The Constitution Unit Blog

What does the election result mean for territorial representation in the House of Commons?

We have a new parliament, a new majority government and a significant number of new MPs. As Jack Sheldon explains, the distribution of MPs by party is not even across the UK, which could have a significant impact on how the Commons handles key matters related to Brexit and the devolved administrations. 

The general election result has underlined that there are substantially different patterns of electoral competition in each of the four territories that comprise the United Kingdom. For the third consecutive election, a different party secured the most seats and votes in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover, the large majority secured by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives relied overwhelmingly on an exceptionally strong performance in England – of the 365 seats won by the Conservatives, 345 are in England.

The territorial divergence that the UK’s politics has experienced over recent decades has important implications not just for election outcomes, but for the substantive activity of representation performed by MPs in the House of Commons. MPs often seek to act as ‘territorial representatives’, focusing on the specific concerns of their nation or region. This has not so far received much attention from academics, a gap which my PhD project is seeking to fill by examining the parliamentary behaviour of MPs from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and two English counties, Cornwall and Yorkshire, between 1992 and 2019. Early findings suggest that substantive territorial representation is particularly prevalent among members of nationalist parties and other parties that run candidates only in one territory, but that it is also a relatively common feature of the parliamentary contributions of many members of the UK-wide parties, at least in more recent parliaments. It can take various forms including representation of the material interests, public opinion and culture and/or identity of the territory in question, or of sub-state political institutions. With crucial questions pertaining to the future of the Union set to be up for discussion, how can we expect MPs from the different parts of the UK to go about representing their territories in the new parliament?

England 

Despite being drawn so overwhelmingly from English constituencies, there are few indications that the enlarged group of Conservative MPs will explicitly focus on England as a unit. While the Conservatives introduced English votes for English laws in 2015 and some prominent Conservative MPs have called for an English Parliament in the past, the ‘West Lothian question’ has slipped down the political agenda over the past few years as Brexit has emerged as the dominant issue for the right. That seems unlikely to change now, despite some interest from external commentators such as Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former special adviser. Conservative interest in the constitutional English question was always motivatived to a significant extent by concern that a Labour-led government might be able to force through policies applying only to England even though a majority of English MPs were opposed, as happened on a few occasions in the New Labour years. With the Conservatives now having a large majority overall, the political incentive to focus on the English question just isn’t there at the moment.

Having said this, it is natural that Conservative MPs in the new parliament will have a better feel for politics in England than elsewhere in the UK. It can be expected that the agenda of the Johnson government and the issues taken up by Conservative backbenchers will be shaped by public opinion in the seats that they hold, and especially the sorts of seats – many in towns that voted heavily for Brexit in 2016 – that they have gained from Labour and will be defending at the next election. Thus, even if Conservative MPs do not explicitly present themselves as advocating ‘English’ interests it is inevitable that English opinion will be their focus far more than that elsewhere.

Scotland

Scotland’s representation in the House of Commons is again overwhelmingly drawn from the Scottish National Party, which secured 48 of 59 Scottish seats (including Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, where the successful candidate has been suspended by the party and is sitting as an independent). This large block can be expected to make Scottish material interests, for example in relation to aspects of the post-Brexit future relationship, and public opinion central to their agenda. They will struggle for leverage in a Conservative majority parliament. However, as the third largest party they retain the speaking privileges that they have had since 2015 – ensuring that their spokespeople will have opportunities to contribute early at PMQs and other major parliamentary occasions, and enabling them to highlight their positions to the main UK-wide parties, the media and wider public. One aspect of territorial representation that my PhD project has identified is how MPs from parties that are in government at devolved level seek to advocate on behalf of that government at Westminster. With the question of whether a section 30 order for a second Scottish independence referendum should be granted already emerging as a major issue for the new parliament, SNP MPs will have an important role to play in voicing the Scottish government’s position on this and in seeking to get ministers to justify UK government policy. 

