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Westminster 2015 - will the SNP shake things up?

Scotland's potential independence now stands firmly on the horizon. But one must wonder: if it is to happen, how will the event affect the 2015 general elections? We must examine the facts to find out.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
17 September 2013
Polling_station_6_may_2010.jpeg

Flickr/Polling Station. Some rights reserved.

It would be foolish to make predictions this far from a general election. However, the fact that we can't yet put them together shouldn't stop us from examining the various pieces of the jigsaw which will make up the result of the Westminster election in 2015.

With that in mind, I thought I'd have a peek at what I think is a particularly interesting question – how many SNP MPs will there be? In particular, let me sketch out a few factors which, when added together, imply we might be seeing quite a few more Nationalists on the green benches. To be clear, I am not seeking to make a prediction. That would be foolish. We can expect the independence referendum to operate in Scottish politics like an event horizon does in space: seeing beyond it is probably impossible. 

I am merely highlighting a few factors. I'll come at the end to why I think this is interesting.

The SNP now have footholds across Scotland

In the years running up to the 2010 Westminster General Election, the SNP had 21 Holyrood constituency MSPs and around 360 local councillors. Going into the next Westminster election, they will have (roughly) 53 Holyrood constituencies and 425 councillors.

I say 'constituency MSPs' because Holyrood, of course, uses a proportional system, under which parties have both constituency members and regional members. But such seats are important. Because whilst a regional MSP can build a media profile, it is constituency offices which deal with the most case work, building a local presence can allow a party to really secure a foothold. 

The result of all of this is that the SNP now has seeds planted across more of Scotland than ever before. Anyone looking at results in the Westminster general election of 2015 would be foolish to ignore this piece of information.

Ed is a man of the South

Ed Miliband's approval ratings in the UK as a whole aren't great. 21% of voters are satisfied with his job performance, 42% aren't. But if we look just at Scotland, his figures are worse: 14% of Scots are satisfied with him. 57% aren't. His rating in Scotland is, therefore, -43.

In March 2010, Gordon Brown had an approval rating among Scots of +8, with 43% of people in his home country thinking he was doing a good job, and only 35% disagreeing.

Ed Miliband has always looked to me like a leader chosen to attract Southern and middle class Liberal Democrats to the Labour Party. He was his party's answer to the Cleggmania which so scared them in 2010. He is not a leader who resonates outside his comfort zone.

Gordon Brown, on the other hand, is the kind of man that people in the South East hate. But that unpopularity was never reflected north of the border. When comparing 2010 and 2015 elections, it's useful to remember this.

Will the SNP care more about Westminster?

In 2010, the SNP spent a total of £315,776 on their Westminster campaign. Labour in Scotland spent £967,904 – more than three times as much as their main rivals. In 2011, the situation was reversed. The SNP spent £1,141,662 on their Holyrood campaign, whilst Labour stumped up £816,889.

To put it simply, the SNP haven't, in recent years, seen Westminster elections as their priority. This, of course, makes sense. They are the Scottish National Party. Focussing on the Scottish Parliament is an obvious strategy. I think there is a reasonable chance that this will be different in 2015.

Suppose there is a no vote in the referendum. Then the current generation of SNP leaders will want to secure the promise made by all of the other main parties of significantly more devolution after the referendum. But nationalists remember too well that similar promises made in the run up to the 1979 refererendum were ditched at the first opportunity. If they want to ensure that this little bit of history isn't repeated, a large Westminster delegation would help significantly - particularly if Parliament is, once again, hung.

Suppose there is a yes vote. Actual independence will still be in process before Scottish MPs lose their jobs when the new state is formed in March 2016. Having significant numbers of feet on the ground in the House of Commons will make such negotiations easier for the Scottish government.

These are strong incentives to throw effort into the 2015 election in a way that they didn't in 2010 and will be helpful facts when tapping up funders.

The SNP has many more foot soldiers, Scottish Labour is morribund

However people vote in the referendum, one result of it is that the SNP will go into the next election with many more members. In 2012 alone, the party grew by 23% and their 25,000th member joined in March. In a context where it is widely assumed the Tories have fewer than 100,000 members across the UK, this is no mean feat. For these new activists, the referendum will train them well in the basics of running a political campaign – canvassing, navigating leaflet runs, etc. 

Scottish Labour, on the other hand, are limping. They don't publish Scottish membership figures, but the last estimate I can find – from after the party's 2010 membership boom – puts them at around 13,000. The Better Together campaign doesn't seem to be doing anything to help with this situation.

Voters are less likely to forget Scotland

The main complaint that you hear from SNP activists is that, in the run up to a Westminster election, the press focus entirely on UK (rather than Scottish) politics. When that is the dynamic, they say, they are forgotten. 

It will be seven and a half months from the Scottish referendum to the Westminster election – the biggest event in Scottish politics just about ever. The waves from that splash will, surely, still be rocking voters. It will be hard for most Scots voters to forget where they come from.

The Lib Dems

The Lib Dems have 11 Scottish MPs. As of the 2011 Holyrood elections, nine of these seats' closest equivalents are held at Holyrood by the SNP (one is held by the Tories, and only one by the Lib Dems*). Given that this wipe out was clearly a punishment for the behaviour of the Lib Dems at Westminster, not those at Holyrood, it's reasonable to suspect, I think, that we might see a similar switch in 2015.

Conclusions

Now, I want to be clear what I am saying – or rather, what I'm not saying. I am not making predictions. There are strong arguments to counter most of the above snippets of points. Scots are very used to voting for different parties at different levels of government. Perhaps the SNP will eat themselves alive if it's a no vote next year. Perhaps none of the above will turn out to make a difference to the result. Perhaps some unforeseen event will outweigh all of them.

What I am saying is this: The 2010 result in Scotland was exactly the same as the 2005 result - every seat voted the same way. We shouldn't assume that things will be equally dull in 2015. Major changes are afoot in Scotland. 

In 2010 the SNP gained 6 of the seats in Scotland. In 2015 it could win fewer if it spirals into a collapse. But it could win a great deal more – even just taking the Lib Dem seats they now hold at Holyrood would nearly double this number, and there's a reasonable case that they'll take seats off Labour too.

Scottish MPs make up 9 per cent of the House of Commons – 59 seats. With the 2015 result not yet clear, changes north of the border could impact on the UK as a whole. With that in mind, it's worth, maybe, thinking about this question. If it is another hung Parliament, what price would the SNP demand for making Ed Miliband Prime Minister?

Whatever the answer to that question, it's worth remembering one thing as we start to approach the next general election: it would be a mistake to assume that all is still quiet on the northern front.

Notes

[1] Well, strictly speaking, Orkney and Shetland make up one Westminster seat, held by the Lib Dems, but two Holyrood seats, both held by the Lib Dems).

 

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