Crowded Out

prime-minister-david-cameron-makes-a-speech-on-the-big-society-to-social-entrepreneurs-in-london-765586696-1379604

When the date for the independence referendum was announced in March this year there were a number of pessimistic voices in Scotland who predicted that such a lengthy run-up to polling day would ensure apathy, or even boredom in a Scottish electorate, so exhausted by the ensuing long campaign that, by September 18th next year, it would be suffering referendum fatigue and vote, or not vote, accordingly.

These voices seemed to be informed by implicit reference to the growing disaffection with formal politics that is a defining characteristic of our age. By formal politics, I mean the type of politics that we associate with the institutions and practices of a modern representative democracy – the world of mainstream politicians, political parties, party leaders, governments, parliaments, elections etc. Moreover, the trend decline in turnout at UK general elections in all the UK nations over the last three or four decades was an inauspicious background for yet another election in Scotland.

But there are a number of problems with this perspective, not least of which is the obvious point that the independence referendum isn’t just another ‘election’. More importantly, underlying this perspective is the belief, in many cases the desire, that the referendum debate and, by implication, politics itself will, or should be contained within the rules of the game. That is, that the debate should be framed and conducted within the realm of formal politics. The most obvious example of this is the tactic of the No campaign (including the Scottish and British MSM), to consistently frame the independence referendum in terms of a political contest between Alex Salmond, or at best the SNP, and the British political parties.

In a follow-up piece, I will look at why it is necessary for the British state, and its various representatives within the realm of formal politics, to frame the independence debate (and politics itself) in this manner. Against this, there are numerous forces within Scotland which are, directly or indirectly, contesting this attempt to contain the debate within these rules of the game. This particular contest is one of the interesting, if rarely acknowledged, developing features of the independence debate. Among other things, it raises important questions about ‘politics’ itself, its meaning, its nature, as well as ‘democracy’, and whether independence has the capacity to transform politics in Scotland beyond the obvious example of the transfer of powers from Westminster to Holyrood. I will return to these and other related questions in the next piece.

Before that, though, here, I will look more closely at this trend decline in turnouts at UK general elections in recent decades. This will, among other things, provide a useful context for the discussion later. An obvious starting-point, then, is to chart the trend decline in turnouts at UK general elections which has become more pronounced over the last few decades.

Diagram 1. Turnout (%) at UK general elections (1950-2010)1. In 1974, there were two general elections, in February and October.

The trend decline in turnout at UK general elections, shown in diagram 1, although occurring gradually after the post-war high of 83.9% in the 1950 general election, became more pronounced after 1992, hitting a post-war low of 59.4% in the 2001 general election (in fact, this was the lowest turnout in any UK general election since 1918). Diagram 1 invites two obvious questions. First, why do we see this trend decline in turnouts at UK general elections after 1950? And second, why has it been more pronounced after 1992?

The answer to the second question will be the focus of attention here. One of the main explanations for the more pronounced decline in turnout after 1992 is the growth in the population of new cohorts as a proportion of the total electorate, particularly since the UK lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1969. In a previous article for Bella Caledonia I explored this new cohort effect in some detail2.

The term ‘new cohorts’ refers to the population of voters who become eligible to vote for the first time at each general election. The reason new cohorts are so important is that they, and younger voters more broadly, have a lower propensity to vote, (see Table 1 below). The key point is that, every five years or so, a population of new cohorts, which has a lower propensity to vote, displaces a population of older cohorts, which has a higher propensity to vote, until the former becomes large enough, as a proportion of the total electorate, to have a marked (negative) impact on turnout.

1970

1974

1974

1979

1983

1987

1992

1997

2001

2005

2010

18-24

64.9

70.2

62.5

62.5

63.9

66.6

67.3

54.1

40.4

38.2

51.8

25-34

66.5

77.2

69.0

72.4

67.6

74.0

77.3

62.2

45.0

47.7

57.3

35-44

72.8

78.7

73.9

76.3

76.2

74.9

78.3

70.2

55.7

61.6

64.4

45-54

74.9

73.1

76.6

81.2

77.6

79.9

81.8

76.4

63.2

65.5

67.5

55-64

74.1

82.2

76.6

81.4

77.2

78.9

78.1

79.9

64.0

72.6

69.8

65+

77.2

79.2

76.0

77.7

73.1

76.0

79.2

77.7

70.1

74.3

74.7

Table 1. Voting patterns of different age cohorts in UK general elections (1970-2010)3.