The Scottish Conservatives now have six seats, a reduction of seven from the 13 they had in the last parliament but still more than the sole MP they had between 2001 and 2017. In the last parliament Scottish Conservatives were generally loyal to the UK-wide party, while taking opportunities to criticise the Scottish government and the SNP. This is unlikely to change drastically, but the large overall Conservative majority could potentially give the remaining Scottish Conservative MPs more scope to advance distinct Scottish positions. Scottish Labour, meanwhile, lost six of its seven seats from the 2017-19 parliament and now has just a single seat as was previously the case in 2015-17. The role of Shadow Scottish Secretary will initially be taken on by English MP Tony Lloyd, alongside his existing role as Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, following the defeat of incumbent Lesley Laird. Ian Murray, the remaining Scottish Labour MP, has been a fierce critic of Jeremy Corbyn and a pro-Remain rebel on Brexit – whether he returns to the frontbench will depend on the outcome of the Labour leadership election. 

Wales

While Labour continues to hold the majority of Welsh constituencies, the Conservatives made six gains in Wales. This will have a significant effect on Wales’ representation in the House of Commons, in particular in the Brexit context. Despite Wales having voted to Leave by a similar margin to England, only three of Wales’ 40 MPs at dissolution of the last parliament had supported Brexit in 2016. While the way in which many new MPs voted in 2016 is not publicly recorded, it is a safe bet to assume that the new Welsh Conservative MPs who gained seats with strong 2016 Leave votes will be keen to emphasise that Wales’ Leave vote should be acted on.

The remaining Welsh Labour MPs will continue to have a role to play in advocating on behalf of the Welsh Government. Likely issues to be taken up include the role of the devolved governments in the future relationship negotiations with the EU and negotiations on other international trade deals. In recent times, especially over Brexit, the relationship between the UK and Welsh governments has become more strained. This may well continue to be the case – especially as, following the gains made at the general election, the Conservatives are likely to be targeting the 2021 Senedd election as an opportunity to demonstrate that they retain momentum in many traditional Labour strongholds.

Northern Ireland

The big change in Northern Ireland is the return of non-unionist MPs from the soft-nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the cross-community Alliance party. Neither of these developments is novel – the SDLP had three MPs as recently as 2015-17, and Alliance previously had a sole MP from 2010-15. However, it will mark a major contrast with the previous parliament where ten of the 11 Northern Ireland MPs to take their seats represented the DUP and these MPs were thrust into the UK-wide limelight by the confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives. 

The SDLP and Alliance are both opposed to Brexit, which they see as damaging for Northern Ireland’s economy and as undermining the Good Friday Agreement, and will ensure that this perspective is aired in the House of Commons. With the DUP still opposed to Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, all 11 Northern Ireland MPs can now be expected to vote against it in parliament. However, it seems unlikely that this will have much direct impact on the course of Brexit now that the Conservatives have a large majority. The mood among Conservative MPs is very much now to ensure Brexit is delivered speedily rather than to focus on the details of the Withdrawal Agreement, and so it seems unlikely that Conservative Brexiteers will join with Northern Ireland’s MPs in objecting to the differential treatment of Northern Ireland in the way they did when Theresa May’s deal was debated.

An intriguing question is whether the return of the SDLP MPs will mean that there will be MPs advocating a ‘border poll’ on Irish unity in the House of Commons, a subject that is the focus of a current Constitution Unit project. Although committed nationalists, these MPs can be expected to act cautiously on this question, aware of the delicacy of the issue and that their electoral success followed from a focus mainly on Brexit. If they do raise the issue of a border poll, it will be in a more understated style than the SNP’s advocacy of a second Scottish independence referendum. This may well include probing ministers around how whether the threshold for a border poll has been reached might be determined, and on whether the UK government is preparing for the possibility, which is increasingly being discussed in Northern Ireland.  

Conclusion

Each of the four parts of the UK will have a very different set of parliamentary representatives for the next few years. With the Conservatives having a strong overall majority drawn overwhelmingly from English constituencies, if the government wanted to it would be able to push through its agenda without much thought to the non-English parts of the UK. However, with the future of the Union in doubt, it would be wiser to take the perspectives advanced by MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland seriously. It will be interesting to observe how far this happens, or alternatively whether Boris Johnson’s very English majority results in a parliament dominated by a very English agenda.

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About the author

Jack Sheldon is a Research Assistant and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow at the Centre on Constitutional Change. His PhD project examines the substantive representation of sub-state territorial areas in the House of Commons over the period from 1992 to 2019. He was previously a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, and editor of the Constitution Unit blog.