How representative are UK elections?

It’s often said that UK general election results fail to represent the electorate accurately. There’s some truth to this.

The UK’s First Past the Post (or Single Member Plurality, if we’re being comparative political scientists about it) electoral system distributes parliamentary seats to parties based not on the share of the vote they win in the country as a whole, but whether they come first in any of 650 separate constituencies. This rewards larger parties, and those with more concentrated vote shares, over smaller, more diffuse parties. To put it into context, at the 2015 general election the SNP won 8.62% of the seats in the House of Commons with 4.7% of the national vote, while UKIP won 0.15% of the seats on 12.9% of the vote. 2015 was a bad year for the Lib Dems anyway, but they, too, usually lose out similarly.

The advantage of this system is supposed to be that it makes forming stable single-party majority governments easier. That, in turn, promotes what is known as ‘responsible’ government. Voters can choose a party confident in the knowledge that, if it wins, it will probably be able to get its manifesto commitments through parliament. If, at the next election, they judge that it has failed, they can relatively easily vote it out. Under FPTP, voters choose a government. Under more proportional systems, they choose a parliament – and parliament chooses a government. What the government actually does in a more proportional system will likely reflect post-election elite bargaining as much as voter choice.

At the same time, however, FPTP allows parties to gain absolute power (and in the UK’s ‘elective dictatorship’, with its doctrine of absolute parliamentary sovereignty, it usually is absolute power) despite only winning a minority of the votes cast. As figure 1 shows, no government elected since 1945 has won a majority of the votes cast, yet all but three have won a majority of seats in the House of Commons. On two occasions – the Conservatives in 1951, and Labour in February 1974, the party that came second in terms of vote share won more seats and wound up forming the government.

Figure 1

Over time, the share of the vote needed for a majority has fallen, as voters have shifted allegiances away from the two largest parties. As figure 2 illustrates, the Conservatives won 49.7% of the vote in 1955, and a majority of 60. Labour won 35.2% of the vote in 2005, and a majority of 66. In 1951, the Conservatives gained 1.07% of the seats in the House of Commons for every 1% of the vote they won. In 2005 Labour gained 1.57% of the seats for every 1% of the vote. The exaggerative bias of the system has worsened.

Figure 2


As figure 3 shows, in 1951, 96.8% of voters voted either Labour or Conservative. In 2010 just 65.1% did so. To put it another way, nearly 97% of voters in 1951 voted for either the outgoing Labour government or the incoming Conservative government. In 2010, 35% of voters chose a party that had not been in power in the postwar era.

Figure 3

Ailsa Henderson has shown that voters are generally satisfied with the electoral system provided their preferred party wins power at a national level at least some of the time – but that they start to lose faith in the fairness of the system if their side never gets to win. What Figure 3 shows is that, since the 1950s, the proportion of voters whose side never wins has gradually risen. That partially explains the legitimacy crisis facing parliament in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. As Rob Saunders has put it, “When four million people vote UKIP, as in 2015, and are rewarded with a solitary MP, we should not be surprised if they view parliament as something done to them by an external elite”.

One reason why most pollsters failed to predict the Brexit vote was that a large number of people who did not vote in general elections turned out for the referendum. Those people disproportionately voted Leave. As figure 4 shows, turnout has fallen in line with the share of votes going to Labour and the Conservatives. In 1950, 84% of eligible voters actually voted. In 2001, just 60% did so. As Oliver Heath argues, the decline in turnout arose especially among working-class voters, as Labour shifted toward the middle class under Tony Blair: “the class divide in participation has become greater than the class divide in vote”

Figure 4

If we then look at the interaction between declining turnout and partisan dealignment – the increasing willingness of voters to switch parties between elections, and to vote for parties other than the two largest – the picture becomes even more bleak.

