Beyond the Bubble – Scotland and the Independent Group

Something a bit new for Ballot Box Scotland today, with more of a “thinkpiece” on recent events. It’s been all quiet on the Scottish polling front so filling a gap in content…

On Monday, simmering tensions in the Labour Party finally boiled over. 7 MPs, including Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger, announced their resignations from the party. An 8th Labour MP followed yesterday, then a trio of Conservative MPs today gave the drama a cross-party flavour. It seems inevitable that more will follow from both parties in the coming days.

Expectations are high that this newly formed “Independent Group” represents the nucleus of some (as yet poorly defined) Centrist and anti-Brexit party. Pollsters were immediately on the case, asking the public whether they’d consider voting for that hypothetical party. Substantial numbers are either actively considering it, or less sure about how they’d vote if it was an option. That comes with the caveat that it’s easy to say you’ll vote for a not yet existing party with a mostly unknown agenda, but it makes for fascinating viewing anyway.

Interesting as these events are, a clear policy platform and an actual party structure aren’t the only things the Independent Group lacks. Also missing entirely so far is any indication the group has thought about UK politics beyond the Westminster bubble. So far this is just a breakaway group of English MPs, looking and sounding like a reaction to squabbles within their (former) parliamentary parties rather than a broad movement to change politics in the UK.

The exclusive focus seems to be on recruiting more MPs in the Commons. If you’re an MSP (54 of 129 belong to Labour or the Conservatives), Welsh AM (40 of 60), London AM (20 of 25) or a councillor (around 15,400 of 20,700), there seems to be no mechanism for you to become part of this group. That seems like an odd omission for people who have claim to have identified wider problems with their parties than just the leadership.

Journalists and pollsters aren’t off the hook for this either. In 2019, if you only look for answers to the question of “What does this mean for the UK?” within the crumbling walls of Westminster, you’re doing the public a huge disservice. It’s early days yet but in the rush to poll British voters about the effect of the IG on Westminster, no one seems to have yet asked about prospective impacts in the devolved legislatures. And it doesn’t seem that journalists have been asking the group what their plans in that respect are either. To be 20 years into Devolution and find it isn’t featuring even in the back of people’s minds when such a big event is happening in UK politics is disappointing.

Given I spend a lot of time as it is thinking about elections in Scotland but polling has been thin on the ground recently, a look at some of the questions that should be being asked seemed worthwhile. A lot of this goes for Wales as well, although obviously that’s not my wheelhouse.

Will Any Scottish MPs Join the Independent Group?

Since their focus is on Westminster, let’s start there. 20 of Scotland’s 59 MPs are members of the Conservatives (13) or Labour (7). Given the heavily Remain nature of the Scottish electorate, at least that side of the IG agenda may have some appeal to MPs uncomfortable with their respective leadership’s Brexit policy. Wooing at least one Scottish MP to your cause would also be essential to be able to present as a genuinely “British” movement. Back in 1981, 2 of the 29 defecting MPs the SDP eventually picked up held Scottish seats, alongside founder (and briefly leader) Roy Jenkins winning the Glasgow Hillhead by-election in 1982.

The relative autonomy of the Scottish arms of both parties may act as a stumbling block to attracting MPs to the Independent Group, however. Both parties have in the past made a big song and dance about charting somewhat different courses to their counterparts down south. If the MPs are connected enough to their Scottish leadership, they may feel more able to dismiss any concerns they have about their UK leadership.

Do the Independent Group intend to contest Scottish seats, and how do they relate to the SNP?

The basic positioning of the Independent Group in England is easy. “The Government (Conservative) and Opposition (Labour) are just as bad as one another, pursuing shambolic Brexit policies and with toxic party cultures.” “The Liberal Democrats can’t be trusted after their Coalition period.” “The Greens are too small and impractical.” But how do they relate to the SNP? It’s not enough to simply be another party opposing the SNP. Presumably they’d support the Union – so in a crowded field of pro-Union parties, what distinguishes them?

Are the Independent Group actively courting MSPs to join their eventual party?

Just like attracting Scottish (and Welsh) MPs to their new party would be an essential step to proving viability, so would attracting MSPs. The Conservatives at Holyrood seem reasonably united and might not be easy to split, but there are perhaps a handful of Labour MSPs who may sympathise with their departed MP colleagues. If they can attract even 3 MSPs, they come into the balance of power situation in Holyrood. That could give them substantial power. Are they interested in gaining that power, and if so, how would they use it?

Do the Independent Group intend to contest the 2021 Scottish Parliament Election, and if so, one or both ballots?

This is perhaps the key question in gauging the Independent Group’s seriousness as a new political force. If they won’t contest Devolved elections then they are shooting themselves in the foot for 99 (59 Scottish + 40 Welsh – whether they’d try to break into NI is a topic for another site) out of 650 Westminster seats from the word go. Who wants to vote for a party at a UK level that doesn’t take the Scottish level, where things like the NHS and Education are decided, seriously? If they do stand for Holyrood, then in addition to answering the same questions about their agenda raised above, they’ve also got to decide how they are approaching the two votes aspect of the electoral system.

Choosing not to contest constituencies might be sensible in the context of SNP dominance and the difficulty of winning seats that way, but a group drawn from the “big parties” might be culturally unable to forego standing there. The regional vote however gives them a potential route to having a weighty group of parliamentarians. Allowing for a bit of overhang, about 6% secures a seat in a given region, meaning if they can poll thereabouts or higher they’ll be on track for a solid parliamentary delegation a la the Greens and Lib Dems. A vote share comparable to what they’d achieve UK wide could even see them with more MSPs in a chamber of 129 than MPs in a chamber of 650.

Do the Independent Group intend on contesting Local Elections in Scotland?

Although STV is a far less friendly voting system than AMS to parties with well spread but low shares of the vote, it’s still far better than First Past the Post. Especially in Edinburgh and Glasgow, which have relatively high political diversity as it is, there is potential for any serious party to pick up councillors. The Liberal Democrats were historically famously adept at embedding themselves into councils and building a base for parliamentary representation from there. If the Independent Group is to be a lasting force in British politics, might they attempt to take the same route?

Effectively, the barriers to entry are lower in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK in purely mechanical terms. Systems of (semi) proportional representation assure any party with reasonable support fair representation. But we know from past experience in Scotland that new and growing parties elsewhere in the UK don’t necessarily do well here.

UKIP’s best performance at a Holyrood election was a mighty 2% of the vote. They’ve never won any councillors. Even at European Elections, their best performance saw one MEP elected with well below half the vote share of their UK-wide performance. Favourable mechanics alone won’t get Independent Group party over the line in Scotland – but if they can’t even answer the questions above, then they’ll fall at the first hurdle.