by Jan Eichhorn
This Thursday voters in the United Kingdom will go to the polls to elect their new House of Commons. The election may well prove to be a seismic shift in the tectonics of British politics which a range of outcomes that can only be described as uncharacteristic (amongst them the second hung parliament in a row, where no single party would hold a majority).
Recently, the arguably most discussed shift revolves around Scotland. If the polls are correct the Scottish National Party (SNP) is set to win nearly all of Scotland’s 59 seats. In the 2010 General Election they managed to secure only six, this time most projections see them beyond the 50 seats mark. This in turn means that Labour and the Liberal Democrats would see heavy losses after winning 41 and 11 respectively last time. It would be an unprecedented magnitude of change in Scotland’s electoral outcome and the makeup of the Scottish representation at Westminster.
As neither Conservatives nor Labour would be able to command a majority on their own (if current polling is correct) they would depend on votes from other parties. Given the projections, the SNP may play a key role at this point, as they would be the third largest group in parliament, ahead of the Liberal Democrats who are set to loose close to half their seats across the UK. The Conservatives have ruled out any cooperation with the Scottish Nationals and so have the SNP with the Tories. It is also clear that Labour would not form a coalition with the SNP, but Labour could potentially govern as a minority government which would see some votes backed by the SNP – some potentially by other parties, as minority government practice would suggest.
To an outside observer this may all sound trivial. If you are listening to the debate within the UK at the moment, it is far from that. Ed Miliband has ruled out “any deals” with the SNP and suggested that effectively he would put proposals forward and anyone could vote in favour or against – but he implied that he would not pre-negotiate. Why does he feel that making such a strong statement was necessary? It is because of attacks from many sides, not just the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), that any involvement of the Scottish National Party in enabling the passing of legislation by a minority government would be illegitimate.
Two reasons are brought forward to support this: i. Scotland makes up less than 10% of the population of the UK, thus a party which only stands for election in constituencies in such a small part of the country cannot be decisive in making policies for the whole of the UK and ii. the SNP has the independence for Scotland as its long-term goal and can therefore not be allowed to take part in the governing of the UK.
While these points may appear plausible (and resonate with certain voters in England in particular) they have some flaws. Crucially, the electoral system gives disproportionate traction to particular groups. First-past-the-post does not result in a parliament that is proportionately representative of the UK as a whole. The first criticism is therefore invalid, unless you disagree with this on principle. If you do however, you need to be willing to change the system.
This brings us to the second point. If voters in the UK elect representatives for their constituencies there is no question about their legitimacy in the parliament. They have the same rights and responsibilities as all other members. You may disagree with their programme and agenda – which is everybody’s good right. Parties are allowed to decide they do not want to work with them, because they disagree with their policies and views. That is also acceptable. But to say that their influence on the decision making of the House of Commons is illegitimate is not good enough. Legitimacy in a democratic system is not defined by the positions of particular parties and the electoral outcome per se – otherwise losers would always be able to claim illegitimacy. Illegitimacy implies that the system itself is not adequate.
So if you think it is inappropriate that Scotland gets 59 MPs and that with about 50% of projected vote share the SNP could potentially win nearly all of those, that can be developed as a valid critique. But you cannot make this critique contingent on the programme of the SNP. You have to criticise that separately. If you genuinely want to question the legitimacy, you need to be willing to accept that the system can legitimately – fully in line with its rules – create such an outcome. If you think it shouldn’t be possible that Scotland sends MPs who nearly all represent one party although they only got half of the vote share, you need to be willing to change the system. Otherwise you cannot use the concept of legitimacy. You merely can criticise your political opponent for their stance and be upset if voters decide differently.
If we indeed end up in a situation where the SNP holds strong influence over a possible Labour minority government, there will be many calls about the illegitimacy. It will reflect views within substantial parts of the electorate. But we need to distinguish here between perceptions of what is legitimate and actual legitimacy of an election and the functioning of parliament thereafter. The former is important, of course, but when we equate it with the latter the actual concept of legitimacy becomes meaningless.
If you claim illegitimacy you claim that there is a flaw in the system. If you do, you need to be willing to propose changes to the system through which the House of Commons is elected. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives do that. So if they want to engage with the SNP they should engage with their stance and policies, but not question the legitimacy of SNP MPs, elected through the same system as all other members of the parliament.
Dr Jan Eichhorn is Research Director of d|part. As a fellow at the University of Edinburgh he has been conducting research into the attitudes of people across the UK ahead of the current General Election, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Details can be found here: http://goo.gl/bZDHcu