Westminster Wednesday: Federalism in the UK

This week, we will be considering the issue of federalism in the UK. In previous weeks, we’ve discussed both local and devolved government in Britain – how they came to be and what powers they have. Here, we will look at the tensions that exist within the current set up, particularly in regards to the two largest nations in the UK; Scotland, and England. Of course, the devolution settlements for Wales and Northern Ireland both face significant challenges, and many would argue there are other nations within the UK that should be considered, such as Cornwall. But for reasons of space, and in an effort to draw out some of the bigger themes more clearly, we’ll be focusing on these two examples first and foremost.

Naturally, we need to define our key terms – here, the concept of federalism. Federal states divide their power between two key levels of organisation on an equal basis – devolution, the concept that the UK has adopted, implies an unequal power relationship between the centre (the stronger) and the regions (the weaker). Outside the UK, many states have adopted federal systems – two key examples being the United States, and Germany. This post uses federalism as the theme both to be distinct from the post on devolution, and to give indication of one possible future direction – one that has been endorsed by the Liberal Democrats themselves.


During the 1990s, the Labour MP George Robertson declared that the plan to devolve power to Scotland would “kill Nationalism stone dead”. This quote has become something of an embarrassment for Labour since; not only has the primary vehicle for Scottish nationalism, the Scottish National Party (SNP) thrived, but the Scottish Labour Party has imploded – whereas once it dominated Scotland, it now has a single MP, and is reduced to the third largest party in the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Parliament was created as a stronger body than either the Welsh or Northern Irish Assemblies; with a stronger mandate in the referendum that led to its creation, with the power to modify income tax to raise additional revenue. Since 1999, two further acts of Parliament have transferred additional powers to Scotland – the 2012 and 2016 Scotland Acts. These have granted the Scottish Parliament an array of new powers over areas such as its finances, elections, and criminal law. But this is a reactive process; the UK government is constrained in some sense by the result of elections in Scotland. In 2007, the Scottish people returned a Scottish Parliament where the SNP was (just) the largest party, and they proceeded to form a government. In 2011, despite the electoral system, the SNP won a majority – and negotiations began within months on granting them the power to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. The result of these negotiations was the Edinburgh Agreement, which granted the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a referendum on the matter by the end of 2014 (it was eventually held in September 2014) that would be “fair, legal, and decisive”. The result was a lengthy two-year campaign on the matter of whether Scotland should become an independent country, with supporters arguing for a “Yes” vote, and opponents arguing for a “No”. The result, in the end, was that independence was defeated by 55% to 45%, in a referendum where over 80% of Scottish voters turned out.

Of course, as we are all now aware – that was not the end of the matter. In May 2016, despite losing their majority, the SNP were re-elected as the government of Scotland, and with the support of the Greens, had a majority in the Scottish Parliament to vote through a motion for another independence referendum. Since the EU referendum in June 2016, the Scottish government has been building an argument for a second referendum in the near future, preferably before the UK leaves the EU, to decide if Scotland should leave the UK. Opponents of this have been seeking to build a case against this; in some cases, by arguing that more powers should be devolved to Scotland.

The two principle reasons for the referendum, identified by supporters of Scottish independence, are the UK’s exit from the European Union and the election of a majority Conservative government in Westminster. On the first matter, it is argued that, as Scotland voted to Remain in the EU, it should have the right to a different Brexit to the rest of the UK – at the very least. The second matter focuses on the collapse of the Labour Party, which makes the likelihood of a length period in power for the Conservatives extremely high – a government which currently only includes 1 of Scotland’s 59 MPs. The first one poses a considerable difficulty for the UK government – it is very unlikely that the UK could negotiate a deal where part of the country leaves the EU less than other parts of the country. So either the government would need to disappoint its own supporters, or risk alienating Scottish opinion further. On the second point, it is worth noting that it is by no means a fixed situation that the Conservative Party will only have 1 MP in Scotland come 2020. The Scottish Conservative Party is now the main opposition to the SNP in the Scottish Parliament, and are consistently polling higher than the Scottish Labour Party. The possibility that the Westminster Parliament elected in 2020 might contain more than a single Scottish Conservative MP should not be understated.

In summary, the issue here is that Scotland’s government is positioning itself to try and remove Scotland entirely from the UK; causing a considerable domestic issue for Westminster to face. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the cause, the issue here is how much the UK – traditionally a unitary state – can accommodate such a movement well enough to relieve these strains on the whole.


The ‘gap’ in devolution is England. Outside of London, the devolution process has been fitful – a series of “metro mayors”, which will first be elected this May, representing further devolution of power to local regions. But, unlike in the other nations of the UK, there is no consistent pattern of devolution across the whole nation. In 2004, the Labour government held a referendum on the creation of a devolved assembly for the North East of England – a proposal that was defeated by 77%-23%. After that, the matter went quiet for a while, but it has since re-emerged, partly due to the process of devolution elsewhere.

