The Times, They Are A-Changin’

One of the more interesting narratives in an otherwise quite dull election is the rise of the SNP. While they’ve enjoyed popularity in elections for the Scottish Parliament in the past, they’ve never made a huge impact when it comes to the general election, until now, that is. Polling is consistently giving them anywhere from 30-50 seats, which would make them the third largest party in Westminster.

This isn’t going over well with either Labour or the Conservatives. Labour face losing enough seats to cost them the election, and are scrambling to create a ‘vote SNP get the Tories’ narrative. Meanwhile the Conservatives are facing the prospect of winning the most seats but being kept out of power by a third party, and are busy trying to create the opposite narrative.

The Conservative argument has been that the SNP blocking a Conservative government would go against the democratic will of the people. While the rhetoric doesn’t hold true, as the SNP would be elected by the same system as the other parties, giving them just as much legitimacy, it does ask a few questions about our electoral system.

The SNP are polling, on a UK level, about 8% of the overall vote. That’s less than both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats, yet they would gain more MPs than both parties combined. It’s down to the concentration of the SNP vote in Scotland, while the other parties have their support spread widely. It’s not something that the Westminster system is set up to deal with.

The Westminster system is designed to return strong, single part governments. Coalitions are rare, and that’s in part due to the first past the post system, which favours the existing parties. Even the rise of the Liberal Democrats didn’t have much of an effect until 2010, and the hung parliament then could just as easily be ascribed to disillusionment with politics in general.

The reason for the dominance of the two main parties is the assumption that they appeal to the nation as a whole, representing the peoples of the whole of Britain. The system isn’t set up to deal with strong regional parties, and instead expects that regional issues will be dealt with by the main parties.

That was until the creation of the Scottish Parliament, which created an opportunity for the SNP to insert itself into the political narrative in a way that it hadn’t been able to before. The SNP have been in a position to demonstrate that they can govern, and to be able to capitalise on disillusionment with Westminster politics to create a regional power block, which, due to the first past the post system, will give them disproportionate representation at Westminster, at least compared to their share of the national vote.

Regional blocks are more common in federal systems, which tend to use proportional representation in in their elections. This creates coalitions that are representative of the country’s constituent parts. Due to the uneven nature of devolution within the UK, along with the first past the post system, we’re not set up to deal with them as efficiently.

This could have an interesting effect. There’s a real possibility that we could see an increased call for electoral reform in the wake of this election, possibly even calls for federalism. While the notion was seemingly dealt with by the AV vote near the start of the current parliament, there could be an appetite to resurrect it, and even to push through other issues like reform of the House of Lords. Regional assemblies look like they may be back on the agenda, and the need for debate is becoming more and more apparent.

The lasting legacy of this election is unlikely to be a strong government, or even a memorable election. It is an opportunity, however, to highlight the increasingly obvious flaws in our electoral system and make the argument for change. The rise of the SNP actually has the potential to make Britain stronger and more representative, rather than breaking it up, if we’re willing to have the debate that is becoming increasingly necessary.


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