Legislative elections in GB

I touched on this week’s elections taking place across Great Britain in a post five days ago.

For numerous reasons, the legislative elections taking place in Great Britain on Thursday are the most important since devolution was established. In Scotland and Wales foreign nationals and 16-17-year-olds will have the vote, and they will be voting for legislatures which are the most powerful they have ever been, with implications for the future of the whole UK.


The elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Senedd and in fact also the Greater London Authority take place under a “mixed-member proportional” (MMP), sometimes referred to as “additional member”. It is worth getting used to this system because it is also the one used in this year’s most important election, for the German Bundestag (lower house) in late September.

Under MMP, each voter gets two votes, one at constituency level for a specific candidate, and one at regional level for a particular party. Ultimately it is the latter of these which is supposed to determine the final party breakdown in the legislature/authority thus elected (hence “proportional”) – although in Scotland and Wales, because this is generally done in regions rather than across the country as a whole, in practice smaller parties with evenly spread support still do not receive representation so there remains an element of bias towards larger parties (this means in practice that anything over 40%, and particularly over 45%, gives a party a chance of an absolute majority).

With breakaway nationalist parties particularly notable in both Scotland and Wales, the tactics around how to use the regional vote are receiving particular attention this time around.


1999: Lab 56, SNP 35, Con 18, LD 17, Green 1, Other 2 (Lab/LD coalition majority)

2003: Lab 50, SNP 27, Con 18, LD 17, Green 7, SSP 6, Ind 3, Other 1 (Lab/LD coalition majority)

2007: SNP 47, Lab 46, Con 17, LD 16, Green 2, Ind 1 (SNP minority government)

2011: SNP 69, Lab 37, Con 15, LD 5, Green 2, Ind 1 (SNP overall majority)

2016: SNP 63, Con 31, Lab 24, Grn 6, LD 5 (SNP minority government)

From the outset in 1999, the Scottish Parliament scrutinised an Executive and had authority over all powers not specifically reserved to the UK Parliament. Those reserved powers have been amended downwards slightly since 2010, giving the Scottish Parliament more powers notably over tax. Scotland’s “First Minister” leads the government on the basis of an ability to command a majority (or, at least, not be opposed by one) in the Scottish Parliament; she is supported by a Cabinet (senior ministers are known as “Cabinet Secretaries” with responsibilities divided as if per individual departments, although formally the “Scottish Government” constitutes a single legal entity distinct from the Parliament), but unlike in the UK Parliament there is no formal “Leader of the Opposition”.

Of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, 73 are elected from single-member constituencies (simply, most votes wins) with the remainder via regional top-ups in eight regions (Greater Glasgow, Central, Highlands/Islands, Lothian, Mid/Fife, North East, South, and West). Each region therefore should theoretically end up with representation in line with the share of the regional vote for each party, although it is also possible for a party to win more constituency seats than it is entitled to from the regional vote, in which case it keeps the extra (there is a difference here from Germany, which no longer allows such “overhang” seats). A slight further confusion is that the constituencies are based on the older Scottish constituencies when Scotland was overrepresented in the UK Parliament; now, they overlap with Westminster constituencies and their relation to them is essentially random.

On balance, in 2016 the SNP was unfortunate with constituency seats, missing out on more narrowly than it won narrowly; should it get more fortunate this time, even potentially on a slightly smaller overall vote, it may in fact end up with more seats via the aforementioned “overhang”. Conversely, “unionist tactical voting” to keep the SNP out may become more prominent, with voters splitting their votes between the candidate in their constituency likeliest to beat the SNP on one hand with their constituency vote, and their actual party of preference with their regional list vote. It is impossible from outside Scotland to determine what the net effect of all this will be, versus 2016.

The polls are unclear but point, if anything, to a slight swing away from the SNP with the main beneficiaries being the Greens (also nominally pro-independence, though the same polls show that is not the main motivating factor for their voters). In many ways, however, the SNP’s ongoing dominance, even if short of a majority, is remarkable given it has been in power so long.

