What next for UK intergovernmental relations?

Professor Nicola McEwen, Edinburgh University

Brexit poses profound challenges for relations between the UK and devolved governments. But, can the lack of understanding and trust that characterised intergovernmental relations in the months before the election give way to more positive relationships?

The Brexit referendum outcome prompted an unprecedented intensification of intergovernmental relations between the UK and devolved governments. The decision last October to set up a new forum, the Joint Ministerial Committee (European Negotiations), marked a step-change in IGR. It promised more focus, purpose and influence for the devolved governments than is normally associated with the JMC. But the JMC (EN) failed to live up to the expectations of all parties, and its future is in doubt.

Certainly, there were lots of meetings. After 21 months without meeting, the JMC Plenary (which brings together the PM and First Ministers) met twice, while the JMC (EN) met four times between November 2016 and February 2017. Both the UK and Scottish governments also acknowledged an intensification of bilateral meetings between officials and ministers in the two months prior to the General Election. The quantity of meetings brought its own challenges in terms of resources and organisation. But what of the quality?

The lack of transparency in IGR makes it difficult to make an impartial assessment. But the reactions of the governments involved suggest that intergovernmental relations had become a dialogue of the deaf, with UK ministers on the one side and devolved government ministers on the other talking past each other, failing – wilfully or otherwise – to see or respect the others’ viewpoint. The JMC (EN) raised expectations of joint agreement on a UK approach prior to the triggering of Article 50. But there was no intergovernmental discussion of the UK Government’s Brexit position prior to the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech, or the publication of the White Paper or the triggering of Article 50.

The JMC (EN) was also supposed to provide the devolved governments with oversight of negotiations with the EU, but formal multilateral IGR may be difficult to resurrect without a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. Besides, prior to the General Election at least, the UK Government’s appetite for the JMC (EN) had diminished, as had the expectations of the Scottish and Welsh Government regarding its capacity to uphold its remit.

Both the UK Conservatives and the SNP have been humbled by the General Election results, and it is not yet clear how this will affect the relationship between their two governments. The First Minister has called for a rethink on Brexit, and an opening up of the process to include all parties and the devolved governments. While the Scottish Government’s capacity to influence negotiations is likely to remain limited, its central objective of retaining membership of the Single Market may be back on the table amid broader pressures for a rethink.

The Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, buoyant from her electoral success, seems intent on trying to influence the UK’s Brexit stance, though quite how remains unclear. The UK Government may take try to bypass the Scottish Government to bring Ruth Davidson – the principal opposition leader in the Scottish Parliament – into the Brexit fold. Such a controversial step could be seen as disrespecting devolution, and would lead to further significant deterioration of relations between the two governments.

The election results reinforced the authority and confidence of Wales’ First Minister, Carwyn Jones. He has been at the forefront of thinking over how to restore the Union, while mounting a small ‘n’ nationalist defence of devolution. In a post-election paper, the Welsh Government has called for ‘deeper and more sustained cooperation’ between the UK and devolved governments, including more shared governance, co-decision and joint delivery. The paper also calls for an overhaul of the UK’s intergovernmental machinery, replacing the JMC with a Council of Ministers acting as a decision-making body not dissimilar to the EU Council.

This imaginative proposal might find favour with the devolved governments (although the absence of a veto power would be problematic). It is difficult to foresee the UK Government agreeing, however, given the added complexity and reduced authority it would entail. Besides, a structure of shared governance may need to be underpinned by mutual trust, shared purpose and commitment to the Union, but these can’t be taken for granted.

What, then, lies ahead for UK IGR? Brexit and the repatriation of competences necessitates intergovernmental coordination, especially in policy areas like agricultural, fisheries and finance which are most affected. Informal ministerial quadrilaterals outside of the JMC framework have already been established to take these issues forward, and these are likely to continue and may intensify. The devolved governments are keen to re-establish the JMC. The precarious position of the Conservative administration makes it more likely that it will also want to re-engage, at least for consultation, if not co-decision.

