A quick and dirty look at what Scottish independence would mean for parliament

Today’s news that Scottish voters might yet vote yes to independence got me thinking about the political implications for the rest of the union. Alex Salmond’s main argument in favour of independence has been that Scotland doesn’t vote Conservative (broadly true) yet thanks to the Conservatives’ dominance in England, it still gets stuck with David Cameron as Prime Minister. Labour won 41 of the 59 Scottish seats at the 2010 election.

What would the impact be if those 59 seats simply disappeared ahead of the 2015 election? It’s a hypothetical question; whatever Salmond says, the negotiations over independence would take several years, so it’s likely Scottish MPs will still be elected next year. It’s an interesting question all the same.

2010 Parliament

Party Total seats Scottish seats Residual
Conservative 306 1 305
Labour 258 41 217
Lib Dem 57 11 46
Others 23 0 23
SNP 6 6 0

Table 1: distribution of seats, 2010 General Election

As table 1 shows, removing Scottish seats from the parliament elected in 2010 would have primarily benefitted the Conservatives. In fact, without the Scottish seats, David Cameron would have won a small overall majority of 19.

2015 Election

Whether or not they are experiencing buyer’s remorse, British voters have repeatedly told pollsters since 2010 that they would elect a Labour government given the opportunity. The most recent Yougov poll has Labour narrowly ahead, by 35% to 33%. I put these figures through the UK Polling Report swingometer and came out with a projected Labour win in 2015, with a small majority of 12. As with the 2010 result, however, this projection relies heavily on Labour success north of the border. Take Scotland out of the equation and you wind up with a hung parliament.

Party Projected 2015 seats Scottish seats Residual
Conservative 276 3 273
Labour 331 49 282
Lib Dem 16 3 13
Others 24 0 24
SNP 4 4 0

Table 2: projected distribution of seats, 2015 General Election

Table 2 breaks this down. The projected collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote largely benefits Labour, helping to fuel its overall majority. However, remove its 49 projected Scottish MPs from the equation and Labour is left holding just 48% of seats, 14 short of the 296 needed for an overall majority in the reduced 591-seat House of Commons. The Conservatives are close behind on 273. The most obvious outcome in such a situation would be a Lib-Lab coalition, underlining the point that the Liberal Democrats might yet remain in government after 2015 even though they expect to lose many of their seats. Even in coalition, however, the government would still lack an overall majority. It would have to rely on winning the support of at least some of the smaller parties. Based on current voting intentions, in other words, the removal of the Scottish constituencies from the equation would leave the rest of the UK with a hung parliament, and one even harder to control than the 2010 variant.

 

Projected 2015Residual

Figure 3: side by side comparison, projected 2015 election outcome and residual seat distribution after removal of Scottish MPs.

Figure 3 illustrates these outcomes. Under the present projection, we see Labour exceeding the level required for a majority. Under the revised ‘residual’ projection that excludes Scottish constituencies, Labour has fallen below the level required for a majority.

What all this means is difficult so say for sure. Certainly Scotland would escape the undoubted irritations of Tory government if it broke away from the rest of the UK. At the same time, it is not necessarily the case that Scottish independent would doom the rest of the UK to perpetual Conservative rule, as some observers have suggested. Instead it seems more likely that the removal of the Scottish seats would inadvertently level what is currently an uneven playing field between Labour and the Conservatives. At the moment the concentration of Labour votes in urban areas leaves the Conservatives needing a larger vote share to achieve a majority. Removing the Scottish seats seems to cancel out this advantage, leaving Labour slightly ahead of the Conservatives in line with their projected vote share lead of 2%, but giving neither an overall majority.

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