In 1997 Labour swept to a landslide victory sweeping all parts of Britain. In Scotland winning 45.6% of the vote and 77.8% of the seats. In England winning 43.5% of the votes and 62.0% of the seats. One of Blair’s first and most consequential acts was to bring in devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but left English laws controlled by Parliament with no answer to the West Lothian Question. Supposedly a decision that was intended to “kill nationalism stone dead” in Scotland, while permitting Labour to use its historic strength in Scotland and Wales to assist in votes in England – as controversially first occurred when Scottish Labour MPs voted to increase tuition fees in England while Scottish Labour MSPs were ensuring Scottish students paid no fees.
Flash forward 22 years and our politics is looking very different. Much has been written about the causes and effects of Labour’s defeat this year – Brexit and Corbyn especially. However I would posit one other factor that predates both Corbyn and Brexit: devolution itself. In Scotland 2015 was the first election in 60 years in which Labour failed to come first in seats. In England in 2015 the lead party of government performed the rare feat of increasing both its share in votes and seats.
Traditionally there has been a “pendulum” effect in politics as votes have swung from government to the opposition. Governments make decisions which can be unpopular from which the opposition benefit – however in 2019 looking individually at the results in both England and Scotland the pendulum is broken. 13 years after first winning the Holyrood election the SNP gained in both votes and share, winning seatwise a landslide bigger than Blair’s in 1997 (45.0% of the vote, 81.4% of the seats).
While UK-wide the Conservatives fell short of the 100 seat majority that is often used to define a landslide, the Tories in England alone won a landslide bigger than Blair’s in 1997 (47.2% of the vote, 64.7% of the seats) – this nine years after entering Downing Street, it was the 6th election in a row since 1997 that the Conservatives had increased their share of the vote, the third since entering government.
Thanks to devolution the SNP have an ability to portray themselves as the opposition to Tory central government while being in office. Thanks to devolution the Conservatives have an ability to portray themselves as the opposition of a Labour and SNP ‘coalition of chaos’, or Labour being in the SNP’s pocket.
Looking forward, without boundary changes, Labour require 124 extra seats in order to gain a majority of just 2. If Labour can’t regain seats in Scotland then that requires winning nearly as many seats in England as they did in 1997 just to get a simple majority. Simply to deprive the Conservatives of a majority in England, Labour or the Liberal Democrats will need to gain 79 seats from the Conservatives.
If Labour next time gain approximately 70 seats from the Conservatives they could be in a position to enter Downing Street with the support of the SNP and to run English politics which are not devolved, but with the Conservatives having a majority of English seats and able to block any English-only laws under English Votes for English Laws. The constitutional implications of that are complicated.
If devolution, especially unequal devolution as designed and implemented by Tony Blair’s government, is partially responsible for Labour’s woes now then there are two lessons to learn from this. Firstly to be careful for what you wish for and what you do. Unequal devolution was meant to be to Labour’s partisan advantage but by separating Scotland’s governance from England they’ve cost themselves Scotland and hindered their potential in England.
Secondly that a solution will be required to reverse these effects of devolution. Questions need to be answered: What unique offer does the Labour Party have for Scotland? How can Labour run England without the threat of the SNP pulling their strings? How will Labour answer one nation’s concerns without putting off the voters in the other country?
Brexit may be “done” technically before the next election, Corbyn may be replaced by the Spring. But unless the devolution settlement gets addressed too then Labour’s issues will remain. Brexit and Corbyn alone are not responsible for the fact that the parties of government in both England and Scotland have both just broken the pendulum and both gained a seat share in those nations separately larger than Blair won in 1997.
Unintended consequences can be a remarkable thing, but could Blair’s first acts with his landslide be the cause of his party struggling into the future? Finally let this be a warning to the governments in both Westminster and Holyrood – if you do something uneven because it looks like smart politics, be prepared for it to backfire.
Philip Thompson is a longstanding PBer