Elections and parties

After two decades of devolution, the four nations of the UK have increasingly distinct political systems. Different parties dominate in each legislature, and the more proportional voting systems used in the devolved nations mean that coalitions and minority governments are the norm in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Voter turnout has generally been lower in devolved elections than in UK general elections, but it increased at the most recent elections. The percentage of women in the Scottish and Welsh legislatures has consistently been higher than in the House of Commons, although the high point in both cases came in 2003. Meanwhile, the gender balance in the Northern Ireland Assembly has improved in recent years.

Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1999 was intended to create new political systems that would be qualitatively different from Westminster, and that would reflect the specific political culture of each nation. There was an expectation that, in comparison with Westminster, devolved politics would be less dominated by single-party governments and less adversarial, and would create space for a wider range of voices to be heard in the political process. By creating political institutions closer to citizens and communities than Westminster, devolution also created new opportunities for democratic engagement.

These aspirations were reflected, for instance, in the Scottish Parliament’s commitment to ‘power-sharing’, ‘accountability’, ‘equal opportunities’ and ‘openness and participation’ as its four guiding principles.[1] In Wales, there was a similar aspiration to create a ‘new politics’ based on consensus and cross-party working.[2] In Northern Ireland, the whole devolution settlement was founded on the principle of cross- community power-sharing. And all three new legislatures would be elected by proportional electoral systems, to make cross-party co-operation the norm rather than the exception. In light of these ambitions for the kinds of political system that devolution could create, this chapter discusses how the electoral and party systems of each of the nations have operated since 1999.

There has been growing political divergence between the four nations of the UK

The four nations of the UK already had different political party landscapes at the outset of devolution due to the existence of the nationalist Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales, and the wholly different party system in Northern Ireland. But the differences between the four nations in terms of election results have widened significantly over the past two decades.

Percentage of votes and seats won by parties at devolved elections compared to England (HoC)For the first eight years of devolution, Labour was the largest party in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, while also holding a majority of English seats in the House of Commons. Since 2007, this has changed, and elections in each of the four nations now consistently deliver different parties into power

In both Scotland and Wales, elections are held using versions of the ‘additional member system’, in which people vote both for a candidate in an individual constituency and for a party list at the regional level, with the regional votes used to ensure a greater degree of proportionality in the overall results.*

Labour won the greatest share of votes in the first two Scottish Parliament elections of 1999 and 2003, winning a large majority of constituencies but falling short of an overall majority due to the proportional element of the electoral system. In 2007, there was a near tie between Labour and the SNP, with the nationalist party narrowly edging ahead by one seat and 2% of the vote (on the regional list). The SNP has dominated since, winning a majority of seats and 44% of the votes in 2011, then falling back slightly in 2016, losing its majority but remaining comfortably the largest party in the Scottish Parliament. Meanwhile, Labour has continued to decline, losing votes and seats at every single devolved election, falling to third place behind the Scottish Conservatives in 2016 for the first time.

In Wales, by contrast, Labour has remained the largest party in the Welsh Assembly throughout the first 20 years of devolution. The party has won between 26 and 30 of the 60 Assembly seats at each of the five elections held to date, with regional vote shares between 30% and 37%. Plaid Cymru performed unexpectedly well in 1999, winning 31% of the regional vote (only 5% less than Labour) and 17 (28%) of the seats. Since then, Plaid Cymru has traded second and third places with the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats have declined dramatically in Wales and Scotland, losing over two thirds of their seats between 2007 and 2016, after entering government at Westminster in coalition with the Conservatives. In Wales the party won just one seat in 2016. But the proportional element of the electoral system has also enabled various smaller parties to secure representation at various points. The Scottish Greens have won seats at every election, without ever winning in any individual constituency, while in Wales, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) won seven (12%) of the 60 seats in 2016, although most of its elected representatives now sit as independents after a series of splits and defections.[3]

In Northern Ireland, the main trend over the first two decades of devolution has been the growing dominance of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, primarily at the expense of the more moderate unionist and nationalist parties that won the first Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). In four consecutive elections, the DUP has won a consistent 28% to 30% of first-preference votes, delivering the party a share of between 31% and 35% of seats. On the nationalist side of the aisle, Sinn Féin has won between 24% and 28% of the vote, securing a record 30% of seats at the 2017 election. Meanwhile the UUP and SDLP have both lost more than 40% of their voters over the first two decades of devolution. But Northern Ireland also has the most balanced multi-party system of any of the four UK nations, and the two smaller ‘sectarian’ parties (UUP and SDLP) still won around a quarter of the seats in the 2017 election.

