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Devolved Elections and UK Politics

One question that has preoccupied many analysts of politics in Scotland and Wales since 1999 is how to understand devolved elections. A question that arises here is the extent to which devolved elections are shaped by factors specific to the devolved political arena, or how much they are influenced by UK-wide politics.

Actually, this is a question that arises not only within the context of devolution in the UK. Discussion of devolution in the UK tends, all-too-often, to proceed in blissful ignorance of broader international developments. Thus, depressingly few people are aware that the growing importance of sub-state regional government has been one of the major global political trends in recent decades, particularly in democratic polities. Understanding the politics of regional elections is therefore an important part of understanding democratic politics as a whole, and not just in the UK.

[At this point I should perhaps apologise to those for whom the term ‘regional’ may appear inappropriate when applied to places – such as Scotland, Wales or Catalonia – that have a strong sense of nationhood. Here I am using the term simply as an umbrella label for substantial geographic units within a state that have their own level of government. Some of these places have populations who tend to see themselves as a distinct nation; others do not. ‘Region’ is simply the most neutral collective term to describe all of them. No statement about the validity or otherwise of national aspirations within any of these areas is intended].

A very interesting and important recent article by Charlie Jeffery and Arjan Schakel [follow link for paper on ‘Are regional elections really second-order elections?’] examines a wide range of regional elections, trying to discover the extent to which these do seem to follow the imperatives of state-wide politics or appear to reflect political factors specific to the particular region where the election is occurring. Their clear conclusion is that the extent of state-wide influence varies greatly. Not all regional elections are alike. The influence of statewide factors appears strongest where:

  • Regional elections have statewide consequences: as in Germany where the upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, is composed of delegates from the regions, and regional election results thus influence the federal balance of power;
  • The powers of regional government are more limited;
  • There are no significant region-specific (or ‘non-statewide’) parties running in the election;
  • Any sense of regional identity and (historical or cultural) distinctiveness is weak.

Where do devolved elections in the UK fit into this picture? Welsh experience seems ambiguous. In the first election to the National Assembly, in 1999, we saw Labour experience a major setback in Wales (in comparison to its long-standing hegemony in Welsh electoral politics) and Plaid Cymru make a major advance. UK-wide factors seem rather ill-equipped to explain this result. The Labour UK government at the time was generally rather popular, enjoying a substantial polling lead over the opposition. Moreover, detailed analysis of those voters who switched to Plaid in the Assembly election suggested that they were not doing so because of UK-wide factors: compared to other voters they were in fact particularly concerned with devolved politics. The 1999 ‘quiet earthquake’ in Welsh electoral politics seemed better accounted for by Welsh-specific factors: the Alun Michael-Rhodri Morgan Labour leadership race, the result and conduct of which alienated many of Labour’s traditional supporters; a generally lacklustre (and in places complacent) Labour campaign; and the success of Plaid Cymru, under an effective and popular leader in Dafydd Wigley, in appearing far more relevant in the context of a specifically Welsh election than they had ever done in a UK general election.

In contrast, however, Labour’s electoral slump in the 2007 Assembly election (where their vote share fell well below even that experienced in 1999, and they were saved from major seat losses only by the absence of a single strong challenger) appeared to be more about the party’s UK-wide struggles than it was about Welsh-specific factors. Similarly, Labour’s resurgence in Wales since the 2010 UK general election, including its 2011 devolved election triumph, also appears to be significantly influenced by the UK-wide political context.

Analysis of recent devolved elections in Scotland, however, has pointed primarily to Scottish-specific factors in explaining the rise (and, thus far, continued rise) of the SNP. Detailed analyses of the 2007 and 2011 elections have developed a ‘valence politics’ explanation of SNP’s triumphs. In other words, the SNP’s narrow victory in 2007, and crushing triumph in 2011, were not primarily about voter reactions to the UK coalition. Nor, it seems clear, were they about a surge in support for Scottish independence. The SNP won because it convinced large numbers of people in Scotland that it was the most competent and dynamic party, with the most effective leader; that it would be better than Labour or any other party at governing Scotland and standing up for Scottish interests.

In a new article [if that link doesn’t work for you, a pre-publication version is available HERE], I’ve tried to take our understanding somewhat further by directly comparing the experiences of the 2011 devolved elections in Scotland and Wales. A few months prior to the elections, the two appeared to be heading for similar outcomes, with Labour well ahead in the opinion polls in both nations. In the event, the results could hardly have contrasted more strongly. Scotland in 2011 produced Labour’s worst-ever performance in a Scottish Parliament election, and the SNP’s astonishing, majority-winning triumph. The Welsh result was almost the mirror image of this: Labour’s best-ever performance with Plaid Cymru experiencing their worst devolved election result yet.

Why, amidst a common UK-wide political context, this great contrast in electoral fortunes?

For the most part, I argue, the differing results in Scotland and Wales simply reflect the contrasting ways in which valence politics played out in the two territories. In Scotland, the SNP was the party most favourably viewed in terms of effectiveness, competence and leadership; in Wales, those advantages were held by Labour.

However, the analysis also indicates another respect in which the two nations differed. This was in the extent to which UK-wide factors – such as attitudes towards the performance of the UK government, and opinions on the main UK-level party leaders – were significant influences on voting decisions. This influence appeared to be notably weaker in Scotland than in Wales. This is in line with what Jeffery and Schakel’s analysis would lead us to expect: Scotland has (even after the 2011 Welsh referendum) a more far-reaching devolution settlement; it also has a somewhat stronger sense of distinctively Scottish national identity and history of institutional autonomy. It is, thus, perhaps unsurprising that the Scottish Parliament election appears to have been more Scottish in nature than the Welsh Assembly contest was Welsh.

What are the practical implications of these findings? One, I think, concerns the conditions under which Plaid Cymru might ever repeat, or even surpass, their 1999 electoral performance. For the most part, that will be down to Plaid themselves developing an electoral campaign that persuades large numbers of people in Wales of their competence and effectiveness. But it would probably also help Plaid if the electoral context was one of an unpopular Labour government in London.

More generally, I think the findings emphasise the need to understand the many differences between the ‘regions’ that hold elections in much of the democratic world. As those elections have come to matter more, so it matters that we understand them to the greatest extent that we can. And we need to understand that even elections held within the same statewide context may differ in important ways.

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