As is often the case in UK constitutional practice, the most likely road ahead in IGR is to muddle through. But Brexit, and especially the repatriation of competences, will present hazardous road blocks along the way.

Nicola McEwen is Professor of Territorial Politics at the University of Edinburgh and Associate Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change.

 

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What’s Next for Women’s Representation?

Sarah Childs, Meryl Kenny and Jessica Smith

Sarah Childs is Professor of Politics and Gender at the University of Bristol.  She tweets @profsarahchilds.

Meryl Kenny is Lecturer in Gender and Politics at the University of Edinburgh.  She tweets @merylkenny. 

Jessica Smith is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. She tweets @Jess_Smith1534.

‘Record-breaking’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘historic’ – these were the headlines after Thursday’s UK General Election. Some of the articles attached to these celebratory headlines centred on the fact that there were more women MPs elected than ever before. Others highlighted that the ‘200 seat’ mark had been breached.

But we’ve put the champagne on ice.

Yes, Westminster’s new intake has some notable ‘firsts’. Preet Gill became the first female Sikh MP, winning Birmingham Edgbaston for Labour. Marsha De Cordova, a disability rights campaigner and Labour councillor registered as blind, overturned a large Tory majority in Battersea. Layla Moran’s win in Oxford West and Abingdon makes her the first UK MP of Palestinian descent, and the first female Lib Dem MP from a minority background.

But be under no illusion, the House of Commons is still unrepresentative. When the final seat was counted – for Emma Dent Coad in Kensington – the total number of women MPs was 208 (up from 196 immediately before the election). Yet these women constitute 32 per cent of all MPs – a mere 2% increase. Still less than one third female, the UK would now rank 39th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global league table, lagging behind many of our European comparators.

To portray – as many UK newspapers and websites did – the ‘unprecedented’ number of women MPs as some sort of ’smashing’ of the glass ceiling is simply incorrect – what it shows is a few more scratches at best. Forget the ‘200 women’ mark, the real threshold to cross is 325.  And that seems as long a way off as ever.

The outcome of the 2017 GE raises classic issues for women’s representation:

  1. Stagnation and Fallback. A 2% increase is, of course, an increase, but gains on women’s representation have been too slight and are taking too long. Neither has progress been straightforward. In Scotland the proportion of female MPs decreased in this election from 34% to 29%. This is largely due to Conservative gains – only 1 of the 13 Scottish Tory MPs elected is a woman. The SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was also defeated in Ochil and South Perthshire, leaving Scotland without any BME MPs. Talk of parity in the House of Commons being achieved in 45 years incorrectly assumes that the direction of travel will always be upwards – which is why gender and politics academics rarely engage in similar forecasts.
  2. Party Asymmetry. The overall percentage of women MPs also masks significant differences amongst the parties. There was some speculation in the run-up to the election that the Conservatives would see a ‘breakthrough moment’ on women’s representation in 2017, potentially catching up to Labour for the first time. This didn’t materialise – in fact, the gap widened slightly. Women now constitute 45% of all Labour MPs (119 of 262), up from 44% before the election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives saw a decrease in the number of female MPs, dropping from 70 to 67, with the percentage of women’s representation in the party unchanged at 21% (in the context of an overall loss of seats). The Liberal Democrats, which were a men-only party in 2015, now have four women MPs (33%, albeit still on low numbers overall), including the return of Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire. Meanwhile, women are 12 of the reduced SNP group at Westminster (34%), a loss of six women from the previous Parliament. Only 1 of the 10 DUP MPs – now potential ‘queen-makers’ – is a woman.
  3. Quotas worked, yet again. As in all elections from 2005, Labour successfully employed gender quotas in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS). This quota is the reason why it has been the ‘best’ party for women’s descriptive representation at Westminster. It is a shame that Labour’s quotas haven’t been more contagious – without commitments from every party, progress will continue to be glacial.