Figure 5

As figure 5 shows, the share of possible votes won by the two largest parties has plummeted from well above 50% – 80% of all eligible voters in 1951 voted either Labour or Conservative – to below 50%, with a particular nadir in 2005. Just 41.5% of eligible voters voted either Labour or Conservative in that year. Out of everyone eligible to vote in 2005, nearly 60% did not vote for one of the two parties that had wielded absolute power in the UK since 1945. Given Henderson’s findings about faith in democracy, that looks like a problem. Given Heath’s findings about the differential decline in faith in voting among working class voters, it looks like an especially acute one. While it isn’t true that working class voters determined the Brexit result – there aren’t enough of them left to win a majority on their own, and in fact most Brexit voters were comfortable, middle class, English conservatives – working class resentment at a political system that appeared to be failing to represent them clearly is part of the story.

How does all of this play out at a constituency level? In a multi-party system, you don’t need to win a majority of votes in your local area to get elected to parliament. You just need to win more votes than any other candidate. I wondered how many MPs were actually elected despite a majority of voters in their constituency voting for someone else – an important question in light of current debates around the merits of tactical voting.

I found, as table 1 shows, that some 26.8% of MPs elected in the 2017 election won less than 50% of the vote in their constituency. That was actually lower than I expected. It reflected the shift back to big-party voting that characterized the 2017 election, with Labour and the Conservatives winning 82% of the vote between them. It also reflected the relative concentration of their votes. Smaller parties, generally, were more likely to win seats despite winning less than 50% of the local vote – this was true of all 35 of the SNP’s seats, for example – generally because they had to beat both Labour and the Conservatives in order to win.

MPs elected on: <50% of vote
n %
All MPs 650 174 26.8%
Con 317 74 23.3%
DUP 10 5 50.0%
Green 1 0 0.0%
Ind 1 1 100.0%
Lab 262 40 15.3%
LD 12 11 91.7%
PC 4 4 100.0%
SF 7 4 57.1%
SNP 35 35 100.0%
Spk 1 0 0.0%

Table 1

26.8% doesn’t sound too bad. That means that 73.2% of MPs won more than 50% of the votes cast in their constituency, giving them the right to claim to speak for the majority of local people. I looked these figures up after claiming in a lecture that less than 50% of MPs won more than 50% of the vote, and had to correct myself.

The picture looks different, however, if we again factor in turnout. Once we consider the share of available votes won by each MP, rather than just the share of votes cast, the number of MPs able to claim they speak for a majority of their constituents falls precipitously. As table 2 shows, just 27 MPs – 24 Labour, 2 Conservatives, and the Speaker – won more than 50% of the available votes. 95.8% of MPs won office despite a majority of eligible voters in their constituency either not voting, or voting for someone else.

MPs elected on: <50% of vote <50% of constituents
n % n %
All MPs 650 174 26.8% 623 95.8%
Con 317 74 23.3% 315 99.4%
DUP 10 5 50.0% 10 100.0%
Green 1 0 0.0% 1 100.0%
Ind 1 1 100.0% 1 100.0%
Lab 262 40 15.3% 238 90.8%
LD 12 11 91.7% 12 100.0%
PC 4 4 100.0% 4 100.0%
SF 7 4 57.1% 7 100.0%
SNP 35 35 100.0% 35 100.0%
Spk 1 0 0.0% 0 0.0%

Table 2

These figures further underline the problems with the UK’s electoral system. Most MPs win office with the support of a minority of eligible voters in their local area. Most governments win absolute power with the support of a minority of actual voters, and an even smaller minority of eligible voters, in the country. People lose faith in democracy when it seems to be incapable of representing their views adequately. That is clearly happening in the UK, now.

Quick war powers digest

Putting all my writing on parliamentary war powers in one place:

Action or inaction? What are May’s political options? Times Red Box, 12 April 2018: 

Parliamentary war powers: The pros and cons, PSA Political Insight, 12 April 2018:

Key point: May’s best option in terms of domestic politics is to offer the US logistical and intelligence support, avoiding the need either to bypass parliament or to risk losing a vote. If she wants to do more than that, she’ll have to take significant political risks.

The war powers of the British parliament: What has been established, and what remains unclear? British Journal of Politics and International Relations, February 2018: (non-paywalled pre-publication version here:

Key point: Parliament has no legal war powers, but most MPs expect a say over future military combat operations. Future governments will face two related choices – do they think they can afford to bypass MPs, and do they think they can win a vote? What they do will depend on how they answer these questions (we’re in scenario 4 right now):


Interpreting the Syria vote: Parliament and British foreign policy, International Affairs, September 2015:

Key point: The Cameron government’s defeat over Syria said more about party politics than it did about military strategy. Had Cameron successfully done a deal with Ed Miliband, the 2013 Syria vote could have been won.

