Messiest Election

Drowning in a Sea of Unknowns: from the Messiest of Elections to the Messiest of Constitutional Futures

Published: 19 November 2019
Author: Mark Shephard

The General Election in December is the messiest ever, argues Mark Shephard University of Strathclyde. Voters are thinking in four constitutional futures, but they are unlikely to get the future they vote for.

This is the messiest General Election ever, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland (and increasingly so for Wales). In England, it is complicated enough: Brexit/EU stances compete with issues, leadership and performance concerns. In the rest of the UK, and particularly in Scotland, it is a vote about more than one constitutional future as well as the usual General Election variables. Leaving aside issues, leadership and performance, voters in Scotland have the option of thinking about four broad constitutional futures, only three of which are represented by the parties that win seats at Westminster.

The four options are: Remain in the EU/Remain in the UK (Liberal Democrats and possibly Labour depending upon events); Remain in the EU/Leave the UK (SNP); Leave the EU/Remain in the UK (Conservatives and possibly Labour depending upon events); Leave the EU/Leave the UK (no current party that wins Scottish seats at Westminster). Since not all constitutional flavours are catered for by the mainstream parties, ‘Leave the EU/Leave the UK’ voters will have to decide which electable leave camp (Leave EU or Leave UK) is more important to them: Conservatives or the SNP?

The three and a half year fallout over Brexit has illustrated that what many leave voters think they are voting for in theory might not be what they get in practice. All of the Brexit/EU deals represent a myriad of flavours of exit, some of which have concerned leave voters as they are not even deemed to be Brexit. If leaving the UK turns out to be as messy as leaving the EU (and it might not be as the flavour preference permutations of 129 MSPs will be easier to manage than the preference permutations of 650 MPs), then voters may be faced with an even messier choice in this election than the four broad constitutional flavours.

Ironically, it may not matter which way you vote as Brexit illustrates that individual voters stand very little chance of getting the constitutional future they think they had voted for. Given the 1000s of permutations/flavours of possible exit, you’d stand a much greater chance of getting a final flavour you liked the most from a blind-folded Quality Street sweet selection. Even the safest vote option for ensuring most certainty of constitutional futures (remain/remain) is arguably not a safe option either as there aren’t enough Liberal Democrat (pro-EU, pro-federalism in UK) voters out there to deliver this option (unless, against previous experience and odds, both can be made requirements and achievements of a coalition deal).

As to what will happen, bar the odd local constituency tradition, three parties that win seats at Westminster will be fighting for 52% of the Remain in the UK vote versus one party that wins seats at Westminster fighting for 48% of the Leave the UK vote under a First-Past-the-Post electoral system. Bar the odd seat, unless the unionist parties do tactical deals, the result in Scotland is a foregone conclusion: near universal SNP victory. Who would have guessed in the 1970s that proportional representation could have saved the Conservative and Labour Parties in Scotland, and a written constitution (see Spanish example) could have saved the UK?

Most voters in Scotland might be forgiven for thinking that it is not even worth bothering to turnout to vote. And yet this election is arguably the most important election to participate in ever no matter what your preferred constitutional future. Post-election, mandates for constitutional futures will be claimed from not just seats, but vote percentages as well. However, trying to predict the exact flavour of constitutional future that is arrived at in practice from either seats or votes will be a fools game. We are drowning in a sea of unknowns and what we end up with will most likely not be one of the thousands of constitutional flavours we each thought it was going to be.

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