sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul

Wings Over Scotland

Why Labour doesn’t need Scotland

Posted on January 10, 2012 by

One of Labour’s sneakier tricks in opposing Scottish independence is to appeal to Scottish voters’ sense of social responsibility. The former party of socialist internationalism begs the Scots to show Unionist solidarity with their poor comrades in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who would – the story runs – be abandoned permanently to the mercies of the evil Tories if the Westminster Parliament was deprived of its traditional sizeable block of Labour MPs from Scotland.

This narrative is regularly propagated by Labour’s friends in the media (and sometimes by gleeful Tories too). Only today, for example, the Scotsman carries the line in a piece which asserts that an independent Scotland would leave David Cameron “with an inbuilt Tory majority for his party in the rest of the UK”.

There are, of course, innumerable things wrong with this argument – for one, the dubious morality of using Scottish MPs to impose a Labour government on English voters who may have rejected one, when Scotland has its own Parliament and England doesn’t. (An offshoot of the timeless West Lothian Question.) And for another, the highly questionable premise that the modern-day Labour Party is ideologically significantly different from the Tories anyway.

But the biggest problem with the notion is simply that it’s completely untrue.

Much of the reason is careless pundits who focus on the fact that Scotland habitually returns 40+ Labour MPs, but who forget that it also sends members to Westminster from the other parties to offset them. In October 1974, for example – which we’ll discover shortly is a significant date – Labour won 41 Scottish seats. That sounds impressive, until you realise that Scotland also voted in 30 non-Labour MPs (16 Tory, 11 SNP, 3 Liberal), meaning that the net contribution of Scotland towards a Labour majority was just 11. So let’s take a look at the whole historical picture.

Labour didn’t become a significant electoral force at all until the 1920s, with Ramsey MacDonald its first ever Prime Minister in 1923, albeit leading an extremely shaky minority government which only lasted 10 months. Universal suffrage for all men and women over 21 finally arrived in 1928, but the modern political era starts with Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour landslide, and particularly with the Representation Of The People Act 1948, which abolished multiple voting, multi-member constituencies and other anachronisms to create the framework which still essentially, with a few tweaks around the edges (eg lowering the voting age to 18 in 1969), governs British elections.

The 67 years since the end of World War 2 have seen 18 General Elections to the Westminster Parliament, with the following outcomes (sources below):

1945 Labour govt (Attlee)

Labour majority: 146
Labour majority without any Scottish MPs in Parliament: 143

1950 Labour govt (Attlee)

Labour majority: 5
Without Scottish MPs: 2

1951 Conservative govt (Churchill/Eden)

Conservative majority: 17
Without Scottish MPs: 16

1955 Conservative govt (Eden/Macmillan)

Conservative majority: 60
Without Scottish MPs: 61

1959 Conservative govt (Macmillan/Douglas-Home)

Conservative majority: 100
Without Scottish MPs: 91

1964 Labour govt (Wilson)

Labour majority: 4
Without Scottish MPs: -9

1966 Labour govt (Wilson)

Labour majority: 98
Without Scottish MPs: 77

1970 Conservative govt (Heath)

Conservative majority: 30
Without Scottish MPs: 5

1974 Minority Labour govt (Wilson)

Labour majority: -33
Without Scottish MPs: -50

1974b Labour govt (Wilson/Callaghan)

Labour majority: 3
Without Scottish MPs: -8

1979 Conservative govt (Thatcher)

Conservative majority: 43
Without Scottish MPs: 70

1983 Conservative govt (Thatcher)

Conservative majority: 144
Without Scottish MPs: 174

1987 Conservative govt (Thatcher/Major)

Conservative majority: 102
Without Scottish MPs: 154

1992 Conservative govt (Major)

Conservative majority: 21
Without Scottish MPs: 71

1997 Labour govt (Blair)

Labour majority: 179
Without Scottish MPs: 139

2001 Labour govt (Blair)

Labour majority: 167
Without Scottish MPs: 129

2005 Labour govt (Blair/Brown)

Labour majority: 66
Without Scottish MPs:  43

2010 Coalition govt (Cameron)

Conservative majority: -38
Without Scottish MPs: 19

All UK general election results
General election results in Scotland 1945-2001 (Table 1e, p.13)
General election results in Scotland 2005 and 2010

So in summary we can see the following:

– Scottish MPs have NEVER turned what would have been a Conservative government into a Labour one, or indeed vice versa.