The complexities of adding the regional top-up “additional members” mean it will likely be well into Friday before the detail of the result is known. Be very cautious about London-based “hot takes” – not only are political journalists distant from the specifics of Scotland, but they are also generally poor at understanding the electoral system. For example, gaining or losing constituency seats, while not irrelevant by any means, is not the absolutely decisive factor (as it is in a UK Parliamentary election with the “first past the post” system when there are only constituency seats).


1999: Lab 28, Plaid 17, Con 9, LD 6 (Lab/LD coalition majority)

2003: Lab 30, Plaid 12, Con 11, LD 6, Ind 1 (Lab minority government)

2007: Lab 26, Plaid 15, Con 12, LD 6, Ind 1 (Lab/Plaid coalition majority)

2011: Lab 30, Con 14, Plaid 11, LD 5 (Lab minority government)

2016: Lab 29, Plaid 12, Con 11, UKIP 7, LD 1 (Lab/LD coalition minority)

What was once the “National Assembly for Wales”, essentially a regional debating chamber for Wales able to pass only secondary legislation, has now become Senedd Cymru, a full parliament with devolved powers over everything which is not specifically reserved since a period from 2006 to 2011 when the transition to responsibility for primary legislation occurred. Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales remains part of the same legal jurisdiction as England, which means that its laws specify that they apply to Wales (implicitly under a common legal system). Initially Wales had a “First Secretary” with limited practical powers to direct legislation, who chaired a “Executive” which was in fact a committee of the Assembly; this has now become a “First Minister” supported by “Cabinet Secretaries” forming collectively a “Welsh Government”, which is a separate legal entity from the legislature (similar to Scotland’s).

The balance of seats, with only one third elected by top-up across five regions and fully two thirds (of the total 60) elected from constituencies (aligned currently exactly with the UK Parliament, though that will change at the next accepted boundary review), means that even below 40% of the regional vote combined with a strong showing at constituency level can be enough to secure a majority.

Politically the realignment that occurred in Scotland and Northern Ireland between 2003 and 2007 (albeit, of course, in different ways) did not occur in Wales, where elections have seen broadly similar outcomes aside from the rise of UKIP last time around. Unlike in Scotland (and indeed in England in the local elections), Labour can go into this election fairly confident, with an outside chance of forcing even an overall majority; there are several reasons for this, among them the relative absence of a Welsh Green Party with significant support. Nevertheless, the likely breakdown of the UKIP vote will largely favour the Conservatives, surely putting them back ahead of Plaid.


2000: Lab 9, Con 9, LD 4, Green 3 (Ind Mayor)

2004: Con 9, Lab 7, LD 5, Green 2, UKIP 2 (Lab Mayor)

2008: Con 11, Lab 8, LD 3, Green 2, BNP 1 (Con Mayor)

2012: Lab 12, Con 9, Green 2, LD 2 (Con Mayor)

2016: Lab 12, Con 8, Green 2, UKIP 2, LD 1 (Lab Mayor)

After a postponement of one year, the London Assembly election also occurs alongside the London Mayoral Election (combined, these are known as the “Greater London Authority”, but usually referred to by Londoners simply as “City Hall”).

The Assembly is elected from fourteen single-member constituencies plus eleven further members elected London-wide on the basis of each party’s regional vote – a total of 25. The year’s delay means these elections are now aligned with legislative elections under the same system in Scotland and Wales.

Unlike in Scotland and Wales, however, the “chief executive” of the Greater London Authority (for which the Assembly forms the scrutinising body) is directly elected, and referred to formally as the “Mayor of London” (separate from the largely ceremonial “Lord Mayor of London”, who covers only the square mile of the City of London at a lower tier level of local rather than regional government; the “Mayor of London” does have authority in the City, as well as in the 32 London Boroughs, which collectively make up “Greater London”). The “Mayor of London” (in fact more usually referred to as the “London Mayor”) is elected by what is known as “supplementary vote”, effectively an instant run-off system whereby voters may state a second preference and, if their first preference is not in the top two once the votes are tallied, it is transferred to their second (ultimately this is in the same family of electoral systems as “Single Transferable Vote” used for all elections in Northern Ireland except to the UK Parliament).

