More Constitutional Thoughts

In a recent radio programme, it was suggested that in the nineteenth century, while many other countries were adopting formal constitutions, people in England were so proud of Magna Carta as a sort of proto-constitution that they thought that Britain did not need anything else.

The speculation prior to the election about what might have happened if the result had been a hung parliament highlights the unsatisfactory nature of the UK’s uncodified constitution, key parts of which are are mere conventions. What happens if there is disagreement over conventions which have somehow developed over the years? How long does does it take for ‘what usually happens’ to mutate into a definite convention? How can a convention be enforced, if those in power choose to ignore it?

One can turn to the Cabinet Manual for guidance and a review of existing practice, but that is all; it does not necessarily provide hard and fast rules. For example, the final sentence of section 2.10 is “It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention.” At the end of section 2.19 it states “The Prime Minister is expected to resign where it is clear that he or she does not have the confidence of the House of Commons and that an alternative government does have the confidence.” Note the use of ‘expected’ rather than ‘required’.

The office of Prime Minister was not originally defined by any law; indeed, no decision was ever taken that the UK should have such a creature. At the start of the 18th century the monarch, as the head of the government, appointed a number of Cabinet ministers, who were answerable to the monarch, not to one of their own number. When George I became king, he initially attended Cabinet meetings but stopped, largely because he could not speak English. In 1721, following his successful handling of the crisis caused by the collapse of the South Sea Company, Sir Robert Walpole was appointed as First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons, and became, in retrospect, Britain’s first Prime Minister. However, the term ‘Prime Minister’ was initially used only unofficially and in a rather sarcastic way, and Walpole and other 18th century Prime Ministers rejected it. The first official use of the term was in 1878 when Disraeli signed a treaty as Prime Minister. Eventually the Ministers of the Crown Act 1937 gave legal recognition to the position of Prime Minister, as opposed to the office of First Lord of the Treasury, with which it has always been linked.

Initially it was the monarch who chose the Prime Minister, but a convention developed that the Prime Minister should be someone who can command the support of a majority in the House of Commons, and thus usually the leader of the largest party in the Commons. As the role of the Prime Minister developed, power gradually transferred from the monarch to the Prime Minister. The royal prerogatives, defined in the constitutional settlement that followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and still mostly formally vested in the monarch, are in reality exercised by the Prime Minister; theoretically, the Prime Minister advises the monarch and the monarch, according to yet another convention, always accepts that advice.

Given the extent of the powers which have become attached to the position of Prime Minister, can it be right that the question of who becomes Prime Minister in the event of a hung parliament can be decided on the basis of mere conventions? Is it reasonable to allow the party of government to change its leader, and thus the Prime Minister, in the middle of a Parliament without the approval of the electorate as a whole? Should some alternative arrangement be devised, whereby the electorate as a whole can decide specifically who should become Prime Minister, or perhaps President? At present, one vote every five years is all the ordinary voter gets with which to indicate their choice of MP for their constituency, party of government (with all its policies) and Prime Minister, as a package deal.

The Tories are proposing to repeal the Human Rights Act. The fact that they may well be able to do so, in spite of having been elected by not a lot more than a third of those who voted, and by less than a quarter of the electorate, points to another major flaw in the UK’s uncodified constitution. Although some Acts of Parliament, such as the Human Rights Act, may be considered as parts of the constitution, they have no special status, and can be amended or repealed like any other pieces of legislation, by simple majority votes in both Houses of Parliament.

With a good codified constitution, it should not be possible for Parliament to modify any part of the constitution. That privilege should be reserved to the electorate as a whole, who should be able to ratify or reject any proposed changes to the constitution in a referendum. While there have been occasional referendums in the UK, the cynical view might be that these are only held when the UK Government is hoping that the proposed change will be rejected (e.g. reform of the electoral system and Scottish independence); the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) is clearly of constitutional importance but there was no question of a referendum being held to approve that, or to ask whether the interval between elections should be reduced to 4 years, or even to 3 years as in Australia.