– on only TWO occasions, the most recent of them being 38 years ago, (1964 and the second of the two 1974 elections), have Scottish MPs given Labour a majority they wouldn’t have had from England/Wales/NI alone. The majorities in question were incredibly fragile ones of four and three MPs respectively – the 1964 Labour government lasted barely 18 months, and the 1974 one had to be propped up by the Lib-Lab Pact through 1977-78 so in practice barely qualified as a majority. Without Scottish MPs but with Liberal support, Wilson would have had a majority of 12.

– and on ONE occasion (2010) the presence of Scottish MPs has deprived the Conservatives of an outright majority, although the Conservatives ended up in control of the government anyway in coalition with the Lib Dems.

– which means that for 62 of the last 67 years, Scottish MPs as an entity have had no practical influence over the composition of the UK government. From a high of 72 MPs in 1983, Scotland’s representation will by 2015 have decreased to 52, substantially reducing any future possibility of affecting a change.

The fact is that England and the rest of the UK are and always have been perfectly capable of electing a Labour government if they want one, even if Scotland goes its own way. Indeed, there’s a strong argument from the left-wing perspective that, with the SNP significantly less right-wing than any of the Westminster parties, a social-democratic Scotland could serve as an example to voters south of the border that there’s a viable alternative to the neoliberal creed of the three London-based parties.

But either way, the truth is that Labour doesn’t need Scottish MPs, and an independent Scotland would NOT give the Tories a permanent majority in the remnant UK. Those are the facts, and voters should be deeply mistrustful of anyone who tells them anything else.

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30 to “Why Labour doesn’t need Scotland”

  1. rodmac says:

    An excellent myth buster article!!

  2. RevStu says:

    Cheers! The myth gets regulary rubbished whenever some clueless idiot trots it out online, but I figured it'd be handy to have an easy definitive reference to hand.

  3. Daniel Walters says:

    As a Tory-hating Englishman (who otherwise wishes the SNP the best of luck), that's quite reassuring. Thanks!

  4. Dubbieside says:


    The Labour MP myth got another airing today in The Guardian. They were getting taken to task about it though.

  5. RevStu says:

    "Cameron and Osborne believe that only one UK politician is in their league. That would be the man they refer to as the Master, Tony Blair."

    Wonder if they mean that in the Doctor Who sense…?

  6. Alex Grant says:

    Excellent article Stu and one that we need to spread especially in the West of Scotland.
    I am certain the majority of Labour voters believe otherwise

  7. gracie says:

    Thanks for this article, excellent information and thanks for researching it and giving us something tangible to point to, when supposed "leftie" publications like the Guardian trot out their lazy sloppy journalism.
    Is it just my paranoia  or is the Guardian gradually leaning more to the right every day? 

