Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The SNP surge and the 2015 General Election: what this means for UK politics

This time last year, no-one was seriously predicting that the SNP could wipe the board in the general election this year, and gain the majority of Scottish seats in Westminster. But now only a few months away from the election in May, barring some unexpected, massive, late recovery for Labour, this looks like the most likely scenario, according to analysis.

Analysts have said that the polling figures in Scotland seem so out-of-kilter with past polls to stretch credulity to (and beyond) breaking point. As has been said, if the results were an accurate view of the political situation in Scotland, it would have to indicate a sudden and massive sea-change in opinion. Few seem to be able to accept the truth staring them in the face: that there has, indeed, been a sudden, transformative, change in Scottish politics. It's just that these kind of things don't happen very often - but they do happen from time to time.
And now is clearly one of those times when there is a once-in-a-generation shift in politics. They do, indeed, happen: the last time it happened nationally across the UK was in 1997, and 1979 prior to that, and again going back to 1945. In 2015 we're facing the birth of a messy, five-way political scene, that is bound to put huge pressure on the existing voting system if the situation remains as it is for more than one parliament.

Reaching the tipping point

In Scotland's case, the collapse of Labour's support has not been as sudden as people think, but has been more gradual in Holyrood; it has simply gone largely unnoticed in Westminster, due to the complacency of the Westminster establishment. The SNP have been in government in Scotland now for many years, with a third term looking a shoo-in next year. They have been gradually eating away at Labour's "natural" majority, so much that by the time of the referendum last year, 45% voted "yes". With so many of those voters being from places like Glasgow and Dundee, what has clearly happened is those Labour supporters who voted "yes" last year, have now simply switched their allegiance to the SNP.

Rationally, this makes sense, as the SNP was the only large party that supported "yes". Somehow, after voting "yes" for independence, Labour grandees expected their "natural" supporters to go back to voting for "no"-supporting Labour in the election, This attitude reflects a ignorant disregard for the once-in-a-lifetime effect that a referendum can have on the politics of a nation, and a "blind spot" for not realising the dangerous position it put Labour in after the referendum. It's unclear if the SNP saw the beneficial, post-referendum, side-effects of this either, but they are reaping the rewards now regardless.

But what this means politically is nothing less than an earthquake north of the border, for whereas ten years ago Labour were around twenty points ahead of the SNP in Scotland, that situation has now reversed. The "45" who voted "yes" in the referundum are now the "45" who will probably vote for the SNP in the Westminster election. This utterly changes the political scene, in a way that politicians could have scarcely imagined.
Now that the SNP are averaging percentages in the forties in many constituencies, and are comfortably ahead of Labour or the Lib Dems in many areas, Westminster's FPTP system now suddenly works in the favour. This is the oddity of the FPTP system and how it can bring about freakish and sudden change. Once a party reaches a "tipping point", they create a "teflon" quality within the system: this explains why the Lib Dems may be polling less than ten per cent of the vote, yet still end up retaining many of their MPs. Of course, the other extreme is now facing them in Scotland: that they may lose almost all of their MPs thanks to the SNP surge.
So the FPTP system can be equally a blessing and a curse, depending on the circumstances. As Labour may well find out, if all constituencies vote the same way, it means that one party ends up with all the seats, regardless of how unfair this may seem. That's just the way the system works!

For the SNP right now, they are doubly-blessed with a surge in popularity that is giving them a comfortable hold over Holyrood, and the likelihood of having a large cohort of MPs (though "enforcers" might be a more appropriate word!) to take down to Westminster. Which leaves us thinking about where this leaves Scottish relations with Westminster...

A "rough wooing" in reverse?

Whoever forms the next government after the election. they are facing a huge headache if the SNP has the predicted number of MPs that polling currently predicts. Modest estimates are that they could win two dozen seats; higher estimates (yet still plausible, given the polling figures) talk about forty or more MPs. These are extraordinary numbers, but again, given the unique effect of the referendum, these are extraordinary times.

Tories may well be thinking they could retain power by default, with the SNP surge depriving Labour of up to three dozen or so MPs. They should be careful for what they wish for, because whichever party ends up being the biggest number of MPs, they will almost certainly not have a majority (even with Lib Dem support - more on that in a moment). and any possible coalition looks much shakier than the one formed after the 2010 election.
Here's why. Polling across the country suggests that the Conservatives are likely to lose seats to Labour in many marginals; given how historically-badly Labour did in 2010 this kind of recovery is no surprise, and their polling figures are healthier than the Tories in these battlegrounds. So the most likely party the Tories are to take MPs from is the LibDems - the very party they would want to be in coalition with. In other words, they would - at best - end up with similar numbers of MPs, but with far fewer LibDems to form a coalition. Ergo, they could not form a majority as a two-party coalition.
So the Tories have their own strategic problems, and that's without factoring-in the "UKIP effect". Apart from the LibDems, no party of any size would want to do business with them.

Labour has its own problems, due to the SNP and the combined effect in England of the UKIP-Green insurgency. So while they would expect take seats from the Conservatives, due to losing seats in Scotland to the SNP, they may well end up in only a modestly-better position than now, and short of a majority, even if they did a deal with the LibDems, as mentioned above.

This scenario, looking very likely at the moment, gives the SNP the whip hand. The question is, what kind of constitutional nightmare does this scenario result in? This is politically (and constitutionally) uncharted territory. Both main parties will be locked in squabbles over how to deal with the SNP's cohort of MPs post-election. And how would they form a government? Will the Scottish "tail" be wagging the English "dog"?

The easiest option for parliament would be to call a fresh election if the situation is looking untenable, but what guarantees are there that the result would be much different? And would there be an appetite for even more politicking?
In this potentially-febrile atmosphere, relations between Scotland and England could make the tensions during the referendum campaign seem trivial and light-hearted by comparison. The potential for venomous disagreements and shady scheming is large. But this is the situation that the UK may well face, with no-one in Westminster having a real clue what to do about it.

Calls for another Scottish referendum may come, and not only from the Scots. The UK may still be split up due to the in-fighting between the various components of the union. Whatever happens, it certainly will not be boring...

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