In England, two-party politics currently reigns supreme, at least when looking at the results of UK general elections in terms of English seats. The two large parties combined – the Conservatives and Labour – have won over 90% of English seats in every general election since 1945, rising to 98% in the past two general elections. The first-past-the-post system makes it very difficult for smaller parties to win representation, and the Conservatives or Labour have won a clear majority of English seats at every election even when (in 2010 and 2017) they fell short of a majority in the House of Commons as a whole. In 2005, Labour won 54% of English seats despite winning fewer votes than the Conservatives. In 2017, the two parties combined also won 87% of votes in England – the highest since 1970 – following the collapse of, first, the Liberal Democrats and then UKIP.

The divergent trends in electoral results mean that, for most of the second decade of devolution, the UK’s four governments have been led by parties with conflicting agendas – the SNP in Scotland, Labour in Wales, the DUP and Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, and the Conservatives in Westminster.

* By proportionality, we mean the degree to which the share of seats won by each political party is correlated with their vote share.


Devolved election results have been more proportional than results in Westminster

Proportionality of electoral systems for UK legislatures (Gallagher index)Three different electoral systems are used across the UK’s four legislatures, producing varying degrees of proportionality in terms of translating votes into seats. The commonly cited Gallagher index of electoral disproportionality, which measures the gap between votes received and seats won (so a higher score indicates more disproportionality), shows that devolved elections have generally produced more proportional results, meaning a closer correlation between vote share and seats won.*

The ‘single transferable vote’ voting system used for Northern Ireland Assembly elections has consistently been the most proportional system in the UK, with an average disproportionality score of 3.8. The Scottish Parliament and, especially, the Welsh Assembly are less proportional, with average scores of 7 and 10.5 respectively.** This reflects the fact that under the ‘additional member system’ used in both cases, most seats are won in individual constituencies. The regional list element of the electoral system provides for a more proportional overall result. However, seats awarded at the regional level represent only 43% of seats in Scotland and just 33% in Wales, which is too few to fully compensate for the fact that large parties (the SNP and Welsh Labour, in recent elections) often win the lion’s share of constituencies. Wales has in fact grown somewhat less proportional over time, as smaller parties such as UKIP, the Green Party and the Abolish the Assembly Party have won a greater share of the vote without (except for UKIP in 2017) winning any seats.

Elections to the House of Commons have been the least proportional, with an average disproportionality score of 16.2 between 1997 and 2015. In all these elections, the first-past-the-post system ensured that the largest party received a significant boost in terms of seats won, compared with its vote share, as noted above. For English seats, the disproportionality index hit a peak of 18.5 in 2015, when the Conservatives secured 60% of the seats for just 40% of the vote, while UKIP was rewarded with a single seat in return for 14% of English votes.

In 2017, however, the House of Commons suddenly became a fairly proportional parliament.*** The collapse of Liberal Democrat and UKIP support meant that there were fewer ‘wasted votes’ than in previous elections, and neither Labour nor the Conservatives won a majority of seats for a minority of votes. The UK-wide election result was more proportional than any Welsh Assembly election, as well as any Scottish Parliament election before 2016.

* The Gallagher index, also known as the least squares index, is a measurement of the overall disproportionality of election results. The methodology is set out in Gallagher M, ‘Proportionality, disproportionality and electoral systems’, Electoral Studies, 1991, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 33–51.

** These calculations are based on the vote share in the regional list section of the vote (see Gallagher M, ‘Election indices dataset’, 2019, www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/people/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/Docts/ElectionIndices.pdf).

