Things flying apart? Analysing the results of the devolved elections


On 25 May the Constitution Unit invited three electoral experts to give their analysis on the results of the recent devolved elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In this post Artur Foguet Gonzalez summarises their key insights.

 The fifth round of elections to the devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland took place on 5 May. On 25 May the Constitution Unit hosted three electoral experts ­– Professors Ailsa Henderson, Roger Scully and Cathy Gormley-Heenan – to digest the results. This post summarises the key points that were raised by the speakers.

Scotland: Professor Ailsa Henderson, University of Glasgow

Scotland awoke the morning after the election to two significant results: the Scottish National Party (SNP) was still the largest party in Holyrood but no longer held a majority, whilst Labour’s decline continued as it fell behind the Conservatives to become the third largest party in Scotland. Ailsa Henderson used her data from the Scottish Election Study (SES) to explain these results.

For the SNP three factors explain their continued popularity: the constitution, valence and leadership. Though the data shows that the constitution is not top of voters’ agenda, it also shows that voters are very unlikely to back a party that does not share their view on independence, so whilst the constitution may not be driving voter choice, it is a constraining factor. The SNP was the only party likely to collect votes from those who had supported independence in the 2014 referendum, whilst No voters were split between multiple parties. On valence, when voters were asked which party they trusted most on particular issues the SNP came top, not only on ‘standing up for Scotland’ but on every single issue. Nicola Sturgeon, meanwhile, remains an extremely popular figure.

SP election result

Scottish Parliament election result, 5 May 2016 (changes from 2011 shown in brackets). Source: BBC News

So what explains their lack of majority? First, Alex Salmond has blamed Scotland’s mixed-member system where the SNP’s dominance in the constituencies made it harder to win regional seats. However, the SNP still earned a larger proportion of seats than proportion of the vote so the electoral system was hardly punitive. Second, turnout was 55 per cent, compared to almost 85 per cent in the referendum and 71 per cent at the 2015 general election. Democratic fatigue owing to the fact that the SNP were the clear favourites may be partly to blame. The SES data shows that, if the turnout and proportion of the vote had been the same as at the general election, the SNP would have won another seat in Aberdeenshire West. Third, split-ticket voting may have had an impact, with the SNP (and the Liberal Democrats) least likely to pick up regional votes from people who backed other parties in constituency contests. The leaking of votes to the Greens, in particular, may have cost them votes. Finally, though the SES data is not yet finalised, anecdotal evidence suggests tactical voting with regional concentrations in support may have been a factor.

Tax helps to explain the divergent results of Labour and the Conservatives. On the question of trust, Labour came second to the SNP on all key issues, except for the economy and law and order where the Conservatives performed better. Simply put, Labour promised to raise taxes while the Conservatives promised not to. The Conservatives were also seen to be more ideologically pure and arguably benefitted from a crowding of the political space on the left with the SES data showing that they also retained more supporters across both ballots. At the same time there was confusion about where Labour stood on the issue of the constitution whereas the Conservatives, with their popular leader Ruth Davidson, presented themselves as the defenders of the Union and the only party capable of forming a strong opposition.

Wales: Professor Roger Scully, Cardiff University

Roger Scully opened with a statistic: of the 38 Wales-wide electoral contests – meaning general, European, and assembly elections – held since 1922, Labour has won all but one, the exception being the 2009 European Parliament election. A Labour victory last month may not, then, appear especially noteworthy.

National Assembly for Wales election result, 5 May 2016 (changes from 2011 shown in brackets). Source: BBC News

However, two points about Labour’s victory are worth noting. First, Labour fought a very successful defensive campaign. Despite its vote share being considerably down from the last election, Labour lost votes where it could afford to and held on to vital seats – for example, two of the six most vulnerable seats were held with majorities of less than 100, whilst the other four had been Conservative seats at the 2015 general election. Second, unlike Scotland, Welsh politics does not occupy a separate electoral space to the rest of the UK and so Labour did well to run this very much as a Welsh election, highlighting the well-being of the Welsh NHS, among other things.