The UK is in dire need of a complete constitutional overhaul. Changes are needed to the electoral system, to end the unjust ‘first past the post’ system which tends to freeze out smaller parties and to make the votes of those who live in ‘safe’ constituencies worthless. The House of Lords needs to reformed or abolished, perhaps along with the monarchy. Some kind of federal system is needed to accommodate increased devolution. In short, the UK desperately needs a coherent written constitution. However, I do not believe for one moment that this will happen. England is too (small ‘c’) conservative and too fond of archaic traditions and rituals. Above all, the present system suits the Establishment. For example, it is very unlikely that a government which has achieved an overall majority with just under 37% of the vote will want to change the voting system. All we can expect is some tinkering here and there, which may may make an already messy system even messier (e.g. devolution of powers in England to some cities, rather than all regions) or replace existing problems with new ones (e.g. EVEL ).

The only realistic way in which the people of Scotland can gain the benefits of a coherent, well designed constitution, which will promote such ideals as democracy and human rights, is through independence.

(My first ‘Constitutional Thoughts’ were posted on this site on the 7th of April last year.)

Cause for Rejoicing?

I do not normally use this blog to respond immediately to recent events, but rather to look at other issues which I have been thinking about for some time. However, I feel I have to say a few things about the election results.

I do not feel elated by the unprecedented landslide in Scotland, because I had been expecting it for quite a while. All the polls had been showing the SNP well ahead of Labour, and this was consistent with the surge in SNP membership since the referendum. Yet there was always the nagging thought that perhaps it was just too good to be true, and therefore I felt a certain amount of relief, mixed with a slight regret that it was not a clean sweep, when I saw the results.

My main feeling was a mixture of disappointment and anger, because I was definitely not expecting the Tories to win an overall majority. I consider that some of the policies pursued by the Tories over the past five years can reasonably be described as evil, and now those policies will be continued and perhaps extended, without whatever slight restaining effect the LibDems might have had. Perhaps the Tory win brings Scottish independence closer, but the price for that will be high.

I will shed no tears over the disintegration of the LibDems. Once they were a party I would certainly have voted for if the only alternatives had been the Tories or Blairite Labour, but then (like many others) I did not realise until after the last election just how far to the right they had moved under the leadership of crypto-Tory Clegg and his Orange Book cronies. What will become of them now, I neither know nor care. Perhaps they will manage to reform under new leadership and become something more like the old Liberal party, or else they may just fade away into irrelevance. Possibly the most appropriate outcome would be for the remnants of the LibDems to merge with the Tories.

I think few people will now consider Miliband to have been a good leader for the Labour party. Perhaps he got a raw deal, being attacked by the right-wing press and having to cope with Blairite members of his own party. I think that he might have made a half-decent Prime Minister, given the chance, except that,  when it counted most, he was too weak. When Cameron attacked Labour’s right to enter any kind of alliance with the SNP, he capitulated. If he had fought back against Cameron (and doubtless certain elements within his own party, such as Jim Murphy), and defended both Labour’s right to choose its own allies and the SNP’s right to be part of such an alliance, he might have been more convincing as a potential Prime Minister. The suggestion that, in a hung Parliament, Miliband might have chosen to let Cameron stay on as Prime Minister rather than accept support from the SNP must have cost Labour votes in Scotland. Even in England it may have signalled to some voters on the left that it was not worth voting for Labour.

Now Labour has to find a new leader. My suspicion is that whoever is chosen will argue that Labour lost because they were perceived by voters in England as being too left wing, and Labour will take another lurch to the right. From a Scottish and SNP point of view, the Labour party is very nearly as right wing as the Tories, but some people in England still appear to think that Labour are dangerous, left-wing radicals. However, being very similar to the Tories is probably not going to be a winning strategy for the next election either. If people think that Tory policies are good, then are they not more likely to vote for the real Tories rather than a Labour imitation?

One can argue that Labour lost the election because they were weak in opposition. They never really challenged the arguments used by the Tories to justify their policies. For example, they accepted the idea that it is essential to reduce the deficit by drastic austerity, and merely quibbled about the rate at which it should be done. There is a strong argument that drastic cuts in public spending damage the economy, and have slowed economic recovery while causing a great deal of hardship. Yet Ed Balls said there was nothing in the most recent budget which he would have changed. (For a good discussion of this by someone who clearly knows more about economics than I do, see and other articles on the same site.)

