Written by Political Strategy • Published 11th September 2014
With the Scottish referendum due to take place and uncertainty building over the future of the United Kingdom, The PHA Group’s Head of Political Strategy, Tim Snowball, looks at the electoral implications of a ‘Yes’ vote.
A ‘yes’ vote in Scotland next week, would have far-reaching implications, not least for electoral politics.
The Fixed Term Parliament Bill currently lays out a clear timetable for the next UK General Election to take place on 7 May 2015. On this date, even after a Yes vote, the Union will still be in place and the Scots will still be entitled to elect 59 representatives at Westminster.
There are probably three main options facing the current government when they look at this issue:
OPTION 1: Continue regardless and hope for the best
Sticking to the May 2015 election date will allow the government to seek approval from the electorate for any proposed separation deal and this may be helpful in circumstances where ordinary English, Welsh and Northern Irish voters are yet to have a say.
Unless the Scottish issue changes the current trajectory of politics fundamentally (which it may do), the real problems come the following year once the Scottish MPs pack their bags and head north for a final time.
Given the high likelihood of a hung parliament or narrow majority outcome in 2015, there is a chance that Labour could win the UK Election with a large contingent of Scottish MPs, only to lose power to the Tories in 2016 upon separation.
The full picture would at least be clear from the moment the election result was announced in 2015 and politicians could and would plan accordingly, but the messy possible outcome envisaged is hardly likely to be conducive to stable government. Should the situation become unworkable a second election could be called if necessary.
Politically this option may be deemed worth a gamble. If the Tories win outright in 2015, there wouldn’t be an issue on separation. Nor would there be if Labour won a large enough majority. Another option for either party would be an independence proof coalition with the Liberal Democrats, that would guarantee stability for the full Parliament.
To some extent, this would be a very British way of doing things – lose a limb and carry on regardless. This is surely the most likely option, but whether it is viable without a fresh democratic mandate is surely a matter for debate.
OPTION 2: Move the General Election
There have already been calls to move the 2015 General Election to 2016 to coincide with Scottish independence.
Both coalition partners and individual MPs might see benefits in moving the election (i.e. staying in power) and there are clearly arguments to support it on the grounds of the importance of the negotiations.
Practically, it would require the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliament Act – not necessarily simple with the House of Lords involved, and it would fly in the face of the long-held principle of 5 year maximum terms for parliaments.
This option would also leave English, Welsh, and Northern Irish voters no opportunity to express a view on separation issues – something likely to become a significant demand post ‘Yes’ vote. In fact, failure to do so might risk playing into the hands of populist parties such as UKIP.
The Tories might also struggle to hold things together internally for an extra year, especially as Cameron would be badly wounded by referendum defeat.
This is therefore probably the least likely option in the context.
OPTION 3. Accept the necessity of a second election in 2016
The slightly less United Kingdom would essentially be a different country without Scotland and there is a strong argument that the “new” country left behind, should have an opportunity to vote for a new parliament and government to run it. This would require a second election in the space of a year.
This option might suit the Tories and Labour in the context of likely narrow majorities or minority positions achievable in 2015 and both could easily afford a second election, unlike the smaller parties including the Lib Dems who would be clearly disadvantaged. It would, however, be a gamble, with just as much possibility of losing power as gaining or solidifying it.
The clear counter-argument is a perception of instability and the possible negative consequences for the markets, but, this would likely exist anyway. A second election could, in fact, be the antidote to instability, the best way to draw a line, secure a new mandate and move on.
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