Let’s talk about… Devolution Politics

CONSIDERING the fact that support for the two main political parties in Britain has been on a constant decline since the 1950s, the notion of the 2015 election being influenced by at least 7 different parties still appears to be debatable to some people. Back in 2010, although the election resulted in a hung parliament, there was never really any doubt about the result; it was going to be either a Con-Lib or Lab-Lib coalition. This time around, things are not so certain, despite pollsters throwing all kinds of hypothetical scenarios around. What makes the situation different this time is devolution; the devolved regions of Scotland, Wales and, to a lesser extent, Northern Ireland could and probably will end up having a significant impact on the outcome of the election. devolution

Current polling suggests that the Scottish National Party (SNP) will hold the balance of power on the morning of Friday May 8th. Polls released at the end of last year suggested that the SNP could win up to 54 seats, therefore having a huge impact on the makeup of the House of Commons. This prediction is, arguably, somewhat problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is worth remembering that there are 59 seats in Scotland in the first place. While there is no denying that the SNP has enjoyed a massive surge in support following last year’s independence referendum, it seems somewhat premature to predict such a heavy decline in Labour votes in Scotland. Furthermore, the rise of the SNP simply has no precedent, making it somewhat rather difficult to make predictions if you have no previous data to compare with. However, despite the unpredictability surrounding where votes will go in Scotland, there is little doubt that the SNP will hold the balance of power in the days after the election.

So what does this mean for a potential hung parliament? Ed Miliband has ruled out a formal coalition with the SNP, however this doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t agree to some kind of more informal arrangement whereby the SNP would offer a Labour minority government support on a vote-by-vote basis. It’s worth remembering that if the SNP seat count is as high as some have predicted, it could signal an almost total wipeout of Labour seats in Scotland – something which would not only be significant for the election but also the Labour Party in general. Put simply, the Labour Party doesn’t ‘win’ in England and therefore has to rely on a significant number of seats in both Scotland and Wales. If they lose Scotland, then they lose any hope of ever forming a single-party majority government ever again.

In Wales, the situation is slightly clearer. The Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru had three seats in Westminster following the 2010 election (Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Arfon) and current predictions show that this is unlikely to change. They desperately want to win back Ceredigion from the Liberal Democrats, a situation that could possibly be aided by Lib Dem broken promises on tuition fees because the seat contains two university towns – Aberystwyth and Lampeter. This remains extremely close result. The Welsh seat numbers held by the other parties are likely to remain roughly the same, causing little major impact to the UK-wide results. Current predictions suggest that the Labour seat count will rise from 26 to 28, the Conservative number will stay the same at eight and the Liberal Democrats will lose two seats to take their total down to one. There remains of course, the possibility that an ‘anti-austerity’ voting bloc of SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party could have significant sway post-election, yet even if their wildest dreams come true, this would still only add up to around 69 seats.

A comment I heard in a discussion the other day suggested that Wales is largely irrelevant and doesn’t matter, when it comes to the General Election. Such a statement obviously requires qualification, but it’s both right and wrong. From a UK-wide standpoint, Wales is nowhere near the political ‘earthquake’ that Scotland is. Polls suggest that the number of seats each party has here are roughly going to stay the same, having no major impact on the outcome. However, moving down a level to individual constituencies – Wales could matter, especially to the Labour Party. As we have said before – Labour don’t win in England; they win in Scotland and Wales.

Northern Ireland often gets forgotten when we talk about regional politics in the United Kingdom, a move which is often somewhat deliberate. In the context of regional politics and devolution, Northern Ireland is best left to sit on its own in the discussion for a few reasons. For starters, the main political parties do not run candidates in Northern Ireland, although there are of course links between certain parties. For example of the Tory’s full name being the Conservative and Unionist Party. This means they don’t have to target Northern Ireland when campaigning. Similarly, the results in Northern Ireland will not affect the outcome of the general election in any way whatsoever. If the Conservatives needed a small number of extra seats to gain a majority then they could potentially informally join up with the Democratic Unionist Party, but this remains extremely unlikely. The reality remains, however, that the political divisions along, mainly, religious lines in Northern Ireland, simply do not translate well to politics in the rest of the UK. Therefore, if the General Election results in a hung parliament, eyes will be focused on Scotland, and possibly Wales, rather than Northern Ireland.