A strong opposition party would have been prepared to put forward its own distinctive policies, and would have strived to persuade the electorate that its policies were better than those of the government. Labour consistently failed to do this over the last five years, and through that failure they have done a grave disservice to the English electorate by denying them any distinctive and credible alternative to the current neo-liberal consensus. I doubt whether they will perform their duty as the official opposition any better between now and the next election. On the contrary, I expect they will decide that Miliband’s tentative efforts to move slightly towards the left were in the wrong direction, rather than too little and too late.

For the SNP, a hung parliament in which they supported and tried to influence (perhaps with limited success) a Labour minority government could have provided them with some oppportunities but also many dilemmas; the relationship between the SNP and Labour would have been a difficult one, with many possible pitfalls. However, not supporting a Labour government, if one had been possible, would not have been a viable policy. A Tory majority provides a more straightforward situation; unless Cameron offers significantly greater powers for the Scottish Parliament than the surviving Smith Commission proposals, there will be little or nothing in the Tory agenda that the SNP can agree with, and a great deal which it will oppose as strongly as possible. It will be important for the SNP’s contingent at Westminster to be conscientious in voting against Tory measures whenever it is appropriate, even when there is no hope of actually winning the vote. The SNP are now the third largest party at Westminster, and will have the right to regularly ask questions at Prime Minister’s Questions; they must try to exploit this as effectively as possible.

What all this means for Scottish independence is hard to predict, although my guess is that it makes independence within the next few years somewhat more likely than it would have been with a Labour government. So much depends on how Cameron behaves towards Scotland and the SNP. Will he be more conciliatory, or will he continue to talk of the SNP as though they do not deserve to participate in the governance of the Union? Will he deliver more than the Smith Commission proposals, or less? How far will he go with ‘English Votes for English Laws’? Will he be willing to examine the options for genuine constitutional reform, such as a federal system for the UK?

The other big question for the whole of the UK is whether there will be a referendum on EU membership, with the possibility that Scotland might vote to stay in the EU while the rest of the UK votes to leave. Could we even see Scotland becoming independent following an agreement between Westminster and Brussels that Scotland should be treated as the sole continuator state for the purpose of EU membership? (Will those wanting a UK exit be accused of wanting to ‘destroy’ and ‘break up’ the EU by removing 12.7% of its population?)

Now the countdown starts to the Scottish election next year. It should be an interesting year for Scottish politics.

Does Cameron Expect Miliband to Commit Political Suicide?

It is reported that David Cameron is urging Ed Miliband to rule out any possible co-operation between Labour and the SNP. Of course, this is merely an attempt at gaining a few more votes in the forthcoming election. Miliband would have to be extremely stupid or barking mad to do as Cameron demands, and I do not believe for one moment that Miliband is either of those. (Neither do I think that Cameron is stupid or mad, but I do not think much of his trustworthiness.)

Let us assume that the election produces the result that the polls are indicating as likely, with Labour and the Tories winning roughly the same number of seats, the LibDems losing most of their current total and the SNP winning most of the Scottish seats, and that between them Labour and the SNP have a small majority. What will be the possible outcomes in this situation, if the SNP say to Miliband that, if no deal is reached between Labour and the SNP, the SNP will adopt a policy of abstaining on any confidence votes? (I am not saying that the SNP leadership would, or should, take that stance, but it can be argued that Nicola Sturgeon’s assertions that the SNP will not support the Tories leave open the possibilty of the SNP supporting neither of the two main parties, and instead remaining neutral.)

Firstly, the Tories and Labour could agree to hold a new election, but since the Labour party is apparently in a much weaker financial position than the Tories, I suspect that they would be reluctant to face the expense of another election campaign, unless they expected to fare better in a second election, in which case the Tories would probably not want one. (Under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, a Commons motion to hold an early election requires at least 434 votes in favour of it to pass, and so either of the two main parties would be able to block one.)

Secondly, Labour and the Tories could form a coalition, but Miliband need only think of how much damage has been done to the LibDems by their partnership with the Tories. Clegg may well go down in political history as a leader who destroyed his own party; would Miliband wish to copy him? Also, Miliband is not very popular within the Labour party, and an alliance with the Tories would surely be very unpopular with many within the Labour party. Miliband might be quickly replaced as leader by someone who would break with the Tories. From a Unionist point of view, there would be a danger that a Tory/Labour partnership would be perceived in Scotland as anti-Scottish and push support for the SNP to new heights.

Thirdly, one of the two main parties may put together the best alliance it can without including the SNP, and form a minority government. Assuming that the LibDems are willing to work with either the Tories or Labour (or with neither), then it will almost certainly be the party which wins the most seats which forms the government in this situation. If this is Labour, then in theory they can spurn the SNP’s advances, but their government will be a weak one which could struggle to pass new legislation without support from the Tories. Neither being an ineffectual government nor relying on Tory support will do anything to improve Labour’s prospects at the following general election.

The real dilemma for Miliband arises if the Tories win a few more seats than Labour, and are therefore better placed to form a government if the SNP takes a neutral stance. Polling has shown that an overwhelming majority of Labour voters in England back a deal with the SNP if the alternative is a Tory government. There would also be a number of Labour MPs who would be angry at being denied the possibility of a ministerial position, salary and perks. Therefore, if Miliband were to continue to refuse a deal with the SNP and let Cameron form a government, his position as Labour leader would be untenable and almost certainly he would quickly be replaced by someone who would be willing to enter an alliance with the SNP. One no confidence vote with the SNP voting in favour would see Cameron deposed as PM and the new Labour leader being invited to form a government. (In any case, it seems to me unlikely that Miliband will survive for long as leader of the Labour party unless he becomes Prime Minister.)

Finally, Miliband can do the sensible thing and strike a deal with the SNP to ensure that, as a minimum, they will back him in any confidence vote. That way, he can probably look forward to at least one term as Prime Minister and the opportunity to make his mark on history, for better of for worse.

In short, a deal with the SNP may be the only way in which Miliband can prevent his leadership of the Labour party, and with it his political career, coming to an inglorious end. If you were in Miliband’s position, would you give your main political rival an assurance that, unless your party wins more seats than his, you will commit political suicide?

Methinks They Do Protest Too Much

Complete freedom of speech is not really desirable even in the most open society, because this could permit people to lie and deceive with impunity, and to provoke public disorder. Hence it is not legal to lie when giving evidence in a court of law, or to falsely spread rumours that someone is a paedophile. Nor is it legal to incite others to commit acts of violence, or to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre to create a panic when there is no fire. The right to free speech cannot be absolute; boundaries must be drawn between what is legal (even if undesirable) and what is illegal. In an open society, speech (including the written word) should be legal unless there is a clear and compelling reason for prohibiting it. In recent times, ‘hate speech’ has become unacceptable, particularly when directed against people on the basis if their ethnicity or sexuality. What about religion?

Criticism of a specific religion, or religion in general, is criticism of an idea, a belief system. No free society should seek to restrict discussion of ideas, even if some people will be offended when their strongly-held beliefs are challenged. People can, in principle, change their religion; they cannot change their ethnic origins or their sexuality. Mocking or verbally attacking someone on the basis of their ethnicity is definitely wrong, but doing so on the basis of their beliefs may be justified since these beliefs are, or should be, a matter of choice. This argument can also be applied to political views.

In the light of this, what should we make of the recent Steve Bell cartoon in the Guardian? If it is an attack on the SNP, then, however much it lacks both humour and insight, we have to tolerate it and shrug it off. The problem is that by apparently making a reference to some obscure quotation which few people have ever heard of, it is deeply ambiguous; it can easily be interpreted as saying that the Scottish people are fond of incest. When it is interpreted that way, it crosses over the border into the realm of anti-Scottish hate speech. Perhaps Steve Bell, knowing about the quotation he used as the basis for the cartoon, could not see this himself, but the editor of the Guardian owes an apology to the Scottish people for publishing a cartoon which is arguably racist.

However, I do not expect there will be any apology, nor will there be one from any of the other papers published in England which have been spewing out hatred of the SNP, which is also badly tainted with anti-Scottish bile. As others have pointed out, it makes nonsense of all the ‘love-bombing’ before the referendum. Scotland is valued as a part of the UK when it comes to providing oil revenue, hosting Trident, helping to pay for railway lines in England and sewers in London, and so on, but not when it appears that Scotland might, for once, play a significant role in determining what kind of government the UK is to have.

