>Scotland: the red and the grey


Well, as the polls anticipated Scotland’s minor parties including the fledging pensioners’ party were comprehensively dished by larger parties and in particular the Scots Nats who at first glance appear to have hovered up the voters previously garnered by Greens, Scottish Socialists and (on a more minor scale) John Swinburne’s pensioner’s party. Only the Greens – the most established and robust of minor parties hung on in the Scottish Parliament with two MSPs (down five). Looked at more closely – and course I was as I was checking out the pensioners’ party – there is a slightly more complex picture.

The Scottish Socialists (SSP) had split into two rival factions after party leader Tommy Sheridan’s apparent predilection for group sex and swingers’ clubs (and implausible sounding denials of subsequent tabloid revelations) disenchanted some of his former comrades, although he did rather unexpectedly win damages at a libel trial, seemingly through sheer force of personality. Electorally speaking, Sheridan’s Solidarity party came out on top over the official SSP but the combined far-left vote was down to a mere 2.1%, more than halved, suggesting that former voters had, for whatever reason had, indeed plumped for the Scots Nats.

This tends to suggest that charismatic populist leadership always mattered far more these than socialist ideology that preoccupied the sundry Trotskyist groups that managed to merge in Scotland in 1997. Further South George Galloway, leader of the anti-war leftist/Muslim Respect party (which is where the English SWP ended up) – another libel trial winner with an egocentric flair for self-promotion seems to be a politician in the same mould. Although his ability to keep his trousers is not in doubt, his sense of overconfident invulnerability also tripped him up, as dressing up in a leotard and pretending to be a cat on Big Brother was probably hard to sell to comrades and brothers as one of the many (meowing?) voices of anti-capitalism.

On the other hand, both Sheridan and Galloway are pretty canny and effective political operators, whose chutzpah and outrageous media bravura have to draw a certain admiration even from the sceptically and unsympathetic (like me) and so perhaps the first of a new breed of semi-celebrity egomaniac left-wing populists, part-celebrity, part stand-up comedian, part politician. Ken Livingstone is perhaps a clever and more successful example. The idea of new ‘left-wing populism’ has recently been developed in more academic terms by Luke March in a recent issue of SAIS Review, although I don’t think he covers the celebrity, sex and leotards angles.

To return to Grey politics, the Scottish Senior Citizens’ Unity Party (SSCUP) despite fielding almost a full set of regional lists and lost it single MSP, John Swinburne. Following the logic of the two-part electoral system as they had in 2003, the SSCUP like the Greens, the two socialist parties and all other minor parties apart from the Scottish Chrisitan Party more or less ignored the single member constituencies entirely and concentrated entirely on the regional list element, where seats are allocated using the Additional Member system which compensates parties with large support who have done poorly in the single member constituencies. This was presumably knowing they had no chance of winning and might inadvertently let in parties they disliked by splitting the vote and it was also logical because a canny voter using their second regional for a minor party might in fact be more likely to elect someone by using their regional vote for a minor party than rather big party that had already gained lots of MSPs elected in the single member contest in a region region. The SSCUP (like the Greens and SSP) actually only fielded one only one candidate in the first-past-the-post contests – party leader John Swinburne in Motherwell, who urged voters to back Labour in first-past-the-post contests (a self-chosen role of support party to the traditional centre-left that pensioners’ parties elsewhere in Europe not infrequently try to play).

Totting up the regional list vote the SSCUP did not do totally disastrously – nationally it came to 1.90% as opposed to 1.5% in 2003 with a growth in absolute number of votes polled from 28, 996 to 38,743, although turnout was up from 49.4% in 2003 to 51.8% the party did this time field lists in all eight regions (as opposed to three in 2003). So, no national breakthrough for tartan grey power, but a score that does put the SSCUP in the same bracket as other established fringe grey parties in Germany or Scandinavia, which pull in 1-2% of the national vote. The SSCUP came in as the most important extra parliamentary party nationally, although admittedly in a Scottish context that does mean being the sixth party.

Swinburne’s failure to re-enter Holyrood basically stemmed from a failure to see his personal vote in the single member Motherwell constituency – 6.51% and 1702 votes, slightly better than 1597 votes (6.29%) he got in 2003 – reflected as enough of a regional vote to gain one of the top-up-seats. In 2003 the SSCUP list in Central Scotland headed by Swinburne got 17, 146 votes (6.52%), this time a mere 7060 votes (2.48%). Basically, the Scottish Greys seemed to have tried too hard to be a national party, rather than focusing their limited resources on a few promising regions.

It will be interesting to see whether the SSCUP will now keep going, which I suspect will depend on the party funding regime, whether Swinburne stays on in politics and whether a new leader emerges – simple life expectancy statistics would seem to suggest that even if they overcome electoral hurdle pensioner politicians may have a limited career. Swinburne is 76. On the other hand, the leader of the German Grey Panthers Trude Unruh led the group (which founded in 1975 when she was in her fifties) for more than three decades before her recent death aged 80.

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