As is well known, Scotland is unique, for a liberal democracy of its size in Europe, in experiencing virtually no change in its population in the period 1970-2010. At the start of the period in 1970, Scotland’s population was some 5.2 million, and at the end of the period in 2010, it remained at some 5.2 million. What this means is that, in this period, Scottish demography has had no, or at best negligible, impact either on new cohort effects or the size of the electorate in the UK. In fact, almost all of the new cohort effects and increases in the UK electorate have occurred as a consequence of the large increase in England’s population. This can be seen clearly in diagram 2, which shows the populations of Scotland and England for the period 1970-2010.

Scotland England

Diagram 2. Population (millions) of Scotland and England 1970-2010

1970 (% of total)

2010 (% of total)

England

32,717,000 (90.02) 38,290,000 (90.83)

Scotland

3,628,000 (9.98) 3,864,000 (9.17)

Total

36,345,000 42,154,000

Table 2. Crowding out effect of the combined electorates of Scotland and England

Diagram 2 shows that while Scotland’s population flat-lined between 1970-2010, England’s population, in the same period, increased by around 7 million, from 45.9 to some 52.6 million, or some 15%, compared to 0% for Scotland. In effect, what has been happening since the 1970s, and more markedly over the last 15 years or so, is that, as a consequence of both the large increase in England’s population and the flat-lining of Scotland’s population, England’s growing electorate has been crowding out Scotland’s electorate in British general elections. This crowding out effect is summarised in table 2.

Table 2. Crowding out effect of the combined electorates of Scotland and England

Although this increasing crowding out effect may seem quite small, some 0.81% over a 40 year period, we need to remember that in 1970 Scotland was already in an invidious position, starting with an electorate that comprised only 9.98% of the combined Scottish and English electorates. In 1970, England’s population was nine times greater than Scotland, by 2010, England’s population had increased to ten times greater than Scotland’s. But this crowding out effect, which has increased over the last decade, is significant for a number of demographic and political reasons.

Demographically, this crowding out effect looks likely to continue into the future (should Scotland remain in the UK), though it’s an open question whether the relative population changes of the last 40 years would be repeated over the next 40 years. But whether they are or not, this crowding out effect is unlikely to be reversed in Scotland’s favour, and this is bad news for Scotland’s voters if there is a No vote in 2014. To see this more clearly, we need to look at the political significance of these demographic changes, and there are two, in particular, that are worth drawing attention to here.

First, much of the increase in England’s population over the last 40 years has been concentrated in the southern half of England, from the Midlands south. Most of this area, particularly if London is excluded, comprises the heartland of Tory England. Indeed, a ‘political’ map of England, based on the results of the 2010 UK general election, makes for depressing reading for Labour supporters both north and south of the border:

indexuk

There are five electoral regions in the southern half of England outside London (East Midlands, West Midlands, Eastern, South East, and South West). In these five regions there are a total of 302 parliamentary seats at Westminster. Of these, the Conservatives hold 226 seats or 75% of the total, while Labour hold only 49 seats (16%)4. Indeed, these five regions also provided 74% of the 306 Tory MP’s at Westminster who were elected at the 2010 British general election. These are also the English regions, outside London, which have seen the largest increases in their populations over the last 40 years.

The outcome of the 2010 British general election, from a British perspective, was notable for delivering a coalition government, albeit one that is clearly being steered by the Tories, a Tory government in all but name. From a Scottish perspective, the 2010 British general election was notable for something else. It was an election where, even if there had been a 100% turnout in Scotland, with every eligible voter in Scotland voting Labour, this would not have changed the outcome for Scotland’s voters, Scotland would still have been governed by the Tories after 2010. This is not so much a democratic deficit in Scotland as a complete absence of democracy altogether, albeit one that is legitimated by the majority of voters in Scotland ‘going through the motions’ of representative democracy and casting votes which count for nothing, votes which are irrelevant to the outcome of British general elections.

The crowding out effect is one of the main factors underlying the increase in the likelihood of the effective disenfranchisement of Scotland’s voters. But it’s also worth noting that the 2010 British general election was not the first general election in which Scotland’s votes were irrelevant to the outcome. On the contrary, since 1979, this has been the norm. For in the 1979, 1983, 1987, and 1992 British general elections, here, too, even with a 100% turnout in Scotland at each of these four British general elections and with every eligible voter in Scotland voting Labour, once again, this would have made no difference to the outcomes, Scotland would still have been governed by the Tories for the 18 years between 1979-97.