If the English really are as horrified by the possibility of the SNP allowing Labour to lead the next government, rather than the Tories, as their newspapers suggest they are (or encourage them to be), then they have a very obvious solution, which the SNP would happily help them to implement. Either party to a marriage can bring about a divorce; the English could simply end the Union. Then they would not have to trouble themselves with constitutional dilemmas such as EVEL or additional devolution, or the possibility that the SNP might challenge the idea that there is no alternative to austerity (except for the rich, who must be allowed to get richer). They would be free from the possibility that in the event of a Brexit referendum, the Scottish vote might just tip the balance in favour of continued EU membership, thwarting the will of the English people. All those English voters who have been convinced that the Scots are living on overly generous handouts of English money will be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Tarff Advertiser ( has an interesting viewpoint on the flood of anti-SNP articles in the English papers. He suggests that Westminster has a large collection of skeletons in a locked closet, and they are panicking because the SNP might get hold of the key. It would be very interesting if they did. Amongst many other things, we might learn how SNP activist and anti-nuclear campaigner Willie MacRae managed to put a bullet in his brain and then throw the gun out through the window of his car.

Who Will the Winner(s) Be?

Polls indicate that in Scotland the most desired outcome of the general election is that Labour form the next government with the support of the SNP, but not necessarily a formal coalition. Obviously, for this to happen the SNP must win most of the Scottish seats and the overall outcome must be that neither Labour or the Tories can command an overall majority, even with any plausible combination of smaller parties (other than the SNP) as coalition partners. The results of the recent Ashcroft polls in selected Scottish constituencies suggest that even constituencies which previously had seemingly unassailable Labour majorities will be won by the SNP. If the current level of support for the SNP is maintained, it is possible for the SNP to win 50 seats or more, enough to be a significant force at Westminster. (The dramatic change in Scottish politics is highlighted by the fact that polls are consistently showing lower levels of support for Labour in Scotland than in Britain as a whole.)

Across the UK, Labour and the Tories are very nearly level now in the opinion polls, but it is likely that some people will edge towards voting for the devil they know, and that the Tories will pull slightly ahead in terms of vote share by May. However, outdated constituency boundaries are expected to give Labour an advantage of perhaps 20 seats. It is therefore possible that Labour and the Tories will win very nearly the same number of seats. In that case, the Tories will probably not be able to form a majority government with either the LibDems or UKIP as a coalition partner. A Tory/LibDem/UKIP coalition seems improbable, and might well fall short of a majority even with the DUP as a minor component.

Labour, on the other hand, could be faced with the need for an alliance with the SNP (and presumably Plaid Cymru and perhaps any English Greens) if they are to form a government. Given the antagonism displayed by Labour, especially the Scottish branch, towards the SNP in recent years, such an alliance would be deeply unpopular with many within Labour. During the independence campaign Labour and the Tories were partners in Better Together, and the SNP were their enemy. Would Labour really perform the necessary U-turn, or would they prefer to hand power to the Tories? After the last general election, they did not try very hard to create a coalition which would have had to include just 6 SNP MPs. However, if they somehow let the Tories back into power because of their dislike of the SNP, there will be many Labour voters who will not forgive them, both inside and outside Scotland.

Labour argue that if Scottish voters elect mostly SNP candidates, this will increase the risk that the Tories will get back into power. This is true only if Labour refuse to enter into an alliance with the SNP. If Labour are willing to do a deal with the SNP, then it is the total number of Labour and SNP MPs that matters. Therefore, if Labour say “Vote SNP, get the Tories” they are implying that they would rather let the Tories stay in power than co-operate with the SNP. If this is the case, surely they owe it to their own voters to be honest about their intentions.

From the SNP’s point of view, any alliance with Labour can only be justified if it can be used to win substantial and useable new powers for the Scottish Parliament. Labour will be very reluctant to make any such concessions, as these are likely to be unpopular with the significant fraction of English voters whose xenophobia extends to Scotland. They are on course for losing most of their Scottish seats, and face being in the same position as the Tories, who do not have to worry about antagonising Scottish voters as they have very few seats even potentially at stake here. Even if the Labour leadership agrees to the transfer of powers to Holyrood, there is no guarantee that the necessary legislation will be passed by the Commons, as Labour backbenchers might rebel and vote against it. My feeling is that any deal that the SNP might make with Labour should be that the Scottish Parliament will be granted agreed new powers by a specific date, with it being made clear that if Labour do not deliver on time the alliance will definitely end.