Why parliament now decides on war: Tracing the growth of the parliamentary prerogative through Syria, Libya and Iraq, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, June 2014:

Key point: Cumulative precedents set in parliamentary votes on Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2013 established a convention that MPs should have the chance to veto military combat deployments.

Theresa May’s options for military action in Syria

UK Ministry of Defence CC BY-SA 2.0

The prospect of UK military action against the Assad regime has returned to newspaper front pages. In light of parliament’s 2013 decision to block similar strikes, some Conservative MPs have argued that the Prime Minister should avoid a House of Commons vote, and rely on her authority under the Royal Prerogative to order British involvement. In this short post, I consider the different options available to May from a domestic politics perspective. I don’t touch on the strategic and legal difficulties with intervention against the Assad regime, but suffice to say these are considerable and largely unchanged since 2013.

Bypassing MPs is certainly an option, but it is not a straightforward one. A tentative convention has developed since MPs authorized the Iraq War in 2003 that parliament should sign off on the use of military force. It is recognized in the Cabinet Manual and has been endorsed by May’s own spokesman since she entered Downing Street. Many MPs do not even realize that their involvement in decisions on military action in Libya in 2011, Syria in 2013 (which they vetoed), Iraq in 2014 and Syria in 2015 derived from convention rather than law. Ignoring them would have political costs. May should not take this path without accepting that it might further undermine her shaky position in parliament, and without being willing to risk consequences up to and including a motion of no confidence.

Asking MPs for prior approval before joining US-led strikes also looks like a problematic option. It would be consistent with the War Powers Convention. But it seems highly likely that the government would struggle to win, just as David Cameron did in 2013. The government lacks an overall majority. While the DUP has supported military action in the past, it is not bound by the terms of its confidence-and-supply arrangement to support it in future. Its MPs have consistently argued that any use of force must be focused on upholding the national interest, and there is no direct British national interest at stake in Syria, at least as far as the Assad regime is concerned. The main opposition parties – Labour and the SNP – are likely to oppose further intervention in Syria. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has a strong track record of voting against military action – he was, for example, one of just thirteen MPs who opposed intervention in Libya. Though Labour split over action against Da’esh in 2015, with Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn leading 60+ Labour MPs in supporting the government, the party looks more united now and the moral case for action is weaker.

May could order the use of force, then seek retrospective approval from MPs. David Cameron did this over Libya in 2011 and in authorizing a UAV strike on Syria in 2015. MPs do not, as a rule, like it when governments take this route. Cameron argued it was sometimes necessary, in light of an imminent threat to national security or humanitarian disaster, to act first and ask permission later. It is difficult to see how May could claim either exception to join US strikes against Assad. British national security is not directly threatened, and the humanitarian situation has largely remained unchanged for seven years.

May could, finally, restrict British participation in action against Assad to non-combat roles, such as providing surveillance and logistical support to its US and French allies, or by deploying Special Forces. Neither non-combat actions nor Special Forces operations presently fall under the War Powers Convention, meaning May retains discretion to act as she sees fit. Opponents of further engagement in Syria might, however, push back against this – they managed to prevent the Cameron government offering military support to opposition groups, for example, and one of the benefits of having a War Powers Convention instead of a War Powers Act is that MPs can demand more power over situations they particularly care about.

In sum, therefore, the May government’s best political option is probably not to join direct military action in Syria. Instead, it should offer its allies indirect support, perhaps including the use of Special Forces for reconnaissance purposes. That would enable it to demonstrate a degree of usefulness at a difficult diplomatic moment, without risking either holding, or visibly bypassing, a parliamentary vote.

I discuss these arguments in more detail in my recent article in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations (£).

