The nature of devolution in the UK can often seem nebulous and confusing. Powers and competencies are poorly defined, and almost every side of the political spectrum argues the current arrangement is unsatisfactory. The one constant feature since Scottish devolution in 1999 has been increasingly interesting elections every four to five years. Going into the May 2021 elections, the stakes have never been higher for the United Kingdom.
Scotland and Northern Ireland’s elections are functioning as quasi-referendums on their respective constitutional futures. All the while, nationalists will seek to make some gains in Wales. Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party will face their first real test with the “red wall” voters who gifted him a landslide.
SNP smell blood
Both sides touted the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence as a once-in-a-generation event. However, since the “No” campaign’s win, constitutional divisions have only escalated from Dumfries to Caithness.
Since the 2014 referendum, the SNP won nearly all the Scottish seats in the 2015 General Election. They only won a minority government in Holyrood elections before the UK voted to leave the EU with Scotland voting to remain. In the 2017 snap election, the three unionist parties fought back with the SNP then regaining ground in 2019.
The SNP & Scottish Greens will go into May’s elections with an unambiguous promise: to hold a referendum on Scottish Independence over the course of the next Parliament. If they win a majority, it will be difficult to see how Westminster can refuse them.
The three unionist parties – Labour, the Conservatives, and Liberal Democrats – will have commitments to avoid such an outcome. But each comes into the elections with some kind of disadvantage.
In the case of the Conservatives, Boris Johnson and his government are not popular in Scotland. In addition, they have recently forced out leader Jackson Carlaw in favour of Moray MP Douglas Ross.
His goal will be to capture the wide appeal of charismatic former leader Ruth Davidson. Her moderate positions, working-class background, and passionate unionism helped detoxify the Conservative brand for the first time since Thatcher’s premiership.
Ross, who has twice won his Westminster seat, will stand for Holyrood in May. In order to be successful for himself and his party, he will need to do two things. Be a strong defender of the union for his base, while separating himself from the Westminster Party on critical issues.
An overarching trend in British politics is that the Conservatives are ruthless when removing leaders. Even Mrs. Thatcher was not spared the wrath of Tory MPs as her popularity dwindled. They have remained true to form in speedily conspiring to remove Jackson Carlaw before it was too late. The Labour Party, however, has a far poorer reputation for ruthlessness in the face of defeat. This time is no different.
Central Scotland MSP Richard Leonard has failed to cut through with Scottish voters and lacks any kind of charisma. Over the last few weeks, two members of his top team have resigned from their posts. both asking him to do the same. Leonard, from the hard left of the party, seems destined to continue their woes north of the border even as Labour finds renewed strength under Kier Starmer. Scottish Labour have been declining from their once omnipotent position for the last decade and a half and Leonard seems not to be the man to arrest the decline.
With Labour having a higher ceiling of support in Scotland than the Tories, Unionists need Labour to perform across the central belt against the SNP to have any hope of depriving the nationalists of a majority. Under these circumstances, the SNP know that a continued coronavirus bounce for Nicola Sturgeon and a recent swell in support of independence may deliver them the chance to strike. Without quick work from Unionist parties, the breakup of the 300-year-old union may turn from SNP dream to reality.
Will Brexit be the nail in the coffin of The Crown in Ireland?
Northern Irish politics must be considered the most quirky and exciting of any in the UK. Centuries of bitter conflict over the Island’s (and then the Province’s) status led to the use of Single transferable vote (STV) for elections. That combined with the unique effect of Brexit on the Island leaves a fascinating state of play for May.
Sadly, polling in Northern Ireland is scant and can often fail to give much valuable information. But two recent binary question polls have demonstrated rising support for a united Ireland.
In the 2019 General Election, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) suffered small losses as the nationalist Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP) made modest gains. Set against the backdrop of rising support for a unified Ireland and the first non-unionist legislative majority in history, it is easy to think that we could be seeing the end of the crown in Ireland. But write off unionism at your own peril. It is a force that has adapted and survived through many challenges and the DUP is the zenith of the cut-throat effectiveness.