  8. John Jones says:

    That's all very interesting as a history essay. But the subject in hand is politics and what's likely to happen from here on in.
    I'm sorry to say that you've committed the cardinal error and based your analysis on an entirely anachronistic perspective.
    Yes, as you point out, in the general elections between 1945 and 2010 there would have been relatively little change to the Westminster outcome if Scottish seats had been excluded. But that was then and this is now: the past, as they say, is another country.
    For most of the period you're studying the Tories had a hefty electoral presence in Scotland: indeed in 1955 they famously won a plurality of Scottish votes; and even in the first Thatcher victory in 1979 they were capable of winning 31% of the vote in Scotland. Unless anyone wants to argue that those days are coming back and that the Conservatives are once again going to be a major electoral force north of the Border, taking comfort from playing with a data series stretching right across the ages of Macmillan, Heath and early Thatcher, where the hypothetical removal of the Scottish seats would, as you've shown, have hurt the Tories as well as Labour, is very unwise.
    The only past elections that are actually relevant to understanding what would happen in future Westminster elections shorn of the Scottish seats are, in my view, those from 1997 onwards, when the Tories were finally reduced to where they are now, and where they seem likely to remain, which is to say effective electoral irrelevance in Scotland, with just a single MP. In other words, only from 1997 can we get any sense of what in modern political conditions, with Labour benefitting vastly more than the Tories from Scottish support, a new Parliament without any Scottish MPs might look like.
    What this much shorter timeframe tells us is less reassuring for English Socialists. Yes, the Blair governments, despite the Tories' virtual disappearance in Scotland, didn't need to rely on Scottish MPs to control Westminster in 1997 and 2001. But are you really sure that those historic landslides, unusual by any standards in the UK's electoral past, provide confidence that Labour can expect to form governments regularly in London?
    2005 is more comforting, as a solid but not landslide UK victory for Labour again didn't rely entirely on the party's domination of the Scottish seats. But in 2010, the most relevant prior example because reflecting the most recent political conditions, Labour won 41 Scottish seats and the Tories only 1, the consequence of which yawning gap north of the Border was that the Tories failed to gain a Westminster majority despite a comfortable lead in England. Had the Scottish seats not been available, Antony Wells, the political commentator, calculates that we'd have been looking at Cameron romping home with, taking account of the new Welsh boundaries, a tidy majority of 50.
    This is why many people, reflecting on the more recent past, are even wondering if Cameron's interest in helping Alex Salmond hold a legally-watertight referendum in the near future might be motivated by the thought that, along with the coming boundary changes across the UK which will also help the Tories, he has in mind the eventual disappearance of the Scottish seats from Westminster and Labour having to start future races for power with, in effect, an additional 40-seat deficit vis-a-vis the Tories.

  9. RevStu says:

    "The only past elections that are actually relevant to understanding what would happen in future Westminster elections shorn of the Scottish seats are, in my view, those from 1997 onwards"

    Arguably so. But Labour won three of those elections in an absolute canter without Scottish help, and even in 2010 – in the midst of absolute economic catastrophe, with a disastrously unpopular leader and a toxic legacy – without Scotland they would still have restricted the Tories to a very small and fragile majority. I have no idea what Antony Wells is basing his figures on – I've provided the actual numbers above, and the Tories would have had a weak majority of 19, not a healthy 50. He's probably lazily forgetting that SNP and Lib Dem MPs from Scotland also count towards the opposition.

    Politics swings back and forth. Labour and the Tories go from weaker to stronger and back again. Nobody is saying that without Scotland Labour would ALWAYS win at Westminster. But it would absolutely remain highly possible.

    (Bear in mind that Scottish representation at Westminster is about to be slashed by over 10%, too.)

  10. Geoff, England says:

    One thing you forgot to mention is that post-WWII elections(apart from the significant blip of the Thatcher/Major era) have usually seen Labour gain the largest number (if not an outright majority) of votes cast in England.  Are the peddlers of the "permanent Tory hegemony if the Scots leave" myth aware of that fact , or do they simply overlook it because dealing in facts would weaken their case?

  11. Malcs says:

    I find this article a convincing rebuttal. The dissent from John Jones was undeserved, patronising, and bigger on rhetoric than reason.
    As an Anglo-Scot I'm not massively enthused by the prospect of Scottish independence – I think both sides forget how much they actually share – but I do hope that at least one referendum in the UK will be fought on the basis of honest argument.

  12. Morag says:

    Scotland used to have 72 seats.  It's about to have 52.  That's a lot more than 10%, it's an absolute loss of 20 seats.  Scotland is losing influence at Westminster even within the UK.

  13. RevStu says:

    Yeah, it used to have 72, but currently it only has 59, and has done for most of the era John was talking about.

