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Scotland: An Electoral Bastion for Labour

From FiveThirtyEight’s Dan Berman

While most media coverage and electoral analysis of the UK election has focused on marginal seats in the English heartland, the election campaign has carried on quite differently in the other regions. In Northern Ireland, for example, no major party candidates(with the exception of UUP candidates standing as Tories this time) are standing for election, while the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales are in position to possibly win additional seats.

Even in places where candidates from all of the major parties are standing, like Scotland, there is a very different race. For instance in Scotland, the Conservatives hold just one seat out of 59, and if YouGov’s breakdowns for the last week –Lab 37 LD 22 SNP 20 Con 17 — are anything to go on, they are unlikely to pick up more than one or two additional seats.

The first thing to note about Scotland is that many seats have four major parties, not three, competing for seats. This difference is not particularly new. Scotland, at least outside of the cities, remained loyal to the Liberals long after they had faded in the rest of the UK, and the Unionist party, which stood candidates in place of the Conservatives, was a legacy of the Liberal Unionists who split from the Liberals over Irish Home Rule in 1886.

In a sense there were two electorates in Scotland. The first resided in the cities, pitting a heavily Labour working class against a Unionist middle class. Outside the cities, a small-town Presbyterian tradition, closely linked culturally and politically with the Northern Irish Unionists, battled residual Liberals and Labour candidates.

Change came in the 1960s, however. The Unionists were assimilated into the greater Conservative party, reinforcing the impression of them as a London party, which lost much of its base when the Conservatives abandoned “Unionism” in Ireland. With that change, “Unionism” increasingly came to be regarded as simply Scottish subordination to London, rather than unity of the global British Empire.

The Liberals, in their 1960 revival, embraced a suburban strategy in the south of England rather their traditional Scottish roots. As a consequence, there was greater demand for a legitimately ‘Scottish’ party to challenge Labour.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) had existed for some time, but it won its first seat from Labour in a 1967 by-election. In the 1970s the SNP were increasingly successful, winning 31 percent of the vote and 11 Westminster seats in the September 1974 elections. The SNP then went into decline for several election cycles, falling to 2 seats in 1979, and recovering only in 2005 election, when they won 6 seats.

This new revival took place at the same time as the Scottish Tories ceased to exist, falling from 25 percent of the vote and 11 seats in 1992, to 17 percent and not a single seat in 1997. They won back one seat in 2005, but made little progress in terms of votes. Their rural voters increasingly went to the SNP, whether tactically or for conviction, while the Unionist ones went to Labour.

Since devolution, the SNP has had substantial success on the local level, winning control of the Scottish executive a s a minority government in 2007. However, the SNP under First Minister Alex Samond is currently unpopular, kept in office, in a touch of irony, by the Scottish Conservatives and independence has minority support. Their success owes a lot to the proportional elements of the electoral system used for Scottish Elections if the same results as in 2007 were repeated at the Westminster level on May 6th, the SNP would at best pick win 14 of the 59 seats.

Indeed, the Scottish electoral system is even more favorable to Labour than the UK system as a whole. In 2005 the Conservatives won 16 percent to the SNP’s 18 percent and the Liberal Democrats 23 percent. Yet the Conservatives won only 1 seat, the SNP 6, and the Liberal Democrats 11. Labour, winning 39 percent, won 40 seats.

This bias is not entirely new. When the SNP reached its high point in 1974, winning 31 percent, it won just 11 of Scotland’s then 73 seats. When the Tories repeated that percentage in 1979, they won a more respectable 22 seats, but were still dwarfed by the 49 won by Labour. In the bias’ most spectacular performance, Labour actually won 37 of the 73 FPTP seats in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary elections, despite winning only 32 percent of the vote and coming second to the SNP, which on 33 percent only won 21 seats.

As a consequence, Scotland has, at least since the 1950s, been a massive reservoir of seats for Labour even if it wasn’t always in terms of votes. And all of the polling indicates that with the exception of perhaps 2-3 seats, this is likely to remain the same after Thursday. At worst, Labour may well be reduced to 35 seats, which would still leave them with a majority of the seats from the region. It is for this reason, as much as for any other, that little attention has been focused on the general election in Scotland.

This article was authored by research assistant Dan Berman. Please send comments or suggestions to