What next for electoral politics in Scotland?

Published: 7 October 2014

Malcolm Harvey looks forward to the UK General Election in May 2015 and the issue of electoral politics.

Now that the independence question has been answered (at least for the time being) in a relatively decisive manner, political attention has returned to the issue of electoral politics. Given that there is a UK General Election in May 2015 – now just 8 months away – this should not come as too much of a surprise. 

While the questions raised by the referendum – which powers should be devolved to Scotland, and what happens with “English votes for English laws” – remain live, constitutional thinking, commissions, and legislating itself, takes time, thus there has been something of an inevitability about the issue becoming less pressing in the aftermath of the referendum. While at the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change we will continue to monitor these developments closely, I thought I’d briefly turn my attention to what happens next electorally – and, particularly, what happens in Scotland.

In 2010, save for the restoration of two by-election wins to Labour (Dunfermline and West Fife, lost to the Liberal Democrats in 2006, and Glasgow East to the SNP in 2010), the political map of Scotland was unaltered by the election. All 59 seats registered as “holds” from the 2005 General Election: Labour won the majority, with 41 seats; the Liberal Democrats were second, with 11 seats; the SNP, returning 6 seats, were third; and a solitary Conservative MP was returned in the Borders for the third election in a row.

Much has occurred in Scotland since the 2010 General Election. The Scottish Parliament election in 2011 returned a majority SNP Scottish Government – delivering a distinctly different political map of Scotland from 2010. Here, further evidence of an increasingly knowledgeable Scottish electorate distinguishing between voting at different electoral levels. Local authority elections in 2012 followed a similar pattern – a predominantly two-horse race between the SNP and Labour, with concentrated geographic support for the Liberal Democrats (albeit, with a significantly reduced representation) and the Conservatives. This year we saw a European Election – with a low turnout – return 2 SNP, 2 Labour and 1 Conservative MEP, while Scotland’s first UKIP representative replaced a Liberal Democrat with the final seat in Brussels.

An already complex electoral picture has been further complicated by the referendum (with a record high turnout) which put Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on the same side of the debate, returning 55% support for the Union. However, since the referendum, parties which supported independence have seen a substantial increase in membership: the SNP rose from 25,000 on the day of the referendum to over 77,777 by 7 October, comfortably overtaking the Liberal Democrats to become the third largest party in the UK. The Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party are also estimated to have surpassed the Liberal Democrats’ Scottish membership since the referendum (see table of memberships below).

Given the (small-c) conservative nature of the Westminster electorate in Scotland, as well as the 2010 trend of “steady as she goes” in terms of re-elections (not to mention the small number of marginal seats) we should be careful not to project substantial upheaval in electoral fortunes as a result of this (as John Curtice points out here). Nevertheless, with a substantive boost in party memberships, political engagement at record-high levels and discussions afoot about electoral pacts among Yes-supporting parties, the UK election in 2015 (and, indeed, the Scottish Parliament election in 2016) will take place against a distinctly changed political backdrop. 

The referendum was undoubtedly a high watermark of political activity in Scotland. What we will have to wait to discover is how that engagement continues in the form of party activism – and whether that will deliver any substantive electoral changes in Scotland.  The first test of that is only 8 months away.

Scottish Party Memberships

UK Party Memberships


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