It might be argued that the 13 years of New Labour government between 1997-2010 provides evidence that contradicts the analysis above. Putting aside the politics of this argument for the moment, it was clear that in the three British general elections between 1997 and 2005, there was, in electoral terms, a brief coincidence in the preferences of the electorates in Scotland and England. But even in these three British general elections, it’s possible to demonstrate the crowding out effect in operation, albeit with the assistance of a dubious piece of counterfactual history. Nevertheless, it supports the argument that I am presenting here.

Such was the size of New Labour’s parliamentary majorities in the 1997, 2001, and 2005 UK general elections that, once again, even assuming a 100% turnout in Scotland but, this time, making the further assumption that, had every eligible voter in Scotland voted Conservative, this, too, would not have made any difference to the outcome. In this scenario, ‘Tory Scotland’ would still have been governed by New Labour between 1997-2010. The only qualification to make here is the make-up of the 2005 Westminster parliament. For, in the 2005 general election, assuming a 100% turnout in Scotland, and with every eligible voter in Scotland voting Conservative, this would have delivered the following distribution of seats at Westminster: New Labour 314; Conservative 256; Liberal Democrats 51; Plaid Cymru 3; Others 22. In this scenario, New Labour could have governed as a minority government or, perhaps more likely, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

The upshot here, is that far from the 2010 British general election being an exception, in effectively disenfranchising Scotland’s voters, it has become the norm. In each of the last eight British general elections since 1979, the votes in Scotland were irrelevant to the outcome. But the key point to note is the further assumption that we’re making here. For in every one of these eight British general elections since 1979, even if we assume a 100% turnout in Scotland and with every eligible voter in Scotland voting for the same party, as long as that party was the main opposition to the party that England’s electorate voted for, the votes of every eligible voter in Scotland were irrelevant. In five of the last eight UK general elections (1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, and 2010), this was indeed the case. In the other three general elections (1997, 2001, and 2005), this would have been the case 5.

A few brief conclusions can be reached based on the above arguments. First, while England has outgrown the union demographically over the last forty years – and seems set to continue to do so in the future – Scotland has outgrown the union politically. It’s this combination of what I have called the demographic crowding out effect, and the growing divergence in the political orientation of the majority of Scotland’s and England’s electorates, which is effectively disenfranchising Scotland’s voters in the UK as well as exacerbating the long-standing crisis-management of the British state.

Second, underlying these developments was the crisis in Keynesianism, a crisis and subsequent crisis-management which took a particularly virulent form in Britain and which, over the last forty years, saw many of the pillars of ‘social democratic’ Britain, forged in the ‘golden age’ of capitalism6 (1945-70), either collapse or enter a phase of terminal decline. That world has largely disappeared in Britain, but it’s clear from the consistent voting preferences of the majority of Scotland’s voters over the last four decades, in both British and Scottish general elections, that there is a strong appetite in Scotland to salvage parts of it at least. Independence may not take Scotland one step closer to socialism, as some on the left are hoping, but it should take Scotland one step closer to social democracy. And an independent Scotland that is one step closer to social democracy is surely better, for both politics and democracy in Scotland, than a Scotland in the United Kingdom that continues to retreat further away from it.

1 Based on data from: UK Election Statistics: 1918-2012, House of Commons Library, available on-line at: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/rp12-43

2 For a fuller discussion of cohort theory and its impact on turnouts at general elections see, ‘The Devolution Deficit and the Independence Referendum: Part 2’ available on-line at: https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2012/01/16/the-devo-deficit-the-independence-referendum-part2/

3 There is no official data for the voting patterns of age cohorts but estimates are based on a long-running academic survey, The British Election Study, see Elections: Turnout, House of Commons Library, available on-line at: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN01467

4 See, General Election 2010, House of Commons Library, available on-line at: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/RP10-36

5 For the avoidance of any doubt, the tables below illustrate this. The first table shows the results for the outcomes of the 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 and 2010 UK general elections, on the assumption that every eligible voter in Scotland in these five elections had voted Labour. In contrast, the second table shows the results for the outcomes of the 1997, 2001 and 2005 UK general elections on the assumption that every eligible voter in Scotland in these three elections had voted Conservative.

