Continuity and consolidation?

Published: 13 December 2019

Malcolm Harvey, University of Aberdeen, provides a rundown of the general election results in Scotland, asking is this the new norm?

As part of the Centre’s Devolution at Twenty series, I wrote about the Scottish party system, focusing largely on the changes to the party system within Holyrood.  There I argued that the change of electoral system for the institution in 1999 began a ‘recalibration’ of the party system, but that party system itself remained largely frozen until the SNP minority government of 2007, when that system began to thaw.  To continue that climate-related metaphor, the UK General Election of 2015 was a seismic event – the calving of an ice-shelf – as the SNP won 56 of the 59 seats available in Scotland.  The 2016 Scottish Parliament election and the 2017 UK General Election indicated that this was something of a new reality, that the system was indeed in flux, but we could not be sure as to whether it would continue in this form or return to the ‘norm’.

The 2019 UK General Election appears to have given an answer here. This looks as if it might be the new norm.

Largely unexpectedly, the SNP won 48 of the 59 seats, including Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath, where their candidate was suspended from the party during the campaign, on 45% of the vote.  Forty-five percent of the vote, of course, was what the Yes campaign achieved in the 2014 independence referendum.  On that occasion, it wasn’t enough for victory, but in this election, it delivered 81% of the Scottish seats to the party.  They made gains from all three of their opponents – perhaps, most notably, taking the scalp of Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson – but also lost North East Fife (2017 majority: 2) to the same party.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats – losing their leader notwithstanding – had a reasonably good night.  Their vote share increased in all bar two seats: East Dunbartonshire, Swinson’s seat, and Orkney and Shetland, where Alistair Carmichael’s majority was reduced to 2,507 votes.  Outside of those seats, they largely exceeded expectations, and while they were not entirely competitive in some areas, increasing vote shares are never a bad thing, and taking North East Fife from the SNP compensated (in numerical terms, at least) for the loss of East Dunbartonshire.

The Scottish Conservatives?  A difficult night for the party, more than halving their representation from 2017 – and even those seats they held were on something of a reduced majority.  The messaging in the campaign repeated elections in 2015, 2016, 2017 (twice) and the European Election earlier this year: vote for us to stop a second independence referendum.  The problem for them is that, while it is a simple and effective slogan to a point, it leaves them in difficult position in terms of consistency.  For if voters DON’T vote for them (as they didn’t earlier in the European Election earlier in 2019 – just 11.6% of the electorate backed them then), it becomes difficult to claim that this is what voters want.  Nevertheless, 6 Scottish Conservatives will join the government benches in a healthy Conservative majority, and that will give them some comfort.

Another election, another disaster for Scottish Labour – which, at least on this occasion, was consistent with the party UK-wide.  Losing all bar Ian Murray’s Edinburgh South constituency (again) on an 18% vote share, down 8.5% since 2017, ranks as one of their worst performances – though it was comfortably higher than the 9% returned in the earlier European election.  It’s difficult to know where Scottish Labour go from here – though Murray was very forthright in his post-election speech that the party as a whole has to move away from Corbynism.

While much of the focus post-election has focused on mandates – a Conservative mandate for Brexit, an SNP mandate for a second independence referendum – perhaps there are two foci that are connected to but not directly linked to these issues. 

The first is that both mandates, should we consider them viable, were achieved on less than 50% of the vote (43.6% and 45% respectively).  Tactical voting has become predominant and there is a significant discrepancy between votes won and seats won.  In short: the first past the post electoral system has some questions to answer, and though it has produced a significant majority in this instance, how it functions under the strain of a multi-party system will continue to attract debate.

The second is that, in a little under 18 months there will be an election to the Scottish Parliament.  That election itself will be fought on the semi-proportional Additional Member System, and the focus will once again return to the party system at Holyrood.  What impact the UK election will have on that is too early to say, but last night’s result does seem to indicate that the changes we’ve seen in the last decade or so seem to have stabilised.  The SNP have become Scotland’s dominant party.  The Conservatives have established themselves as their largest opposition – in the main, using their unionist rather than conservative credentials.  The Liberal Democrats appear to be slowly recovering from their time in coalition government.  And it appears that Labour, for a long time the dominant party of Scottish politics, are now flailing, looking for relevance in a party system that rewards definitive positioning.

The UK election results in Scotland suggest continuity with the past decade, a consolidation of the changed party system we’ve begun to see.  How that interacts with the rest of the UK – and the devolved party system – remains to be seen.

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