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:


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

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