EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

 

  • On Thursday 5 May, local elections to autonomous legislative bodies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland took place, which brought many historically unprecedented results but also demonstrated the difficulties of reaching a majority in the proportional voting system.
  • The results, despite being regional, have a significant effect on the direction of British politics as a whole, especially from the constitutional point of view. They have also important implications for party politics at the national level.

One of the historic landmarks of these elections was the victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the Scottish Parliament. In almost 20 years’ history of the institution (since 1999), the SNP is the first party to achieve victory three times in a row. Despite failing to gain the majority by two seats it managed during the previous election, there has never been a party with such a stable voter support. SNP will thus again form a Scottish government, albeit a minority one. The minority character of government might be an obstacle to SNP’s proclaimed plan to call a second referendum on Scottish independence, especially if the British voters decide to stay in the EU in the upcoming referendum on the 23rd of June. Even if SNP managed to win over the 48% of Scottish inhabitants who are currently against Scottish independence, the question of whether David Cameron would consider SNP’s electoral gain a legitimate reason to allow a second referendum remains unresolved.

Another result that will go down in history is the defeat of the Scottish Labour Party by the Conservatives. Since World War II, it is the first time that the Labour Party would come third and only second time that the Conservatives would surpass them. The last time this happened was in the British parliamentary election in 1955. Since then, up until the ascent of the SNP in 2007, Scotland has been the stronghold of the Labour Party. This position was further reinforced during the government of Margaret Thatcher, whose policies were never viewed as legitimate in Scotland. For Scottish Conservatives, her legacy has almost become a cumbersome burden, which has prevented them from achieving more successful results in this part of the UK. Their current increase of seats in the Scottish Parliament is thus all the more surprising.

The reasons for the replacement of the Labour Party by the Conservatives as the second strongest Scottish party are manifold. The Scottish Labour Party has not been able to nominate a strong charismatic leader since the untimely death of its chairman Donald Dewar in 2000, which was proved by their often-changing leadership over the past years. The current chairman Kezia Dugdale, who assumed her post last August, is no exemption. On the other hand, the leader of Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, is far more popular with the voters. Another reason is the parties’ stance in the debate of Scotland’s future, which became polarized during the referendum in September 2014. The defendant of Scotland’s independence is the SNP and the party most in opposition to them is now the Conservatives, rather than the Labour Party.

Lower voter support has troubled the Labour Party also in Wales. Despite this unfavourable trend, they managed to secure their stand as the strongest party and win the election there. Similarly to SNP in Scotland, the Labour Party lacked two seats to gain a majority in the Welsh Assembly. The question remains whether they will repeat the procedure from 2007 and form a coalition government with the second strongest party, Plaid Cymru, or whether they will form a minority government again. Both parties agree that the devolution process should be deepened, and that Wales should receive authorities that are more independent and autonomous.

The Welsh election also brought a historically unprecedented result thanks to UKIP, which gained seven seats and thus gained its first representation in an autonomous legislative body. This party adheres to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher and is not overly favourable towards the devolution process in the UK. It can be argued that UKIP replaced the Welsh Liberal Democrats as the fourth most popular party in Wales, whose mandate was reduced to purely one seat (the Lib-Dems have similarly lost in Scotland, where they were surpassed by the Greens).

Unlike Scotland and Wales, the change in party support in Northern Ireland was not so sweeping. According to expectations, the radical unionist advocate – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – has won, with the radical republican party Sinn Féin coming second. If the Northern Irish government were to be majoritarian, the only viable option is a coalition between unionist and nationalist parties. Whether it will be DUP and Sinn Féin again remains open just yet. On the other hand, both parties have already gained experience with working together in government in the past two election periods.

The regional elections in the so-called Celtic Fringe have confirmed the standings of radical and nationalistic parties, which will thus continue to influence mainstream politics not only in the given regions but also at the UK level. The results have also shown a futile effort of the Labour Party to reverse the trend of waning voter support, especially in Scotland, which is the key region for reaching a majority in the national parliament. Further development of the various historical regions of the UK will be closely tied to the results of the referendum on staying in the EU.

Zuzana Kasáková

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