Text on graphic reads: Election 2024 analysis: The UK Union may appear restrengthened — but is it really? by Jack Liddall, Politics and International Relations Studies, University of Cambridge

Election 2024 analysis: The UK Union may appear restrengthened — but is it really?

Published: 9 July 2024

by Jack Liddall, PhD Candidate, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge.

The headline of a Labour landslide majority—not just in the UK as a whole, but in Scotland, Wales and England individually—may suggest that the UK Union is unified once again. The story of election night was one of major Tory losses, rather than stunning Labour victories. Low voter turnout, the splitting of votes between the Tories and Reform UK and tactical voting assisted in a Labour success. Nevertheless, united in their desire to remove Tories from office (apparently using whichever political vehicle necessary), are the people of the UK singing from the same hymn sheet once again?

With the SNP collapse in Scotland, the Labour triumph in Wales (with no Tories returned there) and the sea of red seats across England, it may appear that an increasingly strained Union could experience some respite. The three nations have generally voted differently for the past 15 years or so, backing competing visions for their nations and the UK more widely. In the 2019 election, the Conservatives secured a decisive majority of English seats, whilst the SNP retained its predominance in Scotland and Labour prevailed in Wales. Since 2010 until now, these three parties have formed the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments, with relations between them often disputatious

Given the result we have seen in the past few days, perhaps all this is changing. However, there are more than a few reasons for doubt. For those who may be committed to the UK Union—not least those in Starmer’s new administration—this is a critical moment. The election results still yet provide ample reason to not take popular faith in the UK Union for granted. 

In Scotland, the main news story has been the SNP’s loss of 39 seats (dropping from 48 to just nine) and Labour’s sweeping success through the Central Belt. Some commentators have even taken to totting up the vote shares for pro-UK and pro-independence parties, pointing to Sturgeon’s ditched strategy to make this election a ‘de facto referendum’. However, the SNP’s electoral misfortune this time round should not be interpreted as some astounding shift in opinion about Scottish independence. Polling continues to show that around half of Scots still back leaving the UK. Instead, it has been widely noted that the question of Scotland’s constitutional future simply did not feature as much in this election, compared to the cost-of-living crisis and the NHS, as well as the SNP’s domestic record in government. It could likely be that a significant number of SNP voters have, for now, lent their vote to Labour. That said, in terms of vote share, Labour (36%) and the SNP (30%) are much more evenly matched. 

What is more, nationalist parties in Northern Ireland and Wales have heralded key successes, with Sinn Fein winning a majority of Northern Irish seats (although the Unionist vote was more complex in this election following the DUP’s internal turmoil). Plaid Cymru also doubled their number of MPs in Wales (although this could be more of a reaction against Labour’s troubles in government there, rather than indicative of independence support). Altogether though, the UK-wide election results should not blind anyone—not least those in Starmer’s days-old government—to the still significant number of citizens who feel they are not best represented and served as part of a United Kingdom. 

Another major news story has been the very low vote share Labour achieved across the UK (34%) compared to the number of seats they garnered (64%). This is without even mentioning the record-low turnout, especially in many English constituencies. To what extent the new Labour government can say it has a UK-wide mandate (on its constitutional policies as much as anything else), has become a key question. 

What is also revealing in terms of assessing the strength of the UK Union is the vote share in Scotland, Wales and England individually. In England, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens (all seen to be more left of centre in this election), won around 54% of the vote share. The Conservatives and Reform UK won around 41%. By contrast, in Scotland, Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, represented around 79% of voters, whilst the Conservatives and Reform UK garnered 20% of the vote. In fact, the Tory vote fell below 5% in all of the Glasgow constituencies. In Wales, the Conservatives and Reform UK won around 35% of the vote share, whilst Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and the Greens won around 64% of the vote. Additionally, in terms of the change in vote share, Scotland is the only part of Great Britain where the Labour share of the vote increased by double figures. It increased by just three percent in Southeast England and decreased in London, Wales and Northwest England. 

Grouping different party voters together has its own well-versed complications. Political scientists have also regularly warned against unnuanced claims that English voters are generally ideologically more right-wing than voters in the rest of Great Britain, often pointing to the socio-political values of voters in the north of England. However, those invested in a unified UK should remain cognisant of this nation-by-nation breakdown of the vote share which demonstrates an enduring diversity of socio-political views across the UK, which is so often tied to place. Such differences, particularly when attached to regional or national identity, have also often formed major arguments for nationalist movements across the UK and may yet pose challenges to the incoming Labour government. It will be up to the new administration to identify and work on policies which have common appeal to voters in Southeast England as well as in Scotland, Wales and the rest of the UK. 

Of course, there are those who might say that differences in political preferences across the nations and regions (whether actual or perceived) are not what makes the UK Union strong or not. Certainly, it is not the only measure of strength. Yet, it is worth bearing in mind that perhaps the driving argument behind devolution in 1999 under the last UK Labour government was that previous UK governments had not been voted for by people in Scotland and Wales. The (re)convening of parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by popular referendums was a part of filling the democratic gap which citizens felt had existed. Does this election result continue to illustrate (or can it be seen to illustrate) some more underlying socio-political differences across UK nations and regions which have, in the past, manifested in governments not of Wales’ or Scotland’s choosing? Whilst this point can perhaps be overstated, what is clear is that the people of the UK (whilst arguably unified in their opposition of the Tories) have not come together in any decisive manner to choose a common vision for the future. The map of Great Britain, glowing red with Labour seats, should not disguise the scale of the challenge in setting out a constitutional plan for the UK which is agreeable to (or even inspires) people in Scotland and Wales as well as England. 

But with challenge comes opportunity. This could be a moment for a new administration—with seat majorities across the UK—to demonstrate that it can work for all parts of the UK. There are also reasons to believe that Sir Keir and his new government are more than awake to the above challenges. From the waving of the saltire and the red dragon behind Starmer during his victory speech to the new Prime Minister’s tour of the UK to meet First Ministers, strengthening the Union seems to be a priority. Starmer has embarked on a rhetoric of ‘resetting’ the relations between the governments of the UK. Given the underlying patterns beneath the headline election result which signal continued strain on the Union, these first moves will need to be followed by intensified, meaningful cooperation across the UK if the Prime Minister wishes to demonstrate that he governs for all. More than this, perhaps these enduring challenges for the Union also require a more long-term, reformist approach which reconsiders the very constitution of the UK. All in all, the UK Union is far from settled. 

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