Unlike Sinn Fein, the DUP usurped their intra-community opponents, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), as the primary choice for Unionists. They will be well-positioned to capture the majority of unionist first preferences running on the endangered future of the union.
This is, however, not a first-past-the-post election. All we can definitively say is that Sinn Fein and the DUP will dominate their respective communities. Beyond that, the performance of the Alliance Party, intra (and inter) community vote transfers, and geographical swings are all critical unknowns.
Brexit may well have an impact on each of these factors. An iron-clad rule of Northern Irish politics is that Unionists & Nationalists scarcely cast a vote for a party representing the other. But in 2017, modest numbers of voters supporting the more moderate UUP and SDLP gave one another second preference.
Brexit may make that iron-clad rule more malleable. This may mean more inter-community vote transfers or perhaps a large number of votes for the non-sectarian Alliance Party, particularly in Belfast.
With Brexit formally completed, it might be easy to dismiss its continued legacy on voting patterns. But the remaining uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with the EU has implications for Northern Ireland more than anywhere else. Brexit has proved an event so cataclysmic that it could leave scars on well-established electoral coalitions for generations.
This may mean a divide among unionists. Moderate unionists may be frustrated at the choice between a regulatory border on the Island or in the Irish Sea. The UK’s membership of the EU guaranteed that neither would exist. Those who wish to avoid any regulatory divergence with Britain will enthusiastically support the DUP. Those less dogmatically inclined may have their preferences up for grabs in a way never seen before.
Both Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi have intervened in this debate. It is likely to dominate the backdrop of the election, and inform votes in a way a substantive policy matter has not done before.
All of the questions that underpin these potential shifts are crying out for high-quality polling. All we can say for now is that we don’t know much. The likely result is the most competitive election in Northern Irish history.
Boris’s blue wall or Hillary’s Azure Oasis?
Comparisons between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are often lazy & inaccurate. But one thing the two share in common is they owe their jobs to working-class voters.
Trump’s midwestern sweep delivered him the White House as the Democrats’ “blue wall” proved to be an illusion. It seems that going into 2020, Trump’s standing in those states has worsened. For Boris, the first test of his new voters is likely to come in this Welsh Parliament election.
As in Scotland, Wales makes use of the additional member system (AMS). Parties contest first past the post seats in conjunction with regional lists to make the overall result more proportional. Many seats are very similar to their Westminster Counterparts.
Clwyd South, Clwyd West, Delyn, and home of former Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones, Bridgend will be the seats to watch once again. If the Conservatives can slash Labour majorities or take the seats, it will give a firm indicator to the Tories about where they stand.
If Labour can safely hold these seats, then it would provide evidence that Keir Starmer’s more moderate style has begun to win back the Labour heartlands.
Some of this may depend on the continuing role of Brexit in the discourse. Over the past weeks, the Conservatives have been hitting Labour for their opposition to the controversial Internal Market Bill. This lays out the statutory footing on which post-Brexit Britain’s regulatory environment will be based. This may see Labour painted as the same Brexit obstructionists as Corbyn’s Party before the December election.
If the UK’s departure is formalized by December, Labour will have a better opportunity to rebuild on basic left-wing values. If a no-deal Brexit drags on, the Tories could re-litigate the 2019 debate which reaped such large rewards.
Away from the traditional Brexit wars, nationalist Plaid Cymru’s support levels across the regions will be interesting to watch. Could Brexit have pushed more voters to nationalism in leave voting Wales? The polling picture is mixed. Plaid’s performance outside their traditional north and west Wales heartlands will determine their strength moving forward.
Labour-Plaid marginals such as Llanelli will also show the extent to which traditional Labour voters may be beginning to drift. The performance of the “Abolish the Welsh Assembly” Party on the regional list will similarly serve to demonstrate the appetite among ardent unionists for doing away with devolution altogether.
We are truly looking at a defining set of elections for one of the world’s paramount nations. The May 2021 United Kingdom elections will deliver a verdict on irreversible constitutional changes as well as the shifting electoral coalitions of the UK. I will be writing an in-depth for each of the elections as well as updates on Local Elections across England and the London elections as we approach May. One thing’s for sure, fireworks are on the horizon.