Monday 14 April 2014

Getting the Government that We Vote for

"For half the time since the end of the Second World War we have been saddled with governments we did not vote for. Even when Scotland votes Labour, there is no guarantee that we end up with a Labour government at Westminster. That decision is made by others. It is out of our hands." Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish National Party Conference April 2014
This is a common theme behind a lot of the Yes campaign's arguments, particularly from the SNP. On a superficial level, it is seductive. The narrative of Scotland as a centre-left Labour stronghold and that governments voted for by English (sic.) voters to the contrary go against the will of the Scottish people, has become dominant.

Not so simple

But scratch beneath the surface, and the picture is not nearly so clear. What are our assumptions about what is a legitimate government? Is it the popular vote? Is it the number of seats? Is a party with more than 50% of the vote but fewer than 50% of the seats more or less legitimate than a party with the opposite?

The last time Scotland gave both a majority of the popular vote and a majority of the seats to any political party was in 1955. To whom? To the Unionists! The Scottish wing of the Conservative ticket. Scotland gave 50.1% of the vote, and 50.7% of the seats to the Tories. In that election, somewhat ironically, the country as a whole gave the Conservatives only a minority of the popular vote. Under an umbrella of identities, including the Ulster Unionists and National Liberals, the Tories achieved more than 50% of the vote and seats in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but a relatively poor showing in Wales left them on 49.7% of the vote of the British public.

Since then, it's been a much more subtle story. True, the Labour Party have held the majority of seats in every General Election in Scotland since, and the Conservative share of the popular vote has fallen significantly. But it should be observed that the majority of Scots voted for parties other than the Labour Party in every General Election since the Second World War. Granted, Labour came close on many occasions to meeting such a threshold. For many years they have confidently won the plurality of votes at Westminster elections in Scotland. But if we are to take the democratic burden at its highest, then save the 1955 election, no part of the UK has truly got the government it voted for, save on a few occasions Wales with a Labour Government or Northern Ireland with an Ulster Unionist/Conservative one.

So what?

This point isn't to suggest that none of the governments were legitimate, but to ask for much clearer criteria as to what we consider to be what we voted for. All electoral systems, even proportional ones, make approximations and distortions of the raw electoral desires of the population to provide a functioning, representative assembly. We make constant trade-offs between stability and legitimacy: this is why, for example, the SNP have a working majority, but only 45% or so of the popular vote at Holyrood. We ignore, further, the level of turnout when saying whether a government is legitimate.

More Scots voted for either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 General Election than voted for the Scottish National Party on the regional list in 2011. This quirk is down as much to the much lower turnout of Holyrood Elections (circa 50%) than Westminster elections (circa 65%), and only just flips the other way if we only consider the constituency vote at Holyrood, but in democratic terms, the level of public endorsement for those governments is broadly the same. The argument that often follows this observation, that most (Scottish) Lib Dem voters would not have voted that way if they thought they would go into coalition with the Tories is somewhat undermined by the Lib Dems saying they would be happy to enter into coalition with their of the other two parties, depending on the terms. But all that proves is that legitimacy is more complex than raw votes or seats.

The Numbers

But let's then take Nicola Sturgeon's specific claim, that for half the time since WWII, Scotland has ended up with governments it didn't vote for. If we assume by this she means in terms of seats, the data churns out as follows:

  • Scotland voted for a Labour government in every election since 1945, except for 1951 and 1955.
    • In 1951, Scotland voted for a tied Parliament at 37 seats each, plus one Liberal. The Conservative ticket won the popular vote in Scotland with 48.6%.
    • In 1955 Scotland voted for a Tory Government (see above)
  • Out of 18 elections, the government formed would have been qualitatively different if only Scottish seats were taken into consideration on 10 occasions.
    • On six of these occasions, a Scottish Labour majority led to a Tory Majority Government (1959, 1970, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992)
    • On one occasion, a Scottish hung parliament led to a Tory majority Government (1951, see above)
    • On one occasion, a rest of UK Tory majority led to a majority Labour Government (1964)
    • On one occasion, the rest of UK voted for a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest party, but a Labour minority government was formed (February 1974)
    • On one occasion, a rest of UK Tory majority led to a Tory-Liberal Coalition Government being formed (2010)
On Sturgeon's specific claim we get the following:

  • The total period of time in which a government has been formed in accordance with Scotland's wishes since 1945 is 33 years and 11 months. This includes the 1945, 1950, 1955, 1964, 1966, October 1974, 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections.
    • If you include the 1955 election, where the Tories tied on seats but won the Scottish popular vote, this increases by 3 years 7 months
    • If you include the February 1974 election, in which Scottish votes flip a whole UK popular vote win for the Tories, and an rUK Tory minority from a 24 seat lead to a 5 seat Labour minority, leading to a Labour minority administration being formed, Scotland got a government it voted for by an additional 8 months.
  •  The total period of time in which a government has been formed contrary to Scotland's wishes is 34 years 10 months. This includes the 1959, 1970, February 1974, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 and 2010 elections, up to April 2014.
The tenor of the claim, therefore is broadly true, but it doesn't tell the full story. Only just over half of the period since WWII has delivered governments not in accordance with Scotland's wishes (as expressed through seats), and it drops to under half depending on how you deal with the 1955 and February 1974 elections.

But that, again, isn't the full picture. If we did the same exercise for Wales, their position would be even less favourable than Scotland's. Wales has frequently voted more than 50% for Labour since the war and always in the plurality and in terms of seats. Wales additionally did not get the government it voted for in 1955 (4 years 5 months). The impact on the 2010 election would have been to move the Tories slightly closer to an overall majority, such that a minority government or a two-party coalition with the DUP may have been, electorally, more likely. In any case, Wales has not had the government it voted for for 39 years 3 months since the war.

If we look at Northern Ireland, ever since the break between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservatives after the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974, none of the parties participating in elections have had formal links with the platform of any of the major UK political parties. Their influence and representation has been next to non-existent in UK elections. By the same metric, NI has not had the UK government it voted for for 52 years 4 months since the war.

And what about England? Leave aside the Bush-Gore style precursor it had in 1951 (where Labour very marginally won the popular vote but the Tories comfortably won on seats). In 1964, England narrowly voted for a Tory Government, and got a Labour one. Similarly, in February 1974, they voted Tory and got a Labour (minority) government. In October 1974, they voted (just) for a hung parliament, with Labour as the largest party, but got a Labour majority. And as recently as 2010, they voted for a Conservative government, and got saddled with a Conservative-Liberal coalition. All in all, England didn't get the government it voted for 10 years 7 months since the war.

What this shows, perhaps more importantly, is that the UK and Scotland have sought to elect the same government for 23 years and 8 months of the last 68 years and 9 months. This isn't a massively strong consensus, but it is consensus. Some seek to argue that in those situations, Scotland has no effect on the result. That much is true. But it is evidence, to some extent at least, of a common cause or direction existing between those nations during that period.

When they have disagreed, Scotland has prevailed in 10 years and 3 months of them, and has not prevailed in 34 years 10 months. So we get just under 1 in 4 of the governments when we disagree with the UK as a whole. This is, if anything evidence of more influence than you might expect for such a small minority of the population in a democracy. The rest of the UK is almost 12 times as populous as Scotland. The fact that it has got the government it wanted only 3/4 of the time where there has been a dispute indicates, if anything, that taken as a whole it is comparatively less influential, all other things being equal, than we would expect it to be.

What should we learn?

What it indicates is that rUK does not speak with one voice either. If we were to find an acceptable geographical boundary to define "the North" of England, you will probably find that it has been denied the government it voted for every bit as often as Scotland or Wales. I suspect also that if you were to take London and the South East of England, it too would have a very mixed picture as to how often it gets the government it votes for, given it almost never votes Labour yet there have been more than 30 years of Labour governments since the war. We are left with the, somewhat unremarkable, conclusion that an area of population more than 80% of the UK gets its way in elections more often than one which represents about 8% of the UK, which in turn gets more of its own way than two parts of the UK representing 5% and 3% of the population.

Against this context, saying that Scotland should always get the government it votes for assumes that the "we" in "who we vote for" necessarily must be Scotland. This should not be assumed. Indeed, it is the question we're being asked to determine. At the moment, our institutions assume that "we" are the UK, that we are Britain, for the purposes of making many important decisions. We are being asked, in this referendum, whether this should continue, or whether the "we" should be someone else. Saying Scotland needs to get the government it votes for presupposes the answer to that question.

For Scottish nationalists, this is perfectly logical. They believe that, because Scotland is a nation, it comprises, at some level, a political unity, and therefore should have autonomy over how they make decisions and who gets to make them for them. Sturgeon's argument, in this instance, is actually not relevant. Even if we voted in lockstep with the rest of the UK, this would be an argument for breaking away and making (albeit the same decisions) for ourselves. This group have a problem when they come to explain our continued participation in institutions like the European Parliament, where Scotland will have influence over about 1% of the MEPs that are elected there. They have little by way of an answer explaining why we should pool sovereignty in countless international organisations, which will make decisions that affect our interests, but over which we have little day-to-day democratic control.

But for internationalists, multi-nationalists, or non-nationalists, who support independence, we do have an answer to those questions. This is fundamentally not about whether we "get the government we vote for" but deciding "who should be the we" for most of our purposes. We should avoid claiming that Scotland has some special claim to govern itself. Rather we should be starting from a more universalist position that decisions should be taken as closely to the people they affect as is possible, practical and expedient. Independence is merely one accessible starting point beyond which to give greater control to local communities over the way they govern themselves.

Sometimes a Scotland-wide approach to something will be preferable to something more local, but we should be clear that it is the decision of those groups to pool those powers in the first place, and that they ultimately have the right to reclaim it. If Shetland wants autonomy over aspects of its domestic affairs, or in extremis, to achieve statehood in its own right, then it should be entitled to do so. There may be situations where pooling power with the rest of the current UK, or with the EU, or other collections of peoples is advantageous over bilateral relationships, but we should be clear that it is a decision for those subsidary communities to take and that they may withdraw themselves from those arrangements should it cease to be their wish.

The argument is, in many respects, a federalist one. The problem with the United Kingdom is not that we do not share considerable values with our English, Welsh and Northern Irish neighbours. The problem is that the terms on which we work together with one another are based upon a narrative of forbearance rather than genuine partnership. Devolution is about "giving away" power (let's ignore for a moment, Enoch Powell's maxim that power devolved is power retained) which originates in the centre. The entire structure of that relationship looks at it the wrong way around.

The UK isn't undemocratic because Scotland votes one way while England votes another. If it is undemocratic it is so because it conceives of the state not as a repository for the power of the many peoples that comprise it, capable of withdrawal on demand, but of the source of power itself.

The reason I am voting Yes in this referendum is not because I want Scotland to "get the government it votes for"; it no more does this at Holyrood than it does at Westminster. It is because I want the relationship between the people and the state to change, and Scottish independence provides a constitutional moment, an opportunity, to begin to redefine that relationship. It is not the only path. It's not necessarily the optimal path. But it is the path of least resistance.

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