The ballad of Theresa Mayhem

Theresa May’s great gamble failed. She hasn’t resigned yet, but she will. Her credibility is shot. Her majority is gone. Though the Conservatives can probably form a government with support from the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland, it will be weak and wobbly at best, not the ‘strong and stable government’ May promised. Even if she tries to stay in power, her party will probably get rid of her. Who comes next is unclear. Whatever the outcome, we can expect another election before the end of the year – and when that happens, all bets are off.

This was May’s election, and her defeat. She asked the electorate for a personal blank cheque – for Brexit, and whatever other challenges are to come. They refused. Jeremy Corbyn fought a far better campaign – a more interesting manifesto, with more carefully thought-out policies, smarter media work (!), and a more inspiring message. One of several reasons for the wide variation in pre-election opinion polls was that different pollsters used different approaches to estimate likely turnout. It looks like those (e.g. YouGov) who assumed respondents who promised to turn out and vote actually would got closer to the result than those who assumed past trends would continue this time around. In other words, it looks like more young people voted this time – though we’ll find out more in time.

So what does this all mean? What happens next? To begin with, Theresa May stays Prime Minister, at least until her party colleagues replace her. With DUP support she’ll be able to get her core policies through parliament, just. But something will have to change. To begin with, it is difficult to see how the government can credibly begin Brexit negotiations in 11 days’ time. May’s plan was to secure a personal mandate and a parliamentary cushion to allow her to cut whatever deal she saw fit. She failed. Given the choice, the electorate refused to endorse her proposal for ‘hard Brexit’. As I said in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum last year, there is no majority in the country for any possible version of Brexit. Nor is there a majority for simply accepting whatever Theresa thinks is best.

Jeremy Corbyn will also stay on as Labour leader. He’s proven that you don’t need to be slick to inspire voters (especially the young). He’s also demonstrated that there is appetite in the country for more left-wing policies. I expect many of the MPs who have rebelled against his leadership to rally, but I still doubt he’s an election-winner.

That final point worth noting is that the nature of this hung parliament makes a further election later this year highly likely. The government will struggle to get anything done. And when that happens, all bets are off. If it’s Boris Johnson versus Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no telling what will happen. After all, we’ve just had another demonstration of the challenge of conducting accurate UK opinion polls. Constituency results deviated even more wildly from the national swing. The Conservatives took seats in Scotland and lost them in England, reversing the recent trend. More people voted for either Labour or the Conservatives than have done so for several elections. All this makes knowing what will happen at the second 2017 election that much harder. I’ll make only one prediction. Mayhem will follow.

2017 Election Digest

I spent hours trying to write my take on tomorrow’s election, but I haven’t really been following it that closely and I felt I was just rambling nonsensically. I think the Conservatives will win, with an increased majority. I think it is unlikely but not impossible that either Labour will win or that the Conservatives will win by a landslide. I quite hope Ed Davey re-takes my home constituency of Kingston and Surbiton for the Liberal Democrats. I’m conscious that there is a lot of uncertainty and that the range of possible outcomes is very wide. So I decided simply to put together a reading list of links for anyone looking to enlighten themselves.

To begin with, if you have literally no idea what’s going on you might want to try the BBC general election FAQ page – which begins with the question “what is a general election?”. You can also use this page to find out which constituency you live in and who your local candidates are:

You can get more detail here:

You can then find a breakdown of where the parties stand on the key issues here:

This page provides an overview of opinion polls showing how people intended to vote at different stages in the build-up to the election:

You can get more detail here:

And there’s a model showing how this might translate into seats in parliament by Dr Chris Hanretty of the University of East Anglia here:

Lord Ashcroft’s version, which is based on constituency-level polling, comes to similar conclusions:

This post, by polling expert Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, talks about why the polls are so confusing:

This post, by famed American poll aggregator Nate Silver (someone who looks at all the different polls and weights them depending on how reliable the same polling company has been in the past), explains the uncertainty that still surrounds the vote despite the number of polls taken:

As does this earlier post:

This post, from BBC Newsnight Policy Editor Chris Cook, tries something different. It looks at where the main parties have sent their leaders to campaign, and uses this to estimate how well they think they are doing:

There’s a bunch of other stuff out there, but this is already more than most people will read. So I’ll wrap up with two final links.

