Britain at the Polls 2015: some personal reflections on an eventful night - Dr Nicholas Allen
The 2015 General Election was the most unpredictable and eventful that I can remember. Several colleagues and I followed the unfolding drama of the night in the company of over fifty Royal Holloway students. We knew that something was up once the exit polls were published. By the early hours of the morning, it was clear that the outcome was going to be very different from that which everyone had envisaged.
We saw Scotland ‘yellow-washed’ as the Scottish National Party won all but three of the seats north of the border. We saw the Liberal Democrats reduced to a rump of eight MPs. We saw many leading figures in British politics lose their seats, including Douglas Alexander, Ed Balls, Vince Cable, Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy. We saw Nigel Farage fail to win in South Thanet. And we saw the return to Downing Street of David Cameron, this time at the head of majority Conservative government. To coin a phrase, very few people saw that coming.
So much can be written about the results, and a great deal will be written in the coming months. For the time being, several issues stand out for me, many of which relate to the mechanics of Britain’s curious voting system.
First, there was no dramatic increase in turnout (see Figure 1). Although this was a very close election, and although there were big choices at stake, the number of people who thought it worth voting did not shoot up. It increased by one point to 66.1%. Admittedly, this was the highest turnout since 1997, and perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies. However, politicians of all parties should be worried.
Compounding this reason to be worried is a second issue: the further fragmentation of the party system and the associated decline in the governing party’s share of the vote. In 2015, the two major parties won barely two-thirds of the popular vote. The Conservatives won their small majority on 36.9% of the vote. If this was David Cameron’s sweetest victory, he’s clearly never tasted real electoral sugar. Yet this small share of the vote was also won on a relatively low turnout. Since 1945 there has been a long downward trend in the ‘legitimacy’ of British governments, as defined by their share of the potential vote, which includes all eligible voters and not just those who did cast a ballot (see Figure 1). Measured in this way, the Conservatives’ mandate (24.4% of all voters) is the third weakest since 1945. Only Labour in 2001 (24.2%) and 2005 (21.6%) had a lower share of the potential vote.
Thirdly, of course, we saw the further uncoupling of Scotland’s voting behaviour and party system from the rest of the UK’s. Half of Scottish voters plumped for the Scottish National Party (SNP), which campaigns for independence. The party won 56 out of 59 seats, leaving the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats with one MP apiece. These results will place further strains on the United Kingdom. It is quite conceivable that the SNP will press for a second referendum after next year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, and it is also conceivable that Scotland will be independent in a decade.
Fourthly, the SNP are now comfortably the third largest parliamentary party, but they secured this influence on less than 1.5 million votes. Britain’s first-past-the-post or single-member-simple-plurality voting system rewards parties that concentrate their support. The SNP concentrates its support in Scotland. Other parties, notably the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Greens spread their very substantial support much more thinly. UKIP won nearly 4 million votes across the UK, the Greens over 1 million. Their rewards were just one MP each. A strictly proportional voting system would have given them about 80 and 25 MPs respectively.
Voting reform is almost certainly not on the Conservative government’s agenda, but it should be. And some kind of German-style mixed-member voting system, which delivers a very high degree of proportionality (subject to a threshold) and maintains the tradition of a constituency MP, would be best.
On the one hand, such a system would help to limit the distinctiveness of Scotland from the rest of the UK, and it may reduce the prospects of independence since all unionist parties would pick up a decent number of seats. The Conservative and Unionist Party, if it still believes in the Union, should take note. On the other hand, the voting system, it would help future governments govern for the whole country. The present voting system is manifestly unable to translate Britons’ multi-party preferences into Westminster representation. If Cameron wants to govern in the interests of ‘One Nation’, he should think about the 5 million Green and UKIP voters who are represented by just two MPs between them.
The University of Canterburyin New Zealand this week plays host to a major international symposium based upon the Strategic Narratives approach to international relations advanced by Alister Miskimmon, Ben O'Loughlin and Laura Roselle. The approach helps to explain how states and other actors in international affairs project and contest narratives about the past, present and future of international relations in order to shape the behaviour of others and steer global order - and history itself - in a certain direction. Strategic narrative research involves researching the formation, projection and reception of narratives in local and global media ecologies. Speakers at this symposium will address that most difficult of questions: how do audiences receive, interpret and respond to narratives of global order and identity?
Miskimmon and O'Loughlin will provide two keynote addresses, and the event features important speakers from China and Ukraine.
A full programme for the event can be downloaded here.
If you are in the area and wish to join, please RSVP to Gabriel Weibl firstname.lastname@example.org for catering purposes.
- Date: Friday 27 February 2015, 9:00AM to 5:00PM
- Location: Undercroft Seminar Room 101, Puaka-James Hight building, Ilam Campus
In his seminal book, What’s Wrong with the British Constitution?, Iain McLean explains how, before devolution, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were over-represented in the House of Commons by around 30% compared to England. If, instead, Scottish constituencies had represented the same number of voters as English constituencies then Scotland would have had around 55 MPs rather than 72. This over-representation was a reward for not having home rule and in a small way recognised the legitimacy of the Celtic nations in terms of representation beyond population size. Following devolution, the Scots MPs were reduced from 72 to 59. Wales and Northern Ireland, with lesser devolution, retained their original over-representation.