Results of UK general elections if every eligible voter in Scotland had voted Labour

Con

Lab

Lib

PC

Other

1979

317

295

8

2

13

1983

376

240

15

2

17

1987

365

251

13

3

18

1992

325

294

11

4

17

2010

305

276

46

3

20

PC = Plaid Cymru

Results of UK general elections if every eligible voter in Scotland had voted Conservative

Con

Lab

Lib

PC

Other

1997

237

362

36

4

20

2001

236

357

42

4

20

2005

256

314

51

3

22

6 Stephen A. Marglin and Juliet B. Schor (eds). The Golden Age of Capitalism: Reinterpreting the Postwar Experience, Clarendon Press, 1992.

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  1. Jen says:

    Good article but couldn’t the same point be made by saying 59 Scottish seats at Westminister means that the people of Scotland are wasting their time and effort voting and are disenfranchised by the “Union of Equals” as other parts of the UK have more seats.

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      Jen,

      The reason I didn’t discuss the allocation of seats is, as your comment demonstrates, this is well-known and has informed the no-mandate argument since the Thatcher ‘decade’. But more important, I wanted to draw attention to an issue which, IMO, deserves closer attention and not only because it’s important for the independence debate, the referendum and its consequences.

      The main themes in the piece – that England has outgrown the union demographically, that there is an embedded Conservatism in England, that Scotland has outgrown the union politically, the flat-lining of Scotland’s population growth between 1970-2010 – are all related to the ‘crowding-out’ effect. All of them, IMO, are better addressed by looking at population rather than the allocation of seats at Westminster. Each of them also have serious implications for Scotland (some of which have been felt already) and, I would argue, need to inform the independence debate itself.

      To take one obvious example, the rise in England’s population (particularly in the southern half), has promoted immigration as a high salience issue among voters in the densely populated south. Both Conservative and Labour parties have to be seen to respond to this, if they don’t, UKIP and the far right will take up the slack. This is one of the main factors behind the ascendancy of the right in the southern half of England. This response to immigration and associated policy issues – the increasing hostility to ‘foreigners’, the rise in Euroscepticism, the attack on benefit ‘scroungers’ etc, will shape the policy agenda of British governments for some time to come with serious consequences for Scotland should there be a No vote in 2014.

      The final reason I focused on population, of course, was to highlight the hypothetical situation in British general elections where, even assuming 100% turnouts in Scotland at British general elections, and with every voter in Scotland supporting the same party, this would still have had no effect on the outcome of those elections. That this hypothesis exists at all, is concerning enough. That it is applicable to the last eight British general elections is, I would argue, another major argument for independence. But it also raises a number of interesting questions about how politics and democracy operate and how they are perceived in Scotland (issues that I’ll come back to in a follow-up piece).

      These are the main reasons that I concentrated on population and took this approach rather than the alternative you suggest.

  2. Neil Collins says:

    I am only surprised by how little general-election voter turn-out has dropped since 1970. Local democracy about things that actually matter has been considerably eroded since then, so it would be interesting to see the local election turn-out, instead of inter-party general-election moronicide (15% turnout in Edinburgh last year? For the people that run schools?).

  3. Abulhaq says:

    Scotland’s underpopulation is a highly political issue. Whether by encouraging larger families or encouraging immigration we need population growth as our demographic profile has a markedly mature bias. What is occuring in England is a refreshing and renewal process. How they handle it depends on the character of the new politics that will emerge with the demise of the old order.

  4. Juteman says:

    Scotlands low population is mainly due to emigration. Wasn’t the population of Scotland around 1/4 of England at Union? Lack of opportunity at home has forced Scots to leave for economic reasons. The Highland clearances never really stopped, they just involved the Lowlands in modern times. Another Union dividend..

  5. Jen says:

    Thank you Donald, for a detailed reply. I found it very interesting. Immigration is a serious issue in SE of England because all the opportunities are based there and this is how Westminister likes it. Continual lack of opportunity compared to SE is why most Scots move thus the population problem continues.

    Independence may bring the same feelings in Scotland if we open the gates after independence in order to increase numbers within the population. I think this will present opportunity however we must handle it carefully so as to avoid the negativity that immigration has in England. We must learn the lessons.

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