In Dundee, every one of the 16 candidates standing for the SNP were elected, giving an amazing two SNP councillors in every one of Dundee’s eight wards, including in 3 three-member wards.
The results in Dundee are testament to how the SNP has focused on building electoral support over the long-term, but also shows the strategy the rest of the party needs to heed if they want control of Scotland’s other cities.
From its Victorian past as ‘Juteopolis’, with harsh working and living conditions and low wages for its predominately female workforce, to the loss of thousands of jobs in the last quarter of the 20th century as the shipyards, carpet manufacturing and jute factories closed, Dundee has been shaped both by industrialisation and post-industrialisation. In recent years the city continues to be beset with the creation and removal of manufacturing jobs, the most striking being the loss of almost 1,000 jobs as NCR has ceased the manufacture of ATMs in the city, where it has operated since 1945.
The public sector – the universities, NHS Tayside and Dundee City Council – remains the city’s main employer. But the development of the waterfront – from Scottish Government funding for an outpost of the V&A, to a memorandum of understanding to attract offshore wind suppliers to the city – as well as continuing developments in biosciences and computer games means Dundee’s moniker of the ‘City of Discovery’ gives promise of a better economic future.
The story of Dundee’s transformation is a story reflected in the SNP’s gains and now control of the city. Labour consolidated its parliamentary position in Dundee post 1945, but its share of the vote hovered around 55% well into the 1970s. Dundee may have been a working class city, but this figure indicates a third of Dundee’s working class consistently voted Conservative.
The rise of the SNP since the 1970s mirrors the collapse of support for Scottish conservatism. Starting with the SNP’s near miss in the 1973 Dundee East by-election, anti-Labour voters began to drift away from the Conservative Party to an increasing affection for the SNP, developed through de-industrialisation and the perception that Westminster governments, especially under Thatcher, cared little for the city and the problems of her inhabitants. Former SNP leader Gordon Wilson won Dundee East in February 1974, holding it until 1987 from where it remained Labour until Stuart Hosie’s close victory in 2005, with his vote consolidating in 2010.
The growth of the SNP in Dundee post-devolution – taking both Holyrood seats and comfortably holding one of the two for Westminster – may have sprung from a foundation of working-class Conservative support, but its success comes from adopting Labour’s traditional garb of social democratic policies, eating into the Labour vote. Even the headline figures in the SNP’s local manifestos in 2012 give a pithy reminder of how this strategy is one the SNP needs to succeed. Where Edinburgh SNP’s £20m for road repairs looks a little lacklustre next to Edinburgh Labour’s utopian promise of a co-operative council, Dundee SNP was bold and bright with the promise of £320m local investment “through building council houses and five new primary schools, as well as freezing council tax until 2016 and introducing a living wage for all council staff.” I’m sure Edinburgh SNP had similar policies, but they certainly didn’t put them front and forward.
Coupled with weak organisation on the part of the Labour Party, centered around maintaining its hold on Dundee West at Westminster, it has been possible for the SNP to straddle the spectrum of both being competent city leaders as well as the anti-establishment choice. As Dundee’s economic future seems brighter, despite setbacks like the loss of NCR jobs, the local SNP has been able to trumpet successes and blame losses on others.
It is a dichotomy the rest of the Scottish National Party needs to excel at, for winning council seats, the referendum and to retain power in Holyrood. To be competent at governing to give confidence to non-traditional SNP voters, while maintaining its allure as an alternative to the forces of conservatism south of the border and the fatigued Labour Party to the north.
Dundee is a city of innovation and re-invention, transforming itself from producing jute to producing graduates, with profound social and political consequences that the SNP have surfed to success. While many look at the chicken bones of Glasgow and Edinburgh for divination of the future of Nationalism and independence, I think the exemplar of how independence could be won can be discovered just a little further to the north.