*** The 2017 General Election result was the least disproportional since 1955 (see Renwick A, ‘The performance of the electoral system: strengthening or weakening the case for reform?’, blog, The Constitution Unit, 14 June 2017, retrieved 14 April 2019, https://constitution-unit.com/2017/06/14/the-performance-of-the-electoral-system-strengthening-or-weakening-the-case-for-reform).


Coalition and minority governments are the norm at the devolved level

Percentage of seats held by governing parties in the devolved nations and the UK, 1997 to 2018

The proportional electoral systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were designed to produce more politically pluralistic legislatures. This aspiration has, broadly, been achieved and single-party majorities are very rare. Only once – in 2011 in Scotland – did any party win an outright majority by itself. In both 2003 and 2011, Labour won exactly half the seats in the Welsh Assembly.

In Scotland, a Labour–Liberal Democrat coalition governed from 1999 to 2007. The SNP has since governed alone – first in minority, then as a majority, and since 2016 in minority again. In Wales, Labour has been the main party of government throughout the first two decades of devolution. Labour spent three years in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and four years in coalition with Plaid Cymru. It has otherwise governed alone, although since 2016 the Cabinet has included a Liberal Democrat and (since 2017) one independent member, in an arrangement that can be regarded as an informal coalition.

In both Scotland and Wales, coalition and minority governments have usually survived intact until the next scheduled election. None of the four coalitions formed in the two nations came close to splitting, despite the inevitable policy and personal differences that afflict all governments. The various minority governments formed have suffered many defeats on motions and legislation, but only once – in Wales in 2000 – have the opposition parties combined to bring down a government in a confidence motion. This led to the formation of the Labour–Liberal Democrat coalition in the Welsh Assembly.

There have been other close shaves – such as when the Welsh and Scottish minority governments lost key votes on their budgets in 2005 and 2009 respectively[4] – but both times the governments ultimately got their way after making necessary compromises. As recent Institute for Government research concluded: “[M]inority governments can survive longer and accomplish more than expected. But to do this, ministers must be realistic about what they can achieve; make tactical concessions while keeping a focus on strategic objectives; and deal separately with other parties to keep the Opposition divided.”[5]

In Northern Ireland, the whole structure of devolution rests on a legal requirement that the main unionist and nationalist parties form a power-sharing coalition for devolution to function at all.[6] This has proven far more difficult to sustain. The first election to the Northern Ireland Assembly took place in June 1998, but it took until December 1999 before a power-sharing executive was ready to take office. That government – led by the UUP and SDLP, but also including DUP and Sinn Féin ministers – suffered from numerous internal conflicts and a lack of trust between the parties. The UK Government had to step in and suspend devolution four times in three years. The fourth suspension led to a five-year absence of devolved government. In 2007, the parties finally agreed to share power once more, with the DUP and Sinn Féin now the dominant players. This unlikely coalition, also including various smaller parties in different combinations at different times, survived until January 2017 before collapsing again. There has been no devolved government since then.

At Westminster, meanwhile, the expectation that the first-past-the-post system would deliver stable majority government has been shaken in the past decade by the hung parliament results of 2010 and 2017. The Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition formed in 2010 held together without serious crises, and survived for the full five-year term. Theresa May’s minority government, supported by the DUP, has found it rather more difficult to deliver strong and stable government.

Turnout in devolved elections has usually been lower than in UK general elections

Turnout at devolved and UK elections and referendums since 1992Devolution was supposed to bring politics closer to citizens.[7] One test of whether this has been achieved is electoral turnout, which is typically regarded as a key indicator of citizen engagement with the political process. Low or declining turnout is often regarded as a cause for concern, indicating “a sense that the parties are all the same, the politicians are all the same, they are not like us, it does not make any difference”.[8]

In all three devolved nations, turnout has been lower on average than for UK general elections. Since 1999, the average turnout in elections to the three legislatures has been 61% in Northern Ireland, 53% in Scotland and 43% in Wales, compared with 64% for Westminster since 2001. In all three nations, turnout was highest in the 1997 and 1998 referendums that established the new institutions, and next highest in the very first elections, held in 1998 in Northern Ireland and 1999 in Scotland and Wales. This suggests an initial enthusiasm for devolution that faded subsequently. If voter turnout is used as an indicator, devolution has not been entirely successful in improving citizen engagement with politics. However, devolution has taken place in an era of declining turnout generally. Between 1945 and 1997, turnout in UK general elections averaged 76% and never fell below 71%. In the five elections held in the 21st century, turnout never rose above 69% (in 2017).