This page tells you who to vote for in your local area to vote against the Conservatives:

This video sums up the election campaign quite well:

Thinking sensibly about Brexit, Part One: Brexit means Brexit

In this series of posts, I hope to try to think sensibly about Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Too much of the debate remains dominated by mad shrieking about ‘enemies of the people’, by a post-truth paranoia about elites undoing the referendum result that simply isn’t borne out by evidence or events. We can and must do better than this if we are to do justice to the competing demands of Britain’s divided voters, while delivering the best possible outcome for the Brexit process overall.

Source: Daily Mail.

I want to begin today with a fundamental point. Brexit means Brexit, as Theresa May regularly says. It is true that May’s rather gnomic comments on the subject deliberately downplay the range of ways Britain could leave the EU, the complexity of doing so and a great deal of uncertainty about what happens next. But the critical dimension is crystal clear. Britain held a straightforward ‘in-out’ referendum on its continued EU membership, and the majority of voters voted ‘out’. Britain is going to leave the EU.

Much of the argument around the pending Supreme Court verdict on parliament’s involvement in triggering Article 50 centres around failures on both sides to accept this statement as true. Some ‘remain’ voters hope MPs, the majority of whom backed ‘remain’, will reverse the outcome of the referendum. Many ‘leave’ voters, who make up a majority of the constituents of a majority of MPs thanks to the clustering of ‘remain’ voters in the cities, fear exactly the same outcome, and cry foul. There are two points worth making here.

First, the Supreme Court is likely to rule in favour of Gina Miller’s challenge, upholding the High Court’s verdict that the government must allow some sort of parliamentary vote before notifying the rest of the EU that it intends to exercise the right enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty of member states to leave. Miller’s case is straightforward. Triggering Article 50 takes Britain out of the EU after two years whether a deal is done or not. Leaving the EU will deprive British citizens of a series of rights currently enshrined in British law but derived from Britain’s EU membership, including specifically the right to vote in European elections. Though an elegant solution in other ways, the government’s so-called ‘Great Repeal Act’, which rather than repealing anything will in fact transpose the entirety of EU law into UK law so parliament can choose which bits to keep and which to repeal rather than having to start from scratch, does not get the job done on this front. While the power to make and unmake treaties remains vested in the government through the ‘royal prerogative’, it is a principle of English law that royal prerogative cannot be used to remove statutory rights from citizens. That, to be clear, is probably a good thing. The government has argued that involving parliament necessarily restricts the operation of the prerogative in an area that falls very much within the usual ambit of prerogative powers, but realistically the court is likely to come down on the side of the citizenry in this case.

Second, MPs are unlikely to prevent the government from triggering Article 50. One thing we have learned from the gradual growth of parliamentary powers in the realm of military combat deployments is that MPs are actually willing to judge individual cases presented to them on their respective merits. Despite lingering (and justified) concerns about the merits of military intervention left over from the disaster of Iraq, they are still willing to approve the use of force to meet clear objectives, as part of a multinational coalition and without incurring unnecessary risks. MPs are acutely aware of the fact that most of their constituents voted to leave – Zac Goldsmith’s defeat by a pro-EU Liberal Democrat candidate in Richmond notwithstanding. They know they will be challenged by UKIP at the next election if they fail to respect that balance of views. But they also know that, as I have said, there are multiple ways of leaving the EU, the process is complex, and reaching an outcome acceptable to many, if not most, British people will be hard. They will vote for Article 50 provided the government sets out a reasonable plan, giving some indication of its preferred end result, negotiating priorities and approach.