McLean opposes English votes for English laws. Instead he suggests mitigation for the “West Lothian” question through removal of the the over-representation of the devolved countries and adoption of under-representation as devolution is further increased. Given DevoMax, Scotland should actually be under-represented by 30% and would therefore have around 39 MPs. Increased devolution short of DevoMax for Wales and Northern Ireland would see their representation fall but to a lesser extent than that of Scotland.
The 39 rather than 59 MPs from Scotland would continue to vote on English matters. Equality between MPs would be retained and the right to vote on English matters could be seen as compensation for the reduction in their numbers, a reduction that is very real when it comes to voting on UK-wide issues such as immigration.
The McLean solution is not ideal but is preferable to either English-votes-for-English-laws, about whose disadvantages I have already written. It is also preferable to the Prussian-style instability of an English Parliament. The optimal solution of equal federalism that includes regionalisation in England may not be achievable given the resistance from vested interests and the apparent lack of demand for regionalisation in England.
As I have argued elsewhere, English votes for English laws would be impossible to implement without a written constitution and would lead to discrimination against Scots MPs. But the creation of an English Parliament also provides a poor solution to the “West Lothian Question”.
Devolution to an English Parliament, a separate institution from the House of Commons, has some attractions. It would have power to vote on domestic legislation over education, health, transport and anything else that is also devolved in Scotland. It would be the English equivalent of the Scottish Parliament. It could work but it is not ideal and here is why.
First, presumably an English-wide government in London would be established alongside the UK government that would continue to look after foreign, defence and monetary policies. Would this be popular or effective? Second, it seems that that the DevoMax on offer for Scotland will not necessarily be matched in Wales and Northern Ireland. It is difficult to see how England-wide devolution could work unless there is absolute equality in powers exercised by the devolved parliaments and governments of the four countries. Third, even with equal DevoMax across the board, and equality between English and Scots MPs at Westminster given that the separate UK-wide government would be left as the non-devolved federal shell, England would still dominate. England makes up over 80% of the population of the UK. This would be a top-heavy federation, comparable to the role of Prussia from 1871 to 1932, which maintained separate institutions from Germany. The unhappy politics of Weimar Germany were worsened by turf wars between the two governments in Berlin, particularly when the Social Democrats continued to be in the Prussian government, while in opposition at the German level. An English government could destabilise not only the UK government but also the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The remaining solution is symmetrical federalism to the existing devolved administrations and to new regional governments throughout England. This means allowing those new administrations powers equal to those exercised by Scotland. Again this would leave the UK parliament and government with MPs who were equal and Ministers who would look after UK-wide, non-devolved powers.
We would hear that nobody in England wants regional government as we saw in the referendum over devolution in the North-East of England in 2004. That was a campaign led by John Prescott to introduce a regional government with very limited powers that was vulnerable to attack by a ‘no’ campaign focused on the ills of “useless” bureaucracy. There was no constitutional convention or engagement of citizens. If we talk of proper federalism based on DevoMax, and having engaged civil society in a proper debate, the chance to determine tax, spending, health, education, transport, police, justice, and almost everything that government does except for foreign, defence and monetary policies may be more popular – particularly since these powers would move from London without duplications. Regional identity in England varies, but there is a strong sense of identity in Yorkshire, the Midlands, London, and the South. What need to be abandoned are the regions invented by John Prescott. They are mostly too large and lack identity. Smaller counties with very strong identities like Cornwall could be regions. Micro-regions prosper in other countries, for example Ceuta (82,000 people) in Spain, Corsica (300,000 people) in France or the Aosta Valley (120,000 people) in Italy. Prescott’s regions lacked any chance of identity-formation precisely because they were too large and too few. Within England, he created only nine of them. This compares to 20 in Italy and 22 in France, which have a similar population size to the UK. In Spain, 40 million people live across 19 regions.
In each of these countries, regional government was set up without referendums but popular allegiance seemed to follow. Regionalisation in England could be accepted by a national referendum rather region-by-region if this were the will of a constitutional convention that engaged civil society and public opinion. Moving the bulk of domestic policy from a diminished Whitehall to regions or groups of counties or cities with some sense of identity could be an invigorating prospect for English democracy. Many Scots seem to approve of increased fiscal powers and ending the Barnett formula that over-rewards Scotland. Keeping money within one’s own devolved region could be remarkably popular, particularly with voters in southern England.
We cannot ignore that federalism reliant on full-scale regionalisation in England would be difficult to achieve. The Whitehall and Westminster elites would do all they can to resist and persuading public opinion could be insurmountable even with a constitutional convention of the type that took place in Scotland. In my next piece, I look at Iain McLean’s proposal for cutting the number of Scots (and perhaps Welsh and Northern Irish) MPs at Westminster.