As the dust settles after the British elections of the last few days, Sean Whelan looks back at what the polling - and results - say about the political landscape in the UK.
1. Nationalism is becoming more entrenched in the wake of Brexit, not less.
As a result the United Kingdom is becoming less united. England voted more in favour of Boris Johnson's brand of Conservative Party. Wales backed Mark Drakeford's brand of Labour Party – which has spoken of constitutional change, but not full independence, in order to keep its more nationalist inclined voters onboard. And in Scotland, the SNP achieved what appears to be a record high vote for any party since devolution – a fourth consecutive term in office for an outright nationalist movement that claims its presence in government is 'the will of the people' - a mandate for another independence referendum.
The UK has no equivalent of Article 50 – the process for a country to withdraw from the European Union. Nothing is written down. Everything is flexible, but ultimate power lies with the prime minster of the day. But just as there is no clear path to a referendum, so there is no clear grounds for blocking one either. This sets up a period of tension in the years ahead.
Firstly there is the obvious clash between Holyrood and Westminster. But the unresolved national question also hobbles the traditional parties, The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They can’t engage in ‘politics as usual’ until the referendum issue is decisively dealt with one way or another. They are prisoners of the SNP's nationalist agenda. As pro-Union parties, they have to react. All politics in Scotland now revolve around the national question. Advantage Sturgeon.
2. Governments can get re-elected after the Covid pandemic.
In all three British nations there was a marked 'incumbent effect' in which the parties and leaders who had gained maximum media exposure for their handling of the pandemic all did well in the elections. For Boris Johnson, the rapid vaccine rollout was obviously a trump card. For Mark Drakeford, the low profile leader of a low profile Welsh government, the fact that health powers were devolved meant constant exposure of the fact that health decision affecting Welsh people are being taken in Wales by Welsh politicians.
This raised the profile of the Welsh Senedd – and made more people think about the possibility of an independent country. Not that they acted decisively on that when it came to casting their votes – Plaid Cymru dropped a seat this time round. But the constitutional question is on the agenda in Welsh politics in a way it has not been before.
Nicola Sturgeon also benefitted from the devolved powers in health, and applied her formidable communications skills to them in what at times looked like a competition with Westminster. Whether the Scottish Government did a better job of handling the pandemic than the English government is a moot point. But the perception of the Scottish public (as revealed in opinion polls) was that Sturgeon did a better job than Johnson. And that perception helped at the ballot box.
3. Different electoral systems produce different results.
Yes, we know this. Yes, it’s obvious. But sometimes the obvious needs restating and this is particularly true in the case of the Scottish election result. Scotland uses a dual system – 73 seats are filled by a first past the post vote in single member constituencies -the Westminster model. But a further 56 seats are filled by a party list system in eight multi-member regions, allocated by the d'Hondt method. Effectively this means the better a party does in the constituency vote, the worse it does in the list vote.
The effect is a form of proportional representation, in which smaller parties get into parliament, reflecting their relative popularity. In such a system, it is extremely hard to get an overall majority – it was only achieved once, by the SNP under Alex Salmon in 2011 – and it was this exceptional level of support that led David Cameron to concede a referendum on independence in 2014.
This is the precedent Nicola Sturgeon was trying to rely on by seeking 65 seats for the SNP this time. She came up one short. In the constituency vote the SNP won 48% of the vote. With the Greens – who are also pro-independence – the Constituency vote was 49%. In the List vote -where the Greens won all their seats – the combined share for pro-independence parties (along with 2% for Alex Salmond's new party Alba) came to 50.1%.
This split between the pro-independence and pro unionist party share of the vote is a manifestation of the position that pollsters have spoken of for several years – the country divides 50/50 on the issue of breaking away from the UK.
The hard choices only come when faced with an actual referendum campaign, in which the real choices facing the country are laid out. Brexit has clarified and made real what those choices are, especially around borders, customs and trade – much to the discomfort of the SNP. But Brexit has also exposed the falsehoods that were peddled in the Brexit referendum – and in the 2014 independence referendum.
