The ‘Four Nations’ Politics of the Disunited Kingdom
Open Democracy, May 9th 2010
A vast amount of energy has already been expended on the 2010 UK General Election, but one vital, complex and revealing aspect of it has remained resolutely ignored until now. This is the ‘four nations’ politics of this election – with very different election results in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
This is not an arcane political anorak point, for it carries consequences for the character of United Kingdom politics, and indeed, whether there is such an entity anymore, and for the individual contests in each nation.
In Scotland, Labour’s vote (42.0%) actually rose by an impressive 2.5% – the only part of the UK it did so, giving a swing from Conservatives to Labour of 0.9%: the only part of the UK which went in the opposite direction. There was the lowest Conservative vote of anywhere (16.7%), along with the lowest increase of anywhere (0.9%) – barring the special case of Northern Ireland.
The SNP performance was very poor (19.9%) even though they ended up in second place in votes – with less than half the support of Scottish Labour who were 22.1% ahead of them. The Lib Dems support with 18.9% saw their vote fall 3.7% – their worst result in any of the nations and regions of the UK.
Wales saw Welsh Labour record its lowest vote for generations (36.2%) – which was marginally worse than the annus horribilis of 1983 when they won 37.5% – achieving the party’s lowest vote since 1918.
The Welsh Tory vote showed some resilience – rising 4.7% – its second highest anywhere in the UK – to 26.1% and winning five seats – taking its representation from three to eight. The Tories have recovered from their derisory votes at the end of the Thatcher-Major era – unlike the Scots Tories – but in 1979 they won 32.2% and 1983 31.5% – when they were only 6.5% behind Labour; last Thursday they were a mere 10.1% behind Labour which when put in perspective with some of their results in 1997 (35.1% behind) and since is respectable and competitive.
The Lib Dems polled respectably while losing one seat (Lembit Opik) and Plaid Cymru showed how poorly they often perform in Westminster elections.
The Conservatives won England with 39.6% to Labour’s 28.1% and the Lib Dems 24.2% – a Tory lead of 11.5% – landslide territory – on a respectable swing of 5.6% from Labour to Conservative. This is not quite the humiliation of Labour in England which occurred in 1983 when the party just avoided finishing third: the Tories winning 46.0% to Labour’s 27.0% and Lib/SDP Alliance’s 26.4%.
In 2005 England voted Conservative 35.7% to Labour 35.5% producing 286 Labour to 194 Tory. This time the Conservatives won an overall English majority – with 297 seats to Labour’s 191 and Lib Dems 43 – a Tory lead of 106 over Labour and overall English majority of 61 seats.
Results within England showed fascinating variations. In London there was the smallest swing to the Conservatives anywhere apart from Scotland (and Northern Ireland). Labour’s vote (36.6%) fell by a mere 2.3%, while the Conservatives (34.5%) rose by 2.6% – their worst anywhere apart from Scotland (and Northern Ireland).
In the other English regions, the South East showed the highest Tory vote (49.9%) and the highest increase (4.9%). The highest Lib Dem vote was not surprisingly in the South West (34.7%), where the party put on 2.2%, but still saw a 1.0% swing to the Tories.
The Eastern region saw the Labour vote fall by its highest anywhere (10.2%), whereas its vote in the North East (43.2%) was the highest vote anywhere – even higher than in Scotland – although in the North East Labour wins its vote in a three party system, while its Scottish vote of 1.2% lower is achieved in a four party system.
In Northern Ireland behind the headlines of Peter Robinson’s defeat, Sinn Fein increased their vote if not their representation and with 25.5% of the vote became Northern Ireland’s leading party compared to the Democratic Unionists 25.0%. The SDLP achieved 16.5% while the other story was the complete failure of the ‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists: New Force’ who won 15.2% – losing 2.6% support compared to the Ulster Unionists and their one seat.
Tory vs. Labour Swings
There are a number of other narratives about this election which need to be emphasised and put in context. One is the performance of the Cameron Conservatives who have stressed what a big vote and number of seats they gained; the latter (97) is their highest since 1931 but is a product of the low Conservative base they were starting from (210) – a mere one seat more than Michael Foot won in 1983.
The swing from Labour to Conservatives was 5.0% – which is a credible, decent showing, but nothing sensational. Thatcher won a higher 5.2% in 1979, and Blair in 1979 a huge 10.2%.
What is more revealing is the size of the Tory vote (36.1%) – just ahead of Ted Heath’s vote in his second election defeat in a row in October 1974 (35.8%). The Tory increase in their share of the vote (3.8%) is not that large, and has been outperformed on several occasions –Thatcher achieving an increase of twice this in 1979 (8.1%), while even the much maligned Ted Heath raised the Tory vote by more in 1970 (4.5%) and Churchill achieved the same increase in 1951 (4.5%).
Labour’s vote of 29.0% was just above Michael Foot’s in 1983 (27.6%) – but then Labour was a massive 14.8% behind Thatcher’s Conservatives as compared with 7.1% now. The fall in Labour’s vote now was the second highest the party has seen in post-war elections (6.2%) – exceeded only by the disaster of 1983 (9.3%).
Shares of the Total Electorate
The decline of the once all powerful two party system can be seen in the Conservative and Labour share of the electorate: winning 23.5% and 18.9% respectively compared to the Lib Dems 15.0%. This gives the Labservatives a mere 42.4% of the electorate between them – up from the post-war low of 41.3% in 2005 due to increased turnout.
The two main parties should not get too excited here. In 1951 when they famously won 96.8% of votes cast, they also won 79.9% of the electorate: 40.3% Labour, 39.6% Conservatives. By the time we get to ‘the ungovernability of Britain’ in the 1970s, Labour won a mere 29.0% in February 1974 to the Conservative 29.5%, while Thatcher was elected in 1979 with 33.4%.
When Blair’s New Labour swept all before it in 1997 it did so on an unimpressive 30.9% of the electorate compared to the Tories 22.0% – bringing the two parties share down to 52.9% of the electorate. By 2005 when Blair and New Labour won their historic third term they did so with a paltry 21.5% of electors compared to the Tories 19.8% – giving them a mere 41.3% of the electorate (their share having first fallen below half the electors in 2001 with 43.0%).
All of this matters in that the old templates and landscape of the British political system which we are familiar with is cracking and falling apart; the world of Robert McKenzie and a two party adversial system no longer how our politics are shaped. In the last decade alone, the Conservative/Labour hold on our political system has vastly weakened and retreated, to a degree as yet not understood by the Westminster village.
The 2010 election is further evidence of this, even if it is true the Lib Dems did not quite live up to the hype! Then there is also the evidence of the ‘four nations’ of the disunited kingdom, a state without an over-arching United Kingdom politics, from no sense of uniform national swing, to more crucially, the emergence of four, very different party systems across the UK.
The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish all now have national political spaces and cultures, which even express themselves in Westminster elections, as well as devolved ones. The 2010 election results show that it is possible to begin to imagine a very different, distinct English political landscape emerge as well. This could be the end of British politics as we know it.
All 2010 UK election figures are taken from the BBC election website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/default.stm