In all three devolved nations, turnout rose by between 5 and 10 percentage points in the most recent devolved elections. The two electoral events with the highest turnout in at least the past 30 years were related to the governance of the devolved nations – the referendum to ratify the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (officially known as the Belfast Agreement) where 81% of voters turned out, and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum where 85% of voters turned out.

Turnout at the devolved level has been consistently higher than turnout at elections either to local councils or the European Parliament.

More women are elected to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament than to the House of Commons

Percentage of seats won by women at devolved elections and other UK elections, 1992 to 2018

The establishment of the new devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1999 presented an opportunity to create a new political class in each nation, which might in principle have been more representative of the population at large than the political class in Westminster. In Scotland and Wales, parties such as Labour and the SNP made a deliberate effort to increase the number of female candidates standing in the first elections in 1999.[9]

This effort was reflected in the results of the first devolved elections: women made up 37% of the new Scottish Parliament and 40% of the Welsh Assembly. This was around twice the proportion of female Members of Parliament (MPs) at that time. The Northern Ireland Assembly was at that time far more dominated by men: women comprised just 13% of the members elected in 1998.

The second devolved elections in 2003 were the high-water mark for female representation in Scotland and Wales: 50% of Welsh Assembly members and 40% of Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) were women. Since then, the figures have fallen somewhat, while the House of Commons and Northern Ireland Assembly have narrowed the gap between male and female representation. In 2017, 32% of MPs and 30% of Northern Ireland Assembly members were women. Over the first two decades of devolution, there has therefore been convergence between the four legislatures in terms of gender representation, with the Welsh Assembly consistently the most balanced.

Percentage of members of the devolved legislatures and the House of Commons from ethnic minority groups

People from minority ethnic groups are also under-represented in the UK’s legislatures by comparison with the general population. Since 1999, only four minority ethnic candidates have been elected to the Scottish Parliament, three to the Welsh Assembly and one to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Currently, there are two minority ethnic members in each of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, respectively representing 1.6% and 3.3% of the legislatures overall, and there were none in the Northern Ireland Assembly elected in 2016. This compares with 4.5% of the population in Scotland being from a minority ethnic group, 4.4% in Wales and 2.0% in Northern Ireland.[10]

The House of Commons has a higher proportion of minority ethnic members at 8%, although this still falls short of representation of the UK population overall, of whom 13.6% are from a minority ethnic group. At the 2017 election, all 52 minority ethnic MPs elected represented English constituencies, representing 9.8% of English MPs, compared with the 15.3% of the entire English population with a minority ethnic background.[11] Consequently, none of the parliaments or assemblies of the UK fully reflect the population they represent, in terms of either gender or ethnicity.

Devolution is not revolution. The creation of elected institutions in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast did not create a completely new way of doing politics. But it has enabled significant differences to emerge between the parts of the UK. Electoral turnout in the devolved nations has tended to fall below that for UK general elections, particularly in Wales, suggesting that the devolved institutions have further to go in terms of voter engagement. However, turnout rose at the most recent elections, and as further powers continue to be transferred to Scotland and Wales (from both Westminster and Brussels), the perceived importance of devolved elections could rise further.

The results of devolved elections are almost always more proportional than UK general elections, which means that smaller parties are better represented in devolved legislatures and single-party majorities are rare. Consequently, devolved governments must work across party lines to a greater extent than in Westminster to achieve their objectives, and – in Scotland and Wales, though not Northern Ireland – they have done this with greater success. The next chapter considers in greater depth how the legislatures in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast have operated in practice, and whether they have lived up to initial expectations of a less government-dominated system than at Westminster.