The key issue was succinctly posed by former Labour MP Tam Dalyell, who termed it the “West Lothian Question”. This asked how it could be right that Scottish MPs could vote on legislation affecting only England, but English MPs could not do the same for Scotland. There were some efforts to try and take the edge off this question – by reducing the number of Scottish MPs in particular – but the fact remained that the question was without a satisfactory answer in Westminster. In 2015, the newly elected majority Conservative government introduced a rule called “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL). Under this procedure, the Speaker of the House of Commons decides if a bill contains provisions that only apply to England (or England and Wales). During the passage of the bill through the House of Commons, a new stage has been introduced, where only English (and perhaps Welsh MPs) may sit and consider a “motion of consent” to the legislation, and then vote on whether to grant it or not.

EVEL is, however, at best a temporary measure. As academics like John Curtice have noted, there is an emerging English identity – it is much less intense than that of Scotland or Wales, and it is often overlapped with Britishness – but there is an emerging identity within England, and an emerging discourse within that identity about England’s place in the UK, particularly with regards to devolution. As Englishness continues to grow within the UK – even if it is conflated with Britishness – the question over what to do about England will become more pressing.

What compounds this issue is that England is very unlike any other state in any federal country in the world. In none of the current federal democratic states does one state control such a large share of the landmass, or share of the population, or share of the wealth, as England does within the UK. Giving England as a whole a devolved Parliament would present considerable challenges to do with the relative power of that Parliament against the other devolved assemblies; and against Westminster itself. But breaking England into smaller units poses questions of identity and effectiveness – whilst some regions have clear identities (Yorkshire being a key example) others, like the South East, have a variety of much smaller identities and other challenges, such as a lack of a clear urban centre to take on the role of ‘capital’ of that region.

What is clear, however, is that England and the English are not going to go away. Like any nation, England is an imagined community – the English are people who imagine a story about themselves. This story covers their history, language, culture, relationship with the divine, values, and more. Nations like to have institutions that can represent and embody their story to the world; to defend their values, cherish their history, and so on. Just because these communities are imagined, however, does not make them less powerful or indeed less real to the people who live within them. If the English nation continues to expand, then the pressure for a settlement for the whole of the UK will grow. The UK government will then face a similar situation to Scotland – mounting pressures for change, and limited tools to relieve that pressure.

Liberal Democrats Winning Here Sign

By-Election Report – 23/03/2017

With just the 3 Principle Council by-elections, one without a candidate for the Liberal Democrats, and the other two where the Liberal Democrats didn’t stood a candidate in years it looked like a quiet night was in store…

Westminster Wednesday: Electoral Reform

In previous instalments of Westminster Wednesdays, we’ve looked at some of the most important institutions of the UK’s political landscape – the constitution, Parliament, the executive, local and devolved government. Now we’re going to move on to touch on a variety of important issues confronting the UK’s politics, beginning with the topic of electoral reform. As Liberal Democrats, generally, one of the things we have in common is a belief that the system we use for choosing MPs should be changed. To begin with, I will briefly outline the three main electoral systems used in the UK – First Past The Past (FPTP), Single Transferrable Vote (STV), and the Additional Member System (AMS). Then we’ll move on to consider the Lib Dem position on electoral reform, and the recent history of that topic in the UK.

Electoral systems in use

Let’s begin by defining our terms – what is an electoral system? An electoral system is the means through which votes are considered valid, and then converted into representatives in an elected body. There are a variety of ways of doing this, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. There is not a single part of the UK that uses one electoral system to choose its elected represents – a situation that will likely change when the UK leaves the EU and so no longer elects MEPs. In some areas – Scotland, for example – at least 4 separate electoral systems are used for different elections. Rarely, however, are there days when voters are called on to use more than one system at once.

Elections to the House of Commons are held using the First Past The Past electoral system, with the country divided in 650 constituencies, each one electing a single MP. The candidate that wins the largest number of votes – not necessarily a majority of votes cast – wins the seat contested. This means that parties can, and indeed always have since 1931, win a majority of seats in the House of Commons without a majority of votes cast in the country behind them. In 2015, the Conservatives won a majority with just under 37% of the vote.

For elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, the Additional Member System is used. Under AMS, a voter has two votes – the first elects a constituency member, using FPTP. The second is a regional vote – Scotland has 8 regions for this, Wales 5 – where candidates are elected proportionately based on party votes. However, the more constituencies you win in a region, the less likely you are to win list seats in that region, balancing out representation.

Finally, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and local government in Scotland and Northern Ireland, use the Single Transferrable Vote system. Again, voters are divided into constituencies – but each one will be represented by multiple elected representatives, like the AMS regions. Rather than placing a cross in a box, as with FPTP and AMS, voters rank the candidates on the ballot paper – 1, 2, 3 – giving as many votes or ‘preferences’ as they like. Then, all the votes are counted and that total, plus the number of seats in the constituency, is used to calculate a number of votes required to win a seat – this is called a quota. If any candidate has enough first preferