On Thursday, the Scots go to the polls to decide whether or not Scotland will leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country. This issue has been dominating British politics for the past few weeks, especially following the unexpected and rather dramatic tightening of the polls, following months of a seemingly unassailable No lead. This post briefly examines the future electoral ramifications for the remaining United Kingdom should Scotland vote for independence (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland). I’m also writing a follow-on post that considers what we should expect on Thursday, the constitutional ramifications of both a Yes and No outcome, as well as the political and international ramifications of Scottish independence.
First, the eligible electorate is an interesting question, with the primary criterion being residence in Scotland. Any British citizen resident in Scotland can vote, as well as residents of Commonwealth countries (with “indefinite leave to remain” in the UK, which is the British version of the green card), EU citizens resident in Scotland, and a few others. As a student of turnout, the voting age has been lowered to 16 for the referendum, which is intriguing. However, while a French (or German, or Polish, or Lithuanian, or Jamaican, or Canadian) citizen resident in Scotland is eligible to vote in the referendum and help determine whether or not Scotland becomes an independent country, Scots living in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, or New Zealand can not.
For the rest of Britain, an independence vote has the potential for a significant electoral ramification. For the past two years, aggregate polling has suggested that the Westminster election in May 2015 will result in a clear Labour majority. Today, assuming a uniform swing (which isn’t a safe assumption), Labour stands to enjoy an outright 44 seat majority, based on polling numbers of 32% Conservative, 36% Labour, 8% Liberal Democrat, 15% UKIP, and 5% Green. Note, the swingometer UK Polling Report uses is crude, and lumps in the UKIP support with “others” (including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens, Respect, et al.) hence might underestimate UKIP’s seat share resulting from the election. Furthermore, I suspect that the resulting majority will be smaller than 44 seats, more along the lines of 20-30 (which is where it has been estimated for most of 2014). Nevertheless, those numbers are available, so let’s use them: out of 650 MPs, the Tories would win 256, Labour 347, LibDems 21, Others, 8, and Northern Ireland distribute their 18 seats across four or five parties. Eliminating Scotland’s 59 MPs, and extrapolating using the 2010 seat distribution north of the border, a resulting House of Commons would have 255 Tories, 306 Labour, with 10, 2, and 18 remaining for the other three categories. Given a majority in a 591 seat Commons would require 296 MPs, Labour would still retain a thin, yet outright, majority.
Since 1974, Scotland has only marginally swung an election three times, but the feeling amongst Labour Party members is that independence would be a significant impediment to a working majority following the 2015 election. The table blow lists the Labour governing majority (if one existed), the seats in Scotland and their percentage of the House of Commons, the number of Scottish seats that went Labour and the number that went Conservative. The only elections where eliminating the Scottish seats would have changed the outcome were both 1974 elections, and 2010. In the first 1974 election, the Labour government that formed was a minority government (indeed, while the Conservatives “won” the popular vote, they had four seats more than the Conservatives. Take away Scotland’s 71 seats, of which 40 were Labour, the Conservatives end up not with an outright majority (only seven seats short) but with 15 more seats than Labour. Encouraged by strong polling numbers later in 1974, the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, called a snap election, which resulted in an outright Labour majority of three entire seats. Again, remove Scotland from the equation, Labour have 278 seats to the Conservative’s 261, which would have resulted in a minority Labour government. Finally, the results of the 2010 election, minus Scotland, would have resulted in an outright Conservative majority: the Tories only lose the one seat, while Labour loses 41 and the Liberal Democrats 11, resulting in 306 Tories, 217 Labour, and 46 LibDems. This would have saved both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats the ignominy of serving together in a coalition.
|Election||Labour Maj.||Scotland Seats / PCT||Labour Scot||Tory Scot|
|2010||-39**||59 / 9.1%||41||1 (+11 LD)|
|2005||67||59 / 9.1%||41||1|
|2001||167||59 / 9.1%||56||1|
|1997||179||72 / 10.9%||56||0|
|1992||-21||72 / 11.1%||49||11|
|1987||-102||72 / 11.1%||50||10|
|1983||-144||72 / 11.1%||41||21|
|1979||-44||72 / 11.1%||44||22|
|1974oct||3||71 / 11.3%||41||16|
|1974feb||-17*||71 / 11.3%||40||21|
While Scottish influence on Westminster elections since 1974 have been marginal (February 1974 would have resulted in a minority Tory rather than minority Labour government, October 1974 results in a minority rather than slim majority Labour government, and 2010 becomes an outright Conservative rather than Con-Lib coalition government) Labour are justifiably concerned. Losing Scotland and the safe 40-odd seats there comprises roughly 13% of the MPs that Labour require to form a majority in the Commons. That’s roughly equivalent to the blow the Republican Party would face should Texas finally secede from the Union: the 38 Electoral College votes that Texas faithfully delivers to the GOP represents 14% of the 270 that they need for a presidential victory.
Eliminating Scotland from the future House of Commons electoral calculous might result in a marginal effect on the size and stability of any resulting Labour government. Should Labour only win 2015 with a 20 seat majority, once the elected Scottish MPs become unemployed and pack their bags to go live in their newly independent country, the extant Labour government becomes based on a fragile minority which can’t be expected to long survive a vote of confidence.