The Conservatives, in contrast, were hampered by problems emanating from Westminster: an unpopular budget, tax, the Panama papers, the Tata steel crisis and persistent divisions over the EU referendum. Though there were high pre-election expectations, having improved their position in every previous assembly election and winning their highest number of seats in a general election since 1983 last year, there was no progress for the Conservatives in Wales.

Though they regained second place in the Assembly, the results for Plaid Cymru were also not terribly encouraging. There was an improvement in vote share from 2011 and Leanne Wood remains a popular leader, overturning the usually safe Labour seat of Rhondda. However, Plaid failed to consistently deliver votes where it needed to and its performance overall was erratic.

The big story in the national media was of the arrival of UKIP, taking seven seats in the Welsh Assembly. However, they finished fourth and their vote share on both ballots was lower than at the general election.

Northern Ireland: Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan, University of Ulster

This was an important election. It was an early test of leadership for Arlene Foster (DUP), Mike Nesbitt (UUP) and Colum Eastwood (SDLP), whilst at the same time many more familiar faces were stepping down. The Stormont House Agreement, ‘Fresh Start’, finalised in November 2015, had resolved many outstanding issues such as paramilitarism, welfare reform, and corporation tax, and the perception was that this election would focus less on sectarian issues and more on the ‘bread and butter’ politics of health, education and the economy. Finally, there was much excitement around #GFAGEN – the first generation of voters born after the Good Friday Agreement – entering the electorate and how this might change politics. The common sentiment expressed by these young voters was that none of the traditional parties represented their views and there was interest in how this would manifest itself in terms of turnout and the fortunes of smaller parties.

The results did indicate some noteworthy changes. The number of female MLAs returned rose by 50 per cent, from 20 in 2011 to 30 in 2016. The anti-austerity party, People before Profit, won two seats for the first time, whilst the Greens also gained a seat. Both of these parties see themselves as neither ‘orange’ (unionist) or ‘green’ (nationalist), increasing the number of ‘others’ in the assembly. This is significant as much of the legislation in the Assembly requires cross-community consensus either through a weighted majority or parallel consent, and ‘others’ do not figure in this calculation. Furthermore, the nationalist vote share dropped five per cent in 2016, with Sinn Féin and the SDLP particularly concerned after losing one seat each to People Before Profit. The likely reason for this fall in support is that their traditional constituency bases see them as unrepresentative of them and their expectations of a nationalist party in government. If people continue to turn away from the main parties and towards ‘other’, then the question becomes how should the Assembly be reformed or recalibrated to ensure that this increasing voice is not lost within the architecture of the power-sharing agreement.

NIA election result

Northern Ireland Assembly election result, 5 May 2016 (changes from 2011 shown in brackets). Source: BBC News

On the other hand, the election results did not signal the significant changes that some people had expected. The DUP, UUP and Alliance retained the same number of seats as in 2011, whilst Sinn Féin and the SDLP lost 1 and 2 seats respectively. The DUP, in particular, fought off the challenge of the smaller parties and put paid to the idea that they might fracture the unionist vote.

But developments since the election have produced new outcomes, which suggest further change could be on its way. After the recent passage of legislation in Westminster making it possible, for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement some parties that qualify for seats in government under the d’Hondt formula decided to go into official opposition rather than government, starting with the UUP and then followed by the SDLP. This is a vastly different proposition than the prevailing notion of ‘opposition within government’. Second, this will be the first time that the position of Minister of Justice will be held by an independent MLA – Claire Sugden. The Justice Minister is the one ministerial appointment not made using the d’Hondt system of proportional allocation of seats, requiring instead cross-community consent in the Assembly. Alliance had previously taken this position but after negotiations with the larger parties broke down, and given that neither the DUP or Sinn Féin could countenance the other holding the post, a different solution had to be reached. How the government mandate will function with such a vital ministerial position being held by an independent who has been an MLA for only two years will certainly be interesting to observe.

You can watch the seminar in full at this link.

About the speakers

Ailsa Henderson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Edinburgh and Principal Investigator for the 2016 Scottish Election Study.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science at Cardiff University and Principal Investigator for the 2016 Welsh Election Study.

Cathy Gormley-Heenan is Professor of Politics and Director of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences at the University of Ulster.

About the author

Artur Foguet Gonzalez is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.

3 thoughts on “Things flying apart? Analysing the results of the devolved elections

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