THINKING about last week’s local government election results in Scotland, the first and most obvious thing to say is that it is beyond remarkable – it is astonishing – that the SNP should have won their 11th successive Scottish election, having been in power in Holyrood now for 15 long years.

They did it, of course, by ensuring that last week’s votes were cast not as a verdict on their record in government – either national or local – but by talking about Boris Johnson, and by inviting the Scottish electorate to send him a message.

Politics is simple when you dumb it down this much. But let’s not be churlish. It matters less how they did it: it matters more that they did it. They won, again. And, again, it was not even close. They won by miles.

Congratulations, then, to the SNP. It does not mean they are any closer to the thing they care about most – the big thing, the constitutional thing. But it does mean that yet again the focus will turn inexorably towards the twin topics of independence and indyref2.

The prospect of a repeat referendum on independence – a prospect much delayed, much over-hyped, much feared on one side and much yearned for on the other – is back. I still don’t think it’s actually going to (be allowed to) happen, but now – this time – we do need to start taking it seriously. More of that soon.

First, let’s reflect a little on the likely fates of those who did not win last week’s elections. By the dreadful standards of the last ten years, it was a good result for Scottish Labour.

But everything is relative and, while Anas Sarwar and his team can be optimistic that their party is starting the climb back from rock bottom, a long haul lies ahead and there is no guarantee such momentum as they might feel from last week will carry them very far.

I’ve written here before that Sarwar is a gifted campaigner. He’s the leader Labour have needed for a long time. But, like other gifted campaigners in Scottish politics, he struggles to make a lasting impact in between campaigns.

And there will likely be a long gap now until the next election. Probably that will be a Westminster general election. And probably that will be in 2024. That’s two years away, which is a long period of attrition and grind for Mr Sarwar and his spinners to fill.

But fill it they must, with a blizzard of policy alternatives to the SNP designed to appeal to the vast majority of voters who, like me, are fed up of the stalemate and stagnation in Scottish political life and who, like me, yearn for the changes we need to reboot our schools, to reinvigorate our NHS, to boost our productivity, and to transform our communities.

For Scottish Labour, it will not be enough merely to point out all the things the SNP are failing to deliver on these fronts (that’s the easy bit!).

Sarwar and his team will have to show the voters what they would do instead, if given the chance. The tricky bit is getting people to notice. Policy may fill manifestos, but it does not fill newspapers.

Instead, the press much prefers the psychodrama of a good leadership challenge – and that is what the Sunday press tried to turn the election results into last weekend, not as regards Sarwar’s future, but as regards Douglas Ross.

For he presided over a stinging reversal in the Scottish Tories’ fortunes. My old party lost a large number of outstanding councillors – through no fault of their own – because the electorate in Scotland is finding it ever harder to do what Ruth Davidson once persuaded so many to do: hold your nose and vote Tory.

You may not like us, the Davidson mantra ran, but vote for us anyway because you dislike the other lot even more and, unlike Labour, we will at least stand up to them and stop them from breaking up our country. Ruth Davidson could pull that off. But I’m not sure the party can without her.

Under Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservatives appeal to no one who has not already voted Tory. Since Davidson departed the scene the party has lost entirely its ability to reach out and to attract new voters.

Unionists who lent the Tories their vote are now either staying at home, returning to the Labour party or, in one or two pockets of the country (notably, in Edinburgh), voting Lib Dem.

I think the Tories know this. I think they know they peaked in 2021 (at 21% of the constituency vote and 23% of the list vote—so it’s not even a very high peak) and that the task now is to manage the decline. The words spun into new deputy leader Meghan Gallacher’s mouth earlier this week were (no doubt unintentionally) revealing.

She undertook, she said, to work to recover the trust of everyone who had voted for the party in 2021. That’s it, then, is it? That’s the limit of the Scottish Tories’ ambitions, to lock down something just short of a quarter of the electorate, to win back the trust of less than 25% of the voters? I fear it might be – I fear, also, that it might be beyond them.

It is highly unlikely, I think, that there is going to be any sort of challenge to Ross’ leadership. It is his for as long as he wants it. I suspect we may hear and see rather less of him going forward, as Scotland wakes up to the new reality that, at least as far as our domestic politics are concerned, we have two major forces now in play and a whole suite of minor parties.

Perhaps indeed we will look back on last week’s results as the start of the return of two-party politics in Scotland. It’s the SNP v Labour, with everyone else just making up the numbers.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.