What are the alternatives?

One possibility is that whichever of the two main parties wins the most seats could form a coalition with the LibDems (or UKIP in the case of the Tories) and try their luck as a minority government. However, a government which is significantly short of a majority is likely to be weak and ineffectual, and the parties involved might well lose support as a result. A coalition government brings with it one set of problems, while a minority government has another set; a minority coalition government will have both, and be a nightmare for those trying to run it.

Another possibility is that the Tories and Labour could agree to hold a new election; between them, they would easily be able to muster the 434 Commons votes required for this under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. However, this would probably produce a very similar outcome to the first election, and would be unlikely to resolve the situation.

There has been quite a bit of discussion about the most dramatic alternative, namely a Tory/Labour coalition. After all, New Labour and the Tories have espoused very similar policies, and there have been occasions when Labour have voted with the Coalition or collectively abstained from voting, such as when Labour allowed the Coalition to pass ’emergency’ legislation to retrospectively legalise their workfare programme. However, the Labour leadership may have enough sense to realise just how much damage this would do to the Labour party. Many of the voters throughout the UK who still cling to the belief that Labour is a party of the left, or to the hope that one day Labour will return to its roots, could be forced to accept that Labour is now a neo-liberal party like the Tories, more concerned with the interests of the Establishment than with those of ordinary people. Would Labour copy the LibDems and commit electoral suicide? Of course, the Tory party would lose some voters as well, people who equate social justice with communism, but such people may well defect to UKIP anyway. My guess  is that it would be Labour who be the biggest losers.

From the point of view of the Establishment, one danger of a Tory/Labour coalition is that it would expose what a sham democracy in the UK really is. It reminds me of a story I heard many years ago, about someone who watched a heavyweight professional wrestling match where the opponents were apparently deadly enemies; later, in a chip shop, he saw the same two wrestlers, the best of friends. Labour and the Tories pretend to be different, in order to giver voters the illusion that it matters which one they vote for. If that illusion is shattered, voters might start giving enough support to more radical parties, UKIP on the right and perhaps the Greens on the left, to upset the present cosy arrangement.

What is my prediction? I do not really have one, except that the aftermath of the election is likely to be very interesting indeed.

A Happy New Year?

Recently, there have been opinion polls which have put the SNP so far ahead of Labour in Westminster voting intention that, when the figures are fed into a site such as Electoral Calculus (, the predicted outcome is that the SNP might win more than 50 seats. At the same time, some people are suggesting that 20 to 30 seats would be a good result for the SNP; are they being too pessimistic?

There are three aspects to this question. The first is the degree to which the opinion polls are an accurate assessment of current voting intentions. Of course, there is a certain amount of random variation from one poll to another, which is to be expected because of the limited number of respondents to each poll, but a systematic error could arise if the adjustments which are generally made on the basis of how the respondents have previously voted are flawed. My impression, based on what I have read, is that perhaps the SNP vote share is being underestimated, but any such systematic error is probably rather small. The second, more important issue is how voting intentions will change between now and the election. All sorts of things might perhaps happen before May which could influence people one way or another, and I have no intention of making any guess as to how support for the SNP, or any of the other parties, will change. What I want to discuss here is the third aspect, namely how percentage shares of the votes might translate into seats.

The most recent figures from the Scot Goes Pop poll of polls on 24 December ( are

SNP         44.1%    (19.9%)

Labour     26.5%    (42.0%)

Tories      16.5%    (16.7%)

LibDems   5.8%     (18.9%)

where the figures in brackets are the 2010 results. For the purpose of this exercise, I am going to assume that these figures are an accurate prediction of how the Scottish electorate will vote in May.

The simplest technique, Uniform National Swing (UNS), is to take the overall swings for each party in turn and apply these to the 2010 results for each constituency. Thus the SNP vote is increased by 24.2% of the total number of votes cast in 2010, the Labour vote is decreased by 15.5% and so on. I have constructed a spreadsheet on this simplistic basis, and it gives the following prediction –

SNP 46 (46)    Labour 9 (11)   Tories 2 (1)     LibDems 2 (1)

where the values in brackets are from the Electoral Calculus website, using the same poll of poll figures.

