The Electorally Disunited Kingdom

I believe it was my friend Phil Cowley who was the first person to point out that the 2015 general election had produced a unique outcome: it was the first time ever that a different political party had finished first (in votes and seats) in each of the four constituent parts of the UK. Electorally, the United Kingdom has never looked less united.

Of course, Northern Ireland long been a place apart in electoral – and perhaps some other – terms. But what about the nations of ‘mainland’ Britain? How have they reached this point?

As I have discussed at various points on the blog (such as here), there is a long tradition of Conservative weakness in Wales, dating back as far as 1859. The obverse of this Tory weakness has been two substantial periods of one-party dominance – under the Liberals from 1885-1914, and Labour from 1935 until the present day.

Conservative weakness in Scotland is distinctly more recent in origin. But it was not until the post-referendum decline in Scottish Labour’s support that the door was opened for the extraordinary SNP surge that produced their victory in Scotland this year. With no analogous change occurring in Wales for Plaid Cymru, we thus had the outcome that Phil pointed to: the leading party in England in the 2015 election was the Conservatives; in Wales it remained the Labour party; in Scotland it became, for the first time ever in a general election the SNP; and in Northern Ireland it was the Democratic Unionist Party.

Reflecting on this outcome recently, it occurred to me that blog readers might find it interesting to look in a bit more detail at how the nations of Britain have changed electorally over time. I’ll leave Northern Ireland aside, as an obviously distinct case, and I’ll look in detail at the period from 1945 onwards. I’ll also focus mainly on what have been the two main parties across Britain in that time – including, for the majority of the period, Wales and Scotland – the Labour and Conservative parties.

So here, first of all, are a couple of simple charts. They show you, respectively, the vote shares of the Labour and Conservative parties in England, Scotland and Wales at every general election from 1945 onwards. (Click on each chart for a larger image).

Labour General Election Vote Share, 1945-2015, England, Scotland and Wales

Labour Electoral Support, 1945-2015, England, Scotland and Wales

 

Conservative General Election Vote Share, 1945-2015, England, Scotland and Wales

 

For Labour, given that the chat starts off from its 1945 landslide win, and given also the broader decline in two-party dominance across Britain during the period, it is unsurprising that we observe a general – though not absolutely uniform – trend downwards in its vote share. Perhaps of greater interest is that we also see some consistent differences between the nations. The Labour vote share is higher in Wales than in either England or Scotland in all elections, in both good years and bad, except for that in 2010 – when Labour was led by the Scotsman, Gordon Brown, and saw its vote share rise there while the party was declining elsewhere. We also can see that, perhaps surprisingly to some, Labour didn’t really do consistently better in vote share in Scotland than England until the end of the 1970s – after which its vote share in Scotland stayed ahead of that in England until the 2015 collapse of Scottish Labour.

For the Conservatives, the chart confirms that they always do worse in general elections in Wales than England. But it also shows the strong performance by the party in Scotland until the end of 1950s, when the long decline of Scottish Toryism began. Still, the Tories had a higher vote share in Scotland than Wales in every election until 1979; from then on, the Conservative vote share has been lower every time in Scotland than Wales. We can also observe that while there has been a steady recovery by the party in Wales and England from its 1997 low-point, nothing analogous has occurred in Scotland at all. Ruth Davidson actually led the Scottish Tories to the worst Conservative/Unionist general election vote share in modern history.

So what, in general, can we make of these patterns? Writing in the London Review of Books in the immediate aftermath of the general election this year, Ross McKibbon, offered the following interpretation of the election results: “The Tories did well in Wales…part of a process by which Wales is becoming assimilated into English politics”. (Ross McKibbin, London Review of Books, 4th June 2015).

To be blunt, I don’t think this interpretation stands up to much scrutiny. I think it would be much more accurate to say that the election result extended much further the divergence of Scottish electoral politics from those in England. For Wales, any differences with English voting patterns were broadly at the long-term mean. Let me illustrate this point with a couple of further charts.

Labour and Conservative Vote Share in General Elections, 1945-2015, Wales Compared to England

The first one here (again, click on the image for a larger version) shows simply presents some of the information from the previous two charts in another way: it gives the margin between the vote share won by the Conservative and Labour parties in England and in Wales at every general election from 1945 to 2015. The upper (red) line is that for Labour, which simply shows that Labour have scored a higher vote share in Wales than in England at every post-war election. The line bobbles up and down, but it is interesting to see that there have been declines in the England-Wales gap at most elections since 1992. And in this year’s general election, the gap between Labour’s vote share in England and in Wales, at 5.3%, was the lowest since Labour became an established political party.

This does seem to suggest some convergence of English and Welsh electoral behaviour. However, the Conservative line does not really suggest the same thing. The line is always well below the zero point, indicating that the Welsh Tories have always scored a lower vote-share than their English counterparts, as we already knew. The gap this year was towards the lower end of those experienced during the post-war period. But it was very marginally greater than in 2010 and, more importantly, was little different from what it was in the 1980s or even the 1960s.

Our final chart below (again, click on the image for a larger version) offers a summary picture of how Wales and Scotland have compared in their electoral behaviour to the largest of the British nations in all 1945-2015 general elections. The chart presents scores for Scotland and Wales on an Index of Dissimilarity, where the nations would score 0 if they gave the same vote share to parties as did voters in England, and a maximum 100 if they gave all their votes to parties that won no votes in England. Looking at the trends over time, we see that Wales (the green line) was more different from England in its electoral behaviour than Scotland was until the February 1974 election; since then, Wales has been more similar to England than Scotland has been at every general election. But this change has not come about because the Welsh have become electorally assimilated. In recent elections, while the trend in Welsh scores is very gently downwards, it is only towards the long-term mean after a high point in 1992. What has changed is Scotland (represented by the blue line) – and in particular in the two most recent general elections, when its preferences have sharply diverged from those in England.

Index of Dissimilarity: Scotland and Wales (compared to England), 1945-2015 General Elections

In short, Wales has not really changed that much electorally. It has long had significant electoral distinctiveness from England while at the same time being influenced by GB-wide electoral trends. This is still true, and to about the same extent as it has long been. What has changed is the situation in Scotland, where it has – for the present, at least – become electorally a very different place from England. That is how we have arrived at the current state of this electorally disunited kingdom.

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