The Tories, Labour and the Politics of and the Disunited Kingdom
January 23rd 2010
One answer to the Tory ‘no mandate’ cry is provided in today’s Scotsman and argues that this might all well be a problem, but what happens when the Scots vote Labour and England votes Tory resulting in a Labour government, or as one correspondent argues, ‘what about poor old Northern Ireland’ which never votes for a UK government (1)?
Well it is a great deal more complicated and simple than that.
Lets take England first. Since 1945 England has voted Tory and got a Labour government on two occasions: 1964 and February 1974. One of these produced a Labour majority of five, the other a hung Parliament; both were short-lived Parliaments of a total of under two and a half years between them (October 1964-March 1966; February-October 1974).
What is even more important to stress is that Scotland can only influence England in a very narrow result: so in 1964 and Feb 1974 the English results were close in seats and votes and the UK pushed Labour by Scotland and Wales (2).
What happens to Scotland and Wales can never happen to England. Scotland in 1987 returned 50 Labour and 10 Tory MPs but the Tories had a UK majority of 102. There is a whole world of difference between this, what may happen in 2010, and these past examples.
And of course England narrowly voted more Tory in 2005 – 35.7% to 35.4% – while Labour ended up with 92 seats more in England and a UK majority of 66 (3). That’s a whole other political anomaly.
Northern Ireland. It is completely wrong to say that Northern Ireland has not elected a UK Government. From 1945-72 the Ulster Unionists took the Tory whip, something they have returned to in the last few years. Thus, from 1951-64 and 1970-72 Northern Irish voters voted for the UK party which won.
What is seldom commented upon is that in the 1950s and 1960s the Ulster Unionists often elected ten MPs to two republicans or socialists, and in a close UK election – such as 1951 – they could have comprised the whole UK Tory majority.
The dissolution of the Unionist-Tory alliance had a dramatic effect on UK politics seldom commented upon in February 1974 which produced a hung Parliament with 301 Labour and 296 Conservatives. If the Unionists had still taken the Tory whip, as they had done up to two years previous, Ted Heath would have had the biggest number of MPs and been entitled to claim that he had ‘won’ the election and attempt to remain Prime Minister. Given he attempted to remain PM anyway for six days, we can be sure that despite losing his majority he would have done so.
Another fact the Unionist-Tory alliance contributed to is making Labour’s narrow victories of 1950 and 1964 even narrower than they were. In 1950 the Attlee Government was returned with a majority of five seats and felt it had to go to the country a year and a half after being elected exhausted and with such a small majority. Without the Northern Irish results Attlee’s majority would have been not five, but seventeen, and it is possible to imagine that the whole of 1950s British politics could have been different.
And what of Wales. Sadly Wales is often treated as an afterthought in these discussions. It has never voted Tory from 1859 (4) and in post-war elections Labour has often won over a majority of the popular vote – something it has never managed in Scotland ever.
One interesting contribution Wales made to post-war elections is 1955. In this election – as we are constantly reminded – the Tories won a majority of the popular vote in Scotland (50.1%). They also won a majority of the English vote (50.4%), and a majority of the Northern Irish vote (68.5%). This was the result of Anthony Eden’s brief honeymoon period of his premiership pre-Suez.
What stopped the Tories getting a majority of the UK vote was their derisory vote in Wales (29.9%).
The answer(s) to the above don’t lie in the West Lothian Question or in trying to invent an equally valid Scottish set of anomalies which some have tried to do christening it the East Lothian Question (Scots not voting Tory but getting UK Tory government).
The answer(s) lie in identifying correctly the problem: asymmetrical devolution and what happens to England, and the how the FPTP system distorts the nature of party support across the whole UK. And all of this stems from an unreformed, or half-reformed if you were being generous British political system.
2. English votes: 1964: Conservative 44.1% Labour 43.5% Liberal 12.1%, seats Con 262 Lab 246 Lib 3; Feb 1974 Conservative 40.2% Labour 37.6% Liberal 21.3%, seats Con 256 Lab 246 Lib 3.
3. Conservative 35.7% Labour 35.4% Lib Dem 22.9%; seats: Con 194 Lab 286 Lib Dem 47 Others 2, http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/vote2005/html/england.stm
4. FWS Craig, British Electoral Facts 1832-1980, Parliamentary Research Services 1981.