There is an obvious problem with this method; my spreadsheet predicts negative numbers of votes in four constituencies for Labour, and in many more for the LibDems. UNS has been found to work quite well for modest swings, but it seems to break down when there are both large swings and large differences from one constituency to another, as is the case at present in Scotland. Its weakness is the assumption that the change in the number of votes for a party in a particular constituency is independent of the previous level of support for the party in that constituency. As support for Labour drops, they stand to lose the greatest number of votes in those constituencies where there were the most Labour voters to start with. Similarly, as support for the SNP increases, it is the constituencies which were already SNP strongholds which should see the smallest numbers of new SNP voters, simply because there were fewer non-SNP voters available to be converted.

A more plausible approach than UNS is to say that the fraction of 2010 Labour voters who will vote Labour again next May is 26.5/42.0, and to multiply the votes  for Labour in each constituency by this fraction. For Glasgow North East, this gives 43.1%, down from 68.3%, while in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, Labour’s vote share would drop from 10.2% to 6.4%. The same method can be used to predict vote shares for the Tories and the LibDems. This method cannot predict negative or implausibly low vote shares.

If we apply this method to the SNP in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, we must multiply 45.7% by 44.1/19.9, which gives 101.3%, and so it appears not to work so well in the case of a party which is showing increased support. Instead, it is necessary to consider changes to the total vote for all parties except the SNP; in the case of Na h-Eileanan an Iar this is 54.3% which has to be multiplied by 55.9/80.1, giving 37.9% and hence an SNP vote share of 62.1%. The justification for this is that when we are looking at the change in support for a party, we have to consider where that change is happening. For a party which is losing support, it is happening amongst people who previously voted for that party; for a party gaining support, the change is happening amongst people who previously did not vote for that party.

A spreadsheet on this basis [see Note] predicts an overall result of SNP 57 and Labour 2, and one of the Labour seats would be very marginal. Even Glasgow North East, Labour’s safest seat, would fall to the SNP with only a further 1.2% swing from Labour to SNP. In other words, it suggests that it might be possible for the SNP to win every seat in Scotland. Surely this must be too good to be true? Probably it is – a bit – because there are factors which a simple spreadsheet cannot take into account.

Firstly, although probably most people vote for a party, there will be some who vote, at least in part, for a particular candidate whom they respect. As support for a party drops, there may be some Labour and LibDem MPs whose personal following will allow them to buck the trend. The other side of this coin is that the SNP will have to field a number of relatively inexperienced and perhaps not very well known candidates for winnable seats.

Secondly, the constituencies in which the SNP did best in 2010 are presumably those in which the SNP will have the most members available for activities such as canvassing, distributing leaflets and so on. This could partly offset the tendency, assumed in the spreadsheet, for the SNP to show the greatest gains in support in the constituencies where their share of the vote in 2010 was lowest.

Thirdly, the spreadsheet does not consider possible changes in who actually votes. The referendum encouraged a lot of people who were missing from the electoral roll to register. Is this change being reflected correctly in the opinion polls? As the fortunes of Scottish Labour slump, Labour voters may become demoralised and not bother voting, while as support for the SNP soars some independence supporters may think the SNP no longer needs their votes and shift their votes to the Scottish Greens or the SSP.

Finally, there will also be a certain amount of almost random variation from one constituency to another, due to demographic changes, local politics influencing views on the various parties, the effect of minor parties which do not contest every seat, and so on. In any case, there may be some constituencies which are just not fertile ground for the SNP – such as those next to the border with England, and Orkney and Shetland.

In conclusion, I would argue that if (and it is a big ‘if’) the SNP’s lead over Labour in the election is similar to that given by recent opinion polls, then most of those intimidating Labour majorities will melt away, the first past the post system will favour the SNP for a change, and the SNP should win somewhere around 50 seats. Then Jim ‘Labour won’t lose any seats to the SNP’ Murphy will have a lot of egg all over his face – metaphorically speaking, of course. And that could help make 2015 a happier year.