  14. I think you're a bit off on the February 1974 figures, which without Scotland would actually have changed a Labour minority government to a Tory minority government. Labour were only just the largest party int he Commons, with 301 seats to the Conservatives' 297. Without Scotland, the Conservatives would have been ahead by 276 to Labour's 261, certainly enough to remain in power as a minority government – and had they not pissed off the Ulster Unionists, they would have had a majority of the 564 remaining seats.

  15. chrisp says:

    'New Constituency Borders' will make it difficult for Labour to hold a majority in England and Wales alone and render the research a bit anachronistic… 

  16. RevStu says:

    "February 1974 figures, which without Scotland would actually have changed a Labour minority government to a Tory minority government"

    True enough, but it's still no practical change – hung parliament vs hung parliament, and either way there'd probably have still had to be an October 74 election.

  17. RevStu says:

    "'New Constituency Borders' will make it difficult for Labour to hold a majority in England and Wales alone and render the research a bit anachronistic…"

    They'll make a difference, but not that vast. Point is, Scotland only supplies 20 seats or so towards a Labour majority. Given that as recently as 2001 Labour had a majority of almost 170, that's an awfully big margin of error.

  18. chrisp says:

    "Given that as recently as 2001 Labour had a majority of almost 170" Far from typical that- and since then the game has changed – new labour have evolved from a party that supposedly represented the popular left to a kind of 'tory-lite' to appeal to the swing voters they need in middle England. Until the memories of Iraq, tuition fees, academies etc etc fade from the mind they'll not see a majority anywhere near that again.  

  19. Andy JS says:

    This article is not very convicing in my opinion. What happened between 1945 and 1983 is completely irrelevent to modern politics; between those dates there wasn't as big a divergence between Scottish and English voting patterns as there is now. And the article itself points out that the Tories would have won a majority in 2010 without Scotland and the same thing is likely to be true in 2015. So as far as modern politics is concerned, Scotland is making a big difference to UK politics.

  20. RevStu says:

    That’s an incredibly narrow definition of “modern”. 2005 is ancient history now?

    (And, y’know, I have news for you – David Cameron is the Prime Minister, and commands a majority.)

  21. McV says:

    Great stats, and will be very useful for smacking down arguments with unionists in future debates. But I’m curious about one point.
    In the last 4 elections, they go from a 40 drop to a 38 drop to just a 23 drop, to a massive swing over to Conservative majority. Was this because of a fall in labour voters in England or as a factor of a change from Labour to LibDem in Scotland?

  22. Rev. Stuart Campbell says:

    Some of that is accounted for by the fact that the number of Scottish MPs has fallen from 72 to 59 since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, with most of the losses from the reduced number being Labour MPs. The rest comes from the fact that Labour has lost around 5m votes in England since its victory in 1997. (13.5m then, 8.6m in 2010.) Only about a million of them went to the Tories, and another 1.5 or so to the Lib Dems. The other 2.5m either voted for smaller parties or gave up voting entirely in disgust.

  23. McV says:

    Many thanks for the response good sir. That’ll help in my debates. 😉

  24. Alan says:


  25. Ali says:

    not sure why you are so hung up on UK historical politics, or current politics… an independent Scotland can choose to change the way politics in Scotland work.

  26. Alan says:

    Just thinking… How much vote rigging?

  27. george firewood says:

    I think everone has missed a vital point and that is that the scottish people would not have had to put up with any tory goverment whatsoever if we were an independant country.

  28. Steve Syme says:

    I had a look at the 2005 numbers…

    Labour majority 66, but you say, without Scottish labour MP’s its 43?

    …as there were 41 labour MP’s in Scotland, hows this work out? It oughts be corrected to just being a majority of 25 surely?


  29. Rev. Stuart Campbell says:

    As the piece notes: Labour’s 41 MPs don’t exist in isolation from other Scottish MPs. Those count towards the opposition. The figures are “without Scottish MPs”, not “without Scottish LABOUR ones”.

  30. Angus McLellan says:

    Can I nitpick? It seems unreasonable to mark down Feb 1974 as no change. Absent Scottish seats, Heath would have led the largest party. Sure, since the question put had been Who Governs? the answer would still have been Not You Mate! Wacky hijinx ensue.

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