This is not an unreasonable thing for MPs to request. Most ‘leave’ voters, if they think about it, are likely to agree that the government should come up with a plan, identifying desired outcomes and deciding which areas to prioritize. We can probably come up with a rough approximation of what the government’s negotiating objectives are likely to be. This is my best guess:

  • Britain would like to retain maximum access to the single market and is willing to accept that will mean following rules set by the other EU states and making a financial contribution to the EU budget. In practice this is likely to look more like a third-party free-trade deal than the so-called ‘Norway model’. That means it will involve sector-by-sector agreements rather than unfettered single market membership. EEA membership may offer an acceptable transitional model on the economic front, but will be acceptable only subject to the next point about immigration.
  • Britain must have the right to impose restrictions on immigration from within the EU, and will give up single market access if necessary in order to secure that right. It will accept the loss of British citizens’ rights to live and work freely elsewhere in the EU. It may explore the possibility of some sort of system of exemptions, perhaps allowing more liberal arrangements for people under the age of 26, or for a limited period of time (e.g. along the model of the Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme visa).
  • Britain will meet its share of its continuing liabilities to the EU, but will expect a fair deal off-setting these against its share of the EU’s assets. There will be some sort of ‘divorce settlement’, but it will not be as high as the more outlandish estimates banded about recently.
  • Britain would like British citizens resident elsewhere in the EU and EU citizens resident in the UK at the time of the referendum to retain their respective rights to live and work where they are. It would also like to minimize the costs associated with moving between the UK and EU for both work and pleasure in future.
  • Britain would like to continue to work in close partnership with the EU in areas of mutual interest, including trade, international development, environmental policy, counter-terrorism, policing and international security. It is more than willing to pay its way, and it has considerable expertise available to contribute.

There will be challenges associated with these objectives. Negotiating them will not be straightforward. Personally, I would push for an early reciprocal deal on citizens in situ at the time of the referendum, and a clear statement of continued co-operation in areas like security, as a way of re-establishing a degree of goodwill and getting the negotiations off to a positive start. I also like the idea of having different rules for young people, most of whom voted to ‘remain’ and who are disproportionately disadvantaged by the loss of the right to live, work and study freely elsewhere in Europe. Again, it may be possible to negotiate a more limited form of free movement on these terms provided it is seen as a truly reciprocal arrangement rather than a ‘special deal’ for Britain.

Stating objectives like these does not make negotiating them more difficult. In fact, securing parliamentary approval for triggering Article 50 on the basis of an explicitly stated set of negotiating objectives arguably strengthens the government’s hand. Firstly, it tells the rest of the EU what Britain wants. There has been a great deal of frustration in the other 27 capitals about Britain’s failure to clarify this point. Doing so should at least let everyone know where they stand, and help the EU27 to clarify their own objectives. This should shift the debate away from emotion and towards simple politics, where there is more scope for compromise. Secondly, it sends a signal that Britain wants to minimize the disruption caused to the rest of the EU by its departure, and to continue to work together positively in future. As Boris Johnson said in response to the referendum result, Britain will remain a European power after Brexit. Though the shock of departure, and the slap in the face the British electorate has given the rest of the EU, will make relations frosty for a period, there is no reason why Britain should not in time become a valued partner of the EU. Finally, it sets clear limits to what Britain can accept, especially in the area of immigration, while leaving open the possibility of favorable outcomes for the EU27 in other areas. A deal that met some of the government’s publicly-stated negotiating objectives while moving towards others would probably be acceptable in Britain. That would allow the government to make credible commitments in areas where the disagreements between London and the EU27 are fewer. None of this means a deal will actually emerge. Emotions continue to run high, and there are a number of areas where Britain’s interests conflict with those of the EU27, and where the EU27 are internally divided, with free movement chief among them. But it would establish a clear, coherent and legitimate set of objectives to get the process moving.

Brexit means Brexit. Britain is going to leave the EU. Involving MPs will force the government to come up with a sensible plan, will give it credibility in Brussels and should obviate the need for a referendum on the final Brexit terms that the government would struggle to win. It will also begin the process of restoring sovereignty to parliament that many ‘leave’ voters voted for, and will fit nicely into the ongoing trend towards MPs gaining a greater say over British foreign policy. Making the government’s objectives clear and transparent will neither prevent it achieving them nor ensure it can do so. But it is a necessary first step. It should not have been necessary for Gina Miller to go to court at all. The legal position is fairly clear, and the government is probably going to lose, with the added risk that it may wind up forced to consult the devolved administrations more directly. Ministers should never have tried to exclude MPs from the process. Getting them involved will not mean annulling the result of the referendum. It should, however, help ensure it is upheld properly.

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.