Note This appears to be essentially the Transition Model of Electoral Calculus, somewhat simplified because in Scotland there is only one major party which has gained support since 2010; however, Electoral Calculus currently use a modified version of this, called the Strong Transition Model (STM), because they assume that a party which is losing support will lose fewer seats than the Transition Model predicts. The STM involves a an arbitrary division of voters into ‘strong’ and ‘weak’, and it is difficult to know whether this is justified. My best guess (and it is just a guess) is that the STM will slightly underestimate the number of SNP seats, while the Transition Model will overestimate it.

Who Should Pay for Westminster?

One of the ways in which Scotland does not get as good a deal as the UK government’s GERS figures would suggest is that various infrastructure projects, almost entirely in England, are classified as being for the benefit of the whole of the UK. Examples include renovating London sewers and the HS2 rail line which will not come within a hundred miles of Scotland. Although very few such projects are in, or of any significant benefit to, Scotland, Scotland gets charged a per capita share of the costs in the GERS figures, and does not receive any Barnett consequential payments in connection with them. I want to look at a slightly less obvious version of this. (Once again, I will keep the discussion simpler by pretending that the UK comprises only Scotland and England.)
The Westminster Parliament is the Parliament for the whole of the UK, and therefore it might seem reasonable that Scotland should be charged a per capita share of its running costs, but I believe there are reasons why Scotland’s contribution should be somewhat less. I shall start with the less important reason.
The nature of the job requires Scottish MPs to spend much of their time in London, and so a significant part of their expenses and some their salaries will be spent there, to the economic benefit of England. A similar situation will apply with members of the House of Lords, with the additional complication that those members who are resident in Scotland may be less likely to attend the Lords regularly than those who live in or near London, and so will collect fewer £300 tax-free attendance allowances. Apart from the politicians, the Houses of Parliament employ numerous people to clean and maintain the building, to staff the numerous bars and dining rooms (all subsidised by taxpayers) and to provide assistance to the politicians. The economic benefit from the wages of all these people goes to England, not Scotland.

Where Scotland receives a disproportionately small percentage of the economic benefit from UK government expenditure, Scotlands share of that expenditure should be reduced to compensate for this. I assume that this was at least part of the reason why the original, pre-devolution version of the Barnett formula allocated slightly more money to Scotland than would have been expected if it had been strictly proportional to population.
The most important consideration is one which should be highlighted by talk of EVEL or ‘English Votes for English Laws’. As a result of of the introduction of devolution without any move towards some kind of federal system, the Westminster Parliament divides its time between being the UK Parliament and being a de facto English Parliament. (Before devolution, it also at times acted as a Scottish Parliament when debating laws that would apply only to Scotland – and there was nothing then to stop English MPs voting on such laws, no SVSL.) The cost of the Scottish Parliament is met from the Scottish budget, and so it is only fair that the cost of the Westminster Parliament, when it is dealing with matters which concern only England, should come out of the English budget.
If EVEL is introduced, it will be necessary to formally define when the Commons are dealing with UK business and when they are dealing with English business. It should therefore be possible to work out over the course of a year what percentage of the time that Parliament has acted as the English Parliament, and reduce the charge to Scotland accordingly. (One could assume that the percentages will be similar for the Lords.)
There has been talk of the need for a major renovation of the Palace of Westminster, with the cost being estimated at £3 billion, perhaps rising to as much as £10 billion (yes, £10,000,000,000) if it is necessary to move Parliament to alternative accommodation while the work is carried out; under the present system Scotland will be charged at least £250 million. Yet again, there will doubtless be very little economic benefit to Scotland from this work, even if any of the contracts are awarded to Scottish companies, but a great deal for London. Why should Scotland be paying to create jobs in England, when the reverse rarely happens? Why should Scotland pay a full share of the cost of renovating a building which for a significant part of the time accommodates an English Parliament?
I cannot help wondering whether, if the Palace of Westminster is really in such a poor condition, it would be cheaper to build a replacement elsewhere (not necessarily in London – other English cities could compete for the privilege). They could invite a foreign architect to design something a bit more up to date, preferably without bars to discourage legislating while under the influence. Then the present buildings could be converted into something like a hotel and conference centre, or, if they are as unsound as the estimated cost of renovation suggests, replaced with a nice new office block. If the reason for preferring to renovate the Palace of Westminster is to preserve a tourist attraction, then why should Scotland pay for that?