There has also been the great lesson of the unlawful referendum in Catalonia. Sturgeon has been quite clear – the next Scottish referendum must be lawful.
Which brings us to the question of mandates.
Sturgeon is claiming a mandate from either 49% or 50.1% of the population as expressed in the ballot box as the ‘will of the people’. Boris Johnson says he will not authorize the transfer of powers to the Scottish parliament needed to proceed with a lawful referendum.
Legally the Scots are on weak ground. But morally they can claim their mandate is stronger than that of Boris Johnson.
Under the Westminster Parliaments first past the post electoral system for all the seats, Johnsons Conservatives won an 80 seat majority with 43% of the vote. So a leader with a 43% mandate has the power to block a leader with a 48%/50.1% mandate – is that justifiable?
Political scientists have said that if the Scottish Election was held under Westminster electoral rules, the SNP would have taken every seat – which clearly would not have reflected the true views of the nation on independence and many other subjects. But the same is true for the UK as a whole – a party with a minority of votes gets to have an unassailable majority in parliament. And it can push through anything it likes. This constitutional/electoral arrangement is itself a profound source of tension in the UK.
Indeed it led to the devolution ‘settlement’ itself, which was designed to ease the tension – but critics (including the Prime Minister) believe it has exacerbated those tensions. The results of Thursday’s votes clearly expose them.
The electoral systems are part of the problem – could they be part of the solution?. A proportional representation system for the UK? Trouble is, they had a referendum on this already – in 2011. It’s the referendum we all forget about in the short list of UK referendums (it was the second all UK referendum).
But there was a vote on whether or not to adopt a PR system – it was a long standing demand of the Liberal Democrats, then in coalition with the Conservatives. Held with almost no fanfare whatsoever and no enthusiasm from the Tories or Labour, the proposal sunk in a sea of voter apathy and confusion, going down by 68% to 32%. Only ten electoral areas voted in favour of PR- Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh Central and Glasgow Kelvin, and six districts in London. Five years later they all voted to remain in the EU.
The question of electoral mandates will be a big part of the battle between Bute House and 10 Downing Street in the years ahead.
4. The Labour Party has lost touch with its roots. But it’s not the only one to do so.
Yes, we know this. Yes, it’s obvious. But sometimes....well, you know the rest. And we have been here before. Back in the 1980s, when Labour almost destroyed itself with infighting, infiltration and incompetence – helped on with copious negative commentary from the pro-Tory press. Neil Kinnock stabilised the party, getting it almost fit for office again, but it didn't win office until the Tony Blair/Peter Mandelson era. It hasn't won an election since.
Keir Starmer will be pilloried by the left in his own party, and by the Tory press (and probably the Labour leaning press too). He may end up being a Kinnock like figure, winning the internal party battles but not the keys to Number 10. It’s not his fault. The problems run deep.
Yes there deep issues of identity – what does the Labour Party stand for. Yes there are structural problems to do with everything we have written above. Notably the party's collapse in Scotland (which is used to dominate since 1955) make it very hard to win a majority at Westminster. It now only has one Westminster seat in Scotland out of 59. So it too has a nationalist problem.
But don’t get sucked into the vortex of internal British politics. Labour is part of a pan European trend. All the centre left parties are facing a severe challenge to their identity, relevance to the electorate – and grip on power. Look at France, look at Italy, look at the Netherlands – look most of all at Germany, the birthplace of social Democracy, where the SPD is now trailing the Greens in third place ahead of September’s elections. Look at Sweden, which used to be almost one party state between the end of the war and the start of this century – the one party being the Social Democrats, the Labour party of Sweden. Only in Spain has the trend been bucked by PSOE – and that is by no means a stable and enduring outcome.
Europe’s centre left parties have a problem. None of them have figured out how to fix it. Why should British Labour be any different? The only surprising thing about the Hartlepool by-election result is that people are surprised.