 50 seats on 50% of the vote, with Labour winning one seat with 24% of the vote.  2017 saw the SNP win 35 seats with 36% of the vote and Labour win seven with 27% of the vote, this being the first election since 1955 where the Conservatives won more seats in Scotland than Labour. 2021 saw the SNP gaining 48 seats with 45% of the vote and Labour winning one seat with 18.6% of the vote.

What happened between 2010 and 2015 was the Scottish independence referendum held on 18th September 2014 which saw Scotland vote to remain part of the United Kingdom with 55% voting against the proposal for Scotland to become an independent country and 45% voting in favour.

If anyone wants to write about how not to fight a referendum, they will look at the Labour campaign in Scotland in opposition to independence.

Mistake Number One was aligning with the Tories to oppose independence after spending decades attacking the Conservatives.

Mistake Number Two, which is in danger of being repeated, was not having a unique Labour solution for Scotland, and promoting a form of ‘devo max’ which at the time was the most popular option in opinion polls.

Mistake Number Three was letting the SNP set the narrative of a very rich Scotland subsidising England. This is provably not true, with Scotland currently having a public expenditure deficit of £36.3 billion. According to the House of Commons library, in 2018/19 pre-COVID, London, the South East and East of England had net fiscal surpluses. In these regions the revenues raised were greater than the public spending received. London’s surplus was largest in both absolute terms (£39 billion) and per head of population (£4,350 per person). All other countries and regions had a net fiscal deficit with each receiving more public spending than was raised in revenues. In 2019/20 Scotland’s identifiable expenditure was 11,566 or 117% of the UK average.

Mistake Number Four was not promoting devolution within Scotland. Many if not most people have their primary loyalty to their area. Devolution within Scotland to the regions such as Strathclyde, Lothian, and Fife, also, to the cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen should have been promoted.

That there will be a campaign for another referendum is inevitable and a referendum at some stage is probable. Can Labour learn the lessons of the electorally disastrous campaign against independence last time?

The first lesson is that we need a distinctive Labour ‘devo max’ position – keeping things like defence, the central bank and currency but devolving everything which would benefit from being devolved.  This needs to be coherent and set a point between the independence proposals of the SNP and the unionism of the Conservatives. Labour needs to create its own space on the discussion regarding constitutional change.

Scotland is the most centralised country in Europe and needs a campaign for devolution within Scotland. Powers should be devolved to, initially, the city regions, as in England, or regions should be set up, such as the four regions model in Wales. The centralisation of public services and the imposition of the ‘one Scotland’ narrative must be opposed.

The most recent Scottish Government Expenditure and Revenues figures put Scotland’s public expenditure deficit at £36.3 million pounds. The figure for the previous year was £15.1 million.  The figures identify the cost of the furlough and vaccine programmes which took Scotland through the pandemic. Call the SNP’s bluff: offer them all the money collected in Scotland, less their share of UK expenditure. They said Scotland was very rich and have convinced lots of people in Scotland that is true, so let’s expose those statements for the untruths they are.

 The SNP has successfully presented itself as the party of Scotland and as an anti-establishment party.

A first start for Labour was identifying the SNP failures in health.


1. Instead of ending delayed discharge in 2015, as the SNP promised, in 2019/20 it cost the NHS £139 million.

 2. The SNP have broken their own legal Treatment Time Guarantee for patients over 380,000 times.

3. The 62 day waiting time standard for urgent cancer referrals has not been met since 2012.

4. One in four young people are still being rejected from specialist Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, almost three years after an external review called for rejections to end.

 5. The water contamination scandal at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital caused almost 40 infections in young cancer patients and the deaths of two children, but years on the families are still waiting for answers.

 6. The flaws in the construction of the delayed Edinburgh Sick Kids hospital led to the SNP paying £1.4 million every month for an empty hospital which was not safe for patients.

 7. A decade of cuts has left the NHS with a maintenance and repairs backlog of £1.03 billion.

 8. Increases to NHS funding in Scotland have failed to keep pace with those in England meaning Scotland’s health spending advantage has almost been completely lost.

 9. Life expectancy has stalled in Scotland and there is at least a ten year gap between the richest and poorest areas.


According to Think Scotland, “Scotland under the SNP is doing worse in respect of all the main measures of poverty – relative poverty, persistent poverty, child poverty, severe poverty, in-work poverty and pensioner poverty. While poverty rates had been steadily declining in Scotland for many years, once the SNP took over that decline stopped and poverty began increasing again.

Data just released by the Scottish Government at the end of March 2021 shows that 26 per cent of children – around 260,000 young people – were living in relative poverty in 2019/20, a big jump from 23 per cent in 2018/19, when around 230,000 children were living in relative poverty. The latest figures published by the Scottish Government show that persistent poverty has risen from 10 per cent in the 2012-16 period to 12 per cent in 2015-19.

Persistent poverty rates are even higher for children. While 13 per cent of children were in persistent poverty after housing costs in the 2012-16 period this has risen to 16 per cent in the 2015-19 period. For pensioners, the persistent poverty rate after housing costs has increased from 8 per cent in 2010-17 to 12 per cent in the latest period.

As far as relative poverty is concerned, the SNP has also managed a substantial increase. Latest figures show that 20 per cent of Scotland’s population (1.03 million people each year) were living in relative poverty after housing costs in 2019-20. This is a substantial increase over the 16 per cent recorded in 2010-11.

Pensioners are also suffering from higher poverty rates. The percentage of pensioners in relative poverty after housing costs increased from 12 per cent in 2012-16 to 14 per cent in 2017-20.  Scotland has the highest rate of persistent pensioner poverty in the UK with the number of older people in difficulty equal to the population of Dundee.

The number of those in severe poverty (below 50 per cent of UK median income after housing costs) has also increased over the last year from 13 per cent in 2018-19 to 15 per cent in 2019-20, with a bigger jump in the proportion of children in severe poverty from 16 per cent to 20 per cent.

The SNP has failed to develop a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy, or to put much concentrated effort into addressing any of the underlying causes of poverty in Scotland.  The result is a shameful record of rising poverty across all measures.”

So in conclusion, what I am suggesting is:

  1. An agreed ‘devo max’ position
  2. Devolving power within Scotland
  3. Get the budget deficit of an independent Scotland across to people
  4. Identify the failings in health and poverty
  5. Produce a Labour solution to both

Mike Hedges is the Labour and Co-operative Senedd member for Swansea East

Image: Mike Hedges. Author: Steve Cushen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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