“City Hall” has primary responsibility for “Transport for London” (public transport), the “Metropolitan Police Authority” (this in fact does not apply to the City of London), the “London Fire Commissioner” and legacy development. There is also some influence over areas such as housing, strategic planning, and roads; however, there is none over education, planning, social services, libraries, leisure or waste/environmental health (held by the London Boroughs and City Corporation) and, notably, there are no revenue powers. Therefore, as a regional authority it is rather more limited than, for example, in New York or Paris. The Mayor of London does, however, also have a practical role as lead political representative of the entirety of Greater London.

Politically, we would expect to see London’s leftward shift continue; Greater London voted 60% Remain, quite distinctly from most of the rest of England, and its politics are heading in a similarly distinct direction.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s snap election in 2017 sees it fall outside the timeframe for legislative elections elsewhere in the UK; the next Assembly election is scheduled for May 2022.

It is worth noting that, unlike in Scotland and Wales, the “Northern Ireland Executive” does not form a separate legal entity from the Northern Ireland Assembly (the situation which used to exist in Wales), but that in Northern Ireland each Department is a separate legal entity. This is among many reasons that Northern Ireland’s administration is characterised by silos, although it is far from the only reason; indeed, the main reason is Northern Ireland’s equally peculiar system of requiring a joint First and deputy First Minister and its “mandatory coalition” (an inaccurate term for what is actually a system of automatic offers of ministerial posts dependent on party strength) leading to multi-party administrations of limited cohesion and consequent zealous defence of departmental boundaries.

This whole system, designed essentially to enable institutionalised sectarianism in an era when Northern Ireland was assumed to consist of “two traditional communities” is now under severe strain, to the point that it cannot and should not survive much longer. This is emphasised by the farcical situation that, if the Alliance Party were to emerge as largest party at the next Assembly Election it would nominate the First Minister, but should it come second it would not get to nominate the deputy First Minister; the party and others which do not “designate” by constitutional preference are also disadvantaged (at least in theory) by the “cross-community vote” system required for certain votes in both the Assembly and the Executive (which is in practice produces a sectarian veto for those which do designate) in a way which, under equality and human rights law and convention, is probably not even legal.

With the very serious prospect of the Alliance Party emerging as a challenger for first or second place in an Assembly Election, Thursday’s elections should perhaps be seen as a demonstration that devolution does not have to mean institutionalised sectarianism (and the endless stop-start that comes with it). Northern Ireland should perhaps, like Scotland and Wales, try a coherent government rather than a siloed administration. How is that for a mad idea which may just work?

4 thoughts on “Legislative elections in GB

  1. Scots Anorak says:

    I don’t think they’re counting overnight in Scotland.

  2. Donal Denham says:

    Excellent analysis! Clear,instructive. Will be useful for Thursday pm, Friday am.

  3. Martin Gregg says:

    Thanks Ian.
    I am becoming more & more convinced that Nick Clegg, back before he sold his soul to Facebook, should not have accepted the referendum on AV and tried to get the Council elections in England moved to at least MMP if not STV.
    David Cameron might have accepted this as far more Labour Councils probably would have moved to no overall control.
    A friend in Scotland described the move to STV in Scottish Council elections as, “a breath of fresh air” and ended the one-party Labour state overnight.
    It also lead to the SNP backing minority Conservative councils. My friend lived in Ayr & Labour had lambasted the Tories & SNP for a confidence and supply deal.
    The Tory leader responded with a letter to the local paper explaining that as biggest party after the election they had contacted all other parties.
    Labour had petulantly not replied whereas the SNP sent their opening requests. The Conservatives & SNP got down together and negotiated their program for the council over that term.

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