Classifying this election as ‘record-breaking’ for women belies the reality and breeds complacency. It gives some parties a congratulatory pat-on-the-back for minimal progress, if not decline. Moreover, it side-steps the question of interventions: will the Government now commence section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 – so that parties publish their candidate diversity data? Will the Government respond to recommendations advocating legal quotas, which, all the global evidence shows, are the most effective way to ensure significant increases in women’s representation? (See, for example The Speaker’s Conference report 2010, The Good Parliament Report 2016, and the WEC report 2017).

The next election might be a few months away or it might be in five years time – but it is clear that the issue of equal representation is too important to leave up to the discretion of political parties. Warm words are not enough – with over 100 women MPs still missing from Parliament, we need legislative quotas to embed equality in our political institutions. The time is now.

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What next for Theresa May and the DUP? Arms and the Woman

ALVIN JACKSON

Alvin Jackson is Sir Richard Lodge Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of numerous books on modern Irish and British history, including The Two Unions:  Ireland, Scotland and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707-2007 (OUP: 2013)

Theresa May’s courtship of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the prospect of a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, have provoked a storm of protest.  The DUP’s historic opposition to gay marriage, its opposition to abortion under most circumstances, and its reported stands on a range of other social issues have caused widespread anger and dismay, especially among those Tories (like the triumphant Ruth Davidson in Scotland) who have worked for a more liberal and modernised party appeal.  Other accusations have been thrown, including climate change denial and dogmatic creationism.  In addition, while the DUP has publicly eschewed paramilitaries, it has taken little journalistic effort to uncover a variety of associations between current (or recent) party leaders and past militant activity.  On the face of it, the DUP looks to some very much like the parliamentary bed-fellow from an alt-right hell.

Some aspects of this charge-sheet are more telling than others.   Arlene Foster has been indicted for perpetrating a massively expensive environmentalist error in the ‘ash for cash’ scandal (this was the publicly financed scheme, overseen by Foster as the responsible minister, whereby Northern Ireland businesses were encouraged, by generous subsidy, to use renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels).  Yet at the same time she and her colleagues are accused of Trump-style climate change denial.

They are also soft Brexiteers rather than dogmatic super-patriots – because while they continually fret about the challenges in Ireland to British identity and its expression, they also look to constituencies which have done rather well hitherto out of the economic opportunities created by the European Union.  Many thousands of the DUP’s farming vote are dependent for a living on the payments generated by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.  Moreover, an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has brought commercial benefits to tens of thousands of Irish people, including DUP supporters.  In other words, dogmatism on the European Union threatens to upset the very delicate balance between British patriotism and economic self-interest which sustains key sections of the DUP’s base.

It is often said that the DUP are products of their historical context, but this is a matter not just of religion but of political economy.  For the half century since the ‘troubles’ began in Northern Ireland, it has been the part of the United Kingdom most dependent upon the public sector and upon Westminster subsidy.  The DUP are advocates of small business, but they are emphatically not proponents of the kinds of neo-liberal austerity politics associated with a succession of Tory manifestos.  Their pitch to Theresa May has been at root about more, rather than less, state spending – in keeping with the norms of Northern Irish public finances.

Unionism in Ireland was certainly forged in association with the consolidation of conservative evangelical religious cultures; and the influence of these, once significant within Britain and still so in the USA,  remains evident throughout Northern Irish protestant and unionist society.  Not the least of the bitter ironies of modern Irish history is the extent to which Irish protestants (taken as a whole) have complained about the illiberal social policies (on, for example, divorce) introduced in the early years of the independent Irish state, and associated with the teaching of the Catholic church – while seeking simultaneously to reinforce their own chosen forms of moral and religious authority in Northern Ireland.  However, as the prominent gay rights campaigner, and unionist councillor, Jeff Dudgeon, has pointed out, there is evidence of increasing social liberalism (or at any rate pragmatic acceptance) – especially among young DUP voters, but even within its current leadership.

What of the DUP’s whiff of sulphur? – the militancy with which their founder, Ian Paisley, flirted in the 1960s and afterwards, the armed invasion of Clontibret, Cavan, organised by his successor as leader, Peter Robinson in 1985, and the numerous associations, alleged or otherwise, of current DUP politicians?  Aside from paramilitarism, republicans routinely emphasise the involvement of DUP elders like Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the local crown forces (such as the UDR or police).  All this, it is argued, underlines the extent to which the DUP are deeply problematic allies for the Conservatives in the new House of Commons.

This may indeed be so, though the accusations may also partly reflect the retaliation of the Corbynistas for the sustained excavation of the Labour leader’s links with Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA in the era before the Peace Process.  It is also of course the case that Mrs May is following a path traversed by her predecessors: earlier Tory and Labour prime ministers, like John Major and James Callaghan, looked to unionist support for their survival.  But the Conservative party has been associated with unionist paramilitarism from the time of the debate on Home Rule which raged before the First World War.  Between 1912 and 1914, as in 2017, senior Tories swallowed their reservations about the religious zealotry of ulster unionists, and embraced not only their public militancy, but also (in the case of the pre-war Tories) the unionists’ mass importation of weapons into Ireland.  Theresa May’s predecessor as Tory leader, Andrew Bonar Law, was almost certainly deeply complicit in the illegalities of Irish unionism, and most certainly provided his unqualified public support.

Mrs May’s party has thus very dangerous form in the area of unionist militancy.  However, it is unlikely that she will allow her own electoral calculations to impinge upon the delicate political settlement in Northern Ireland (and unlikely that she will be asked to do so).  Nor will she be compelled to create a religious fundamentalists’ pre-Wolfenden dystopia.  Mrs May will in fact be able to hang on for the cost of a few shiny new roads and hospitals, a slightly more humane approach to the elderly, and a significant softening of the hardline on Brexit.  A small bill to pay, it would seem, compared with the civil war and constitutional subversion with which some of her predecessors flirted as the price of power in 1914.

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What next for the SNP?

Marco Biagi

This is the third blog in the series ‘What next for…’ following the UK General Election 2017.  The author was SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central, 2011-16 and served as Minister for Local Government and Communities, 2014-16.  He is currently completing a political science PhD at Yale University.

In any other election 35 MPs would have been a magnificent result for the Scottish National Party. Until two years their greatest haul of seats been 11 – and that was in 1974, to which only the longer political memories stretch. It is the unprecedented, unexpected success of 2015’s landslide that makes this victory – for a victory it still was – so bittersweet. SNP leaders and strategists will now turn their minds to ensuring that this is result is a setback and not a turning-point – especially with the likelihood of a UK minority government giving way to another early election.

One concern for the SNP would be that June’s result is a return to starkly multi-level politics. From the advent of devolution until the 2015 UK elections a significant portion of the Scottish electorate showed a marked tendency to vote for the SNP for Holyrood and other parties – principally Labour – for Westminster. Having gained a prominent place in the UK Parliament as well as Holyrood the party will be loath to surrender their new-found status.

Another concern is the connection with their support base. The nationalists lack the class loyalty of traditional social democratic and conservative parties, even if modern politics is marked by a greater volatility of support than in the heyday of party loyalty in the 1960s and 1970s. Partisan dealignment giveth and partisan dealignment taketh away. The greater weakness of attachment to political parties allowed the SNP to rise by drawing supporters from other parties – at its zenith the 2015 landslide – but also means these supporters may not put down roots in their new political home. The closeness of the SNP’s social democratic position and Labour’s also means these voters do not have far to jump.

Positioning on the three key political dimensions – left-right, Brexit, independence – will therefore be crucially important. A rightward shift to regain the lost rural constituencies would be implausible given the inclinations of the party membership, who are taking to social media en masse to demand a shift in the opposite direction. Yet the question is open as to whether a leftward shift will be a net benefit in regaining voters who returned to Labour, since Labour too are now further to the left than they have been in decades.

On the issue du jour of Brexit, the SNP are the most vocally opposed to implementation – despite one-third of their support base voting to Leave. The question of whether this group disproportionately departed the party in the election remains to be answered conclusively, but that they did so would seem to be a very strong hypothesis. In their hearts SNP elites are far more pro-European than their voters as a whole – changing this stance is unlikely, so a new way of presenting it must be found.

Even more sensitive is the question of independence, the cause around which the party is founded. Support for the second referendum announced by the First Minister in March has stayed markedly tepid among the general public while opposition is emotive. Blocking a vote was the sole clear policy position of the Scottish Conservative party as they surged to an almost doubling of their share of the vote. What to do here is easily the biggest strategic question for the SNP. Is it though as much of a trade-off as the others? Openly delaying the desired referendum is one option, but the opposite is unclear. Does Holyrood have the power to hold a referendum without Westminster authorisation? This has never been conclusively answered. If so the SNP could choose to go ahead all guns blazing, or to seek to test the question in court. If not there is no other option, and indeed delaying becomes the only way forward.

Elections are not won purely on the basis of policy however. Leaders are generally thought to matter too. Nicola Sturgeon polled personal approval ratings as First Minister higher than any of the other Scottish or UK leaders during the campaign – but her disapproval ratings have also grown markedly. Pre-eminent in her government and loved by the rank-and-file her position is safe, but she will seek to address this Marmite image, as her often similarly-viewed predecessor Alex Salmond several times successfully achieved when political situations demanded. Doing so may involve an attempt to reinvent and revivify the SNP Government at Holyrood. Whether that can be done if all of the political oxygen of media airtime and public attention is being monopolised by the question of a second independence referendum remains to be seen.

 

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What next for the Scottish Tories?

ALAN CONVERY, Politics and International Relations, Edinburgh University

Tories should celebrate and then think of the Union

The Scottish Conservatives have exceeded expectations by winning 13 seats in Scotland. This is the party’s best result in Scotland since 1983. It surpasses their previous tally of 11 MPs in 1992. Like in the Scottish Parliament and local elections, they fought a disciplined campaign on their key messages and were particularly adept at highlighting problems in the SNP’s domestic record.

 

The party’s new group of MPs presents a great opportunity. However, the party’s MPs will want to reflect on their predecessors’ experience. One of the most toxic legacies of the 1990s was the impression among some Scots that Scottish Conservative MPs put the Government’s interest before the Scottish interest. New Scottish Conservative MPs need to be seen to be standing up for Scotland. They are in a good position to influence government policy and the party already appears to be throwing its weight around. However, tougher tests will come. One of the problems for the territorial branches of statewide parties is that they end up having to take the flak for decisions they did not make (see, for instance, the recent Scottish Conservative troubles in the Scottish Parliament about UK Government welfare changes). The 13 Scottish Conservatives will need to decide what issues to prioritise and what they will need to compromise on in order to sustain Theresa May’s majority.

 

Second, the party’s new MPs have an opportunity to think about the Union. The intellectual case for the Union took a battering at the Supreme Court last year when the UK Government’s lawyer reasserted a Diceyan interpretation of Westminster’s constitutional position. Most notably, he argued that the Sewel Convention could be ignored at will. The Scottish Conservatives now have a chance to make the case for a more plural interpretation of the constitution and to push the UK Government to engage more constructively with last year’s House of Lords Constitution Committee report on the territorial constitution. Intergovernmental relations, for instance, are ripe for reform and new MPs might usefully promote some incremental ideas in this area (for instance, from their own Adam Tomkins). What does the Union look like when Scottish Conservatives get the chance to shape it? If the answer is ‘no different from now’, then they might find it much harder to defend in future.

 

Finally, the idea of a separate party in Scotland need not necessarily be dismissed following this result. Scottish conservatism already looks different from English conservatism and this divergence may increase over the coming years as Scottish Conservatives turn their thoughts to how they might govern Scotland. Ruth Davidson has already implemented most of Murdo Fraser’s ideas from his 2011 leadership campaign and it would not be out of place to effect this final change. If the Scottish Conservatives are going to be pursuing a distinctively Scottish agenda at Westminster, then they might as well take full credit for it. In doing so, they might also demonstrate how a looser Union can still work in everyone’s favour.

 

Conservatives can enjoy this success, but they must also be mindful of how things went wrong the last time the party had more than 11 MPs. Independence may be off the agenda for the moment, but the issue has not gone away. Scottish Conservatives may therefore regret not using this opportunity to fix the Union’s roof while the weather is at least overcast.

 

 

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What next for evidence-based political debate?

Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy, School of Social and Political Science, Edinburgh University

This is the first in a series of blogs reflecting on the UK General Election 2017 under the theme of ‘What next….?’  These blogs will focus on public policy, parties and the constitution.  This important opening blog reflects on evidence-based political debate.

The last three months – and three years – have been a policy fantasy. Utopian claims and dystopian allegations are everywhere. Project Fear and La La Land have become the abiding metaphors. Referendums encourage that. Each side in an artificially dichotomous battle has to claim supreme virtue, and that the other side will lead us uniquely to perdition. But the 2017 general election to the UK parliament took this ignoring of evidence to new depths.

The UK manifestoes of the Conservative and Labour parties were quite remarkable in their refusal to engage with counter arguments. The Conservative one was probably, on balance, the worse of the two, failing even to offer an attempt at costing the plans. In the polite words of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, ‘compared to a typical Budget their manifesto is extremely light on tax and spending proposals’. We were expected to trust them to continue on the path which they were already on. That – in the chaotic outcome of the election – gives us no empirical guide at all.

The Conservatives failed even to understand the implications of their own proposals for social policy, most spectacularly over paying the cost of care for old people. They could not estimate how the proposed changes would affect different income groups, nor how it would relate to medical care. So far as it was possible to judge, the policy would actually have been redistributive (from wealthy to poor) and would not have cost anyone anything more for medical care. But if the resulting mess could nevertheless be labelled the ‘dementia tax’ they had only themselves to blame for their empirical ineptitude.

Labour’s attempt at invoking evidence was a nod in the direction of credibility, but was so ignorant about the ways in which the fiscal system works as to show a disturbing distance from economic reality. Concentrating their entire revenue-raising proposals on the top 2% of earners and on corporation tax ignored abundant evidence about the cleverness of perfectly legal tax avoidance and – more worryingly – the job-destroying potential of changes in business taxes. The party’s rhetorical claim to be for ‘the many not the few’ sat rather uneasily with the massively regressive implications of abolishing university tuition fees in England, and with the almost complete silence on the Conservative government’s freezing of benefits for people in work.

The IFS verdict on these two is a summing up also of their disconnection from reality: ‘the shame of the two big parties’ manifestos is that neither sets out an honest set of choices’.

The SNP and the Liberal Democrats seemed on the surface to pay more attention to evidence. The Liberal Democrats took costing more seriously than either Labour or the Tories, and notably unlike Labour proposed to end large parts of the freeze of benefits. But even here the attention to evidence often took second place to easy point-scoring (such as in objections to fracking and the obscurity of how they would actually get out of their infamous hole on student fees).

Watching Nicola Sturgeon being interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC, one could not help being impressed by her attention to detail, in sharp contrast to the UK party leaders (May, Corbyn, Farron and Nuttall) who waffled vacuously. And the SNP could not escape evidence because they have been in government for ten years, with not very impressive results in education, health, transport and the economy. But lying in the background of every SNP pronouncement this time was the massive gap of evidence relating to independence. The party implicitly recognised this by setting up a commission on the financial basis of independence, chaired by their former MSP Andrew Wilson. But they thought they had several years to work on this, and so they still had nothing to offer to the 2017 debate. That utopian absence, and the mediocre record in government, presented a ready target for the Scottish Conservatives, who thus achieved a rare unambiguous triumph on 8th June.

The overall retreat of the British political system from evidence was summed up in two quotations the day after. One was Theresa May’s announcing ‘a government that can provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country’, a claim so obviously at variance with her minority position as to lead many commentators to doubt if she was fully in touch with reality. The other meaningless claim was Jeremy Corbyn’s: ‘people voted for hope’. No doubt, but neither hope nor specious ‘certainty’ will get Britain through the extraordinarily difficult reality that lies ahead.

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Unravelling continues for Scottish Labour

 

James Mitchell

 

Scottish Labour has issued its list of candidates for the June 8th general election.  This is striking for three reasons:

  • it has done so with remarkable efficiency, given the lack of warning that an election was pending;
  • only one of the defeated MPs from two years ago is standing again;
  • and it has achieved 50/50 gender balance.

In introducing the second reading of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, 2011, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was clear, ‘The Bill has a single, clear purpose: to introduce fixed-term Parliaments to the United Kingdom to remove the right of a Prime Minister to seek the Dissolution of Parliament for pure political gain.’  The Act, combined with Prime Minister May’s repeatedly insistence that she had no intention of calling an early election, meant that opposition parties were caught off guard when an election was called.

There is an inbuilt inverse relationship between existing levels of Parliamentary representation and preparedness.  Constituencies with incumbent MPs seeking re-election would at least not have to seek candidates and are more likely to have a better organisation ready to fight an election.  This meant that Scottish Labour was particularly vulnerable.  Over the last decade, Labour has lost support and associated infrastructure.  The 2015 general election which saw it lose all but one of its 41 MPs was followed a year later with a loss of 13 of its previous 38 Members of the Scottish Parliament.  And Scottish Labour has been bracing itself for significant losses in Scottish local government elections.

Finding candidates in a short space of time would have been difficult enough but the party is still struggling to come to terms with the psychological blows of losing not only its place as Scotland’s largest – indeed dominant – party until a decade ago to becoming Scotland’s third party – behind the Tories – at last year’s Holyrood elections.

Few of those who have stepped forward can have any illusions about the task ahead.  Some younger party members may see this as a kind of right of passage – the ‘ritual blooding of fighting so-called unwinnable seats’ referred to in Tory circles.  There are prominent English Tory MPs with huge majorities who experienced this blooding at the hands of the Scottish electorate, including Bernard Jenkin, Chair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitution Committee in the last Parliament, and Jacob Rees Mogg who were bloodied in Scottish seats by Labour MPs with massive majorities similar to those these Tories now enjoy many hundreds of miles of south.  Jenkin stood in Glasgow Central in 1987, to ‘illustrate that people in the South-East haven’t forgotten about Scotland’.  A similar stiff upper lip will be required amongst many Labour candidates going into this election with the hope that they too might in time sit on the Commons’ green benches with similar majorities some time in the future.

Eight of the 41 Scottish Labour MPs returned in 2010 retired two years ago.  And no doubt had the remainder been returned some of these would have chosen to stand down at this election.  But only one of the group of former Labour MPs wants to be a ‘retread’.  Ian Davidson, MP for Glasgow Govan 1992-2015, is standing in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, Scotland’s most marginal seat.  But this is a straight fight between the incumbent SNP and the renaissant Tories where Labour was in fourth place and lost its deposit tow years ago.  Neither Douglas Alexander nor Jim Murphy (both aged 49), former Labour Cabinet Ministers, have come forward.

Scottish Labour has highlighted the 50:50 gender split in candidates.  Scottish Labour’s record on gender balance has been second to none in modern times.  As was demonstrated at the foundation of the Scottish Parliament, 50:50 was easier to achieve when starting with a clean slate.  The process of achieving 50:50 is very slow process when waiting for incumbent male MPs to retire and even then there may be a battle to ensure a woman is nominated.

However, the rush to get candidates in place appears to have overlooked at least one crucial matter.  Being a candidate does not guarantee becoming an MP.  Women and ethnic minorities not only face a glass ceiling but also a glass cliff.  They may be selected to contest unwinnable seats.  Scottish Labour is reportedly targeting only three Scottish seats: Edinburgh South which was the only seat Labour held in 2015; East Renfrewshire; and East Lothian.  The Labour candidates in each are men.  The unravelling continues for Scottish Labour.

 

James Mitchell

Academy of Government

University of Edinburgh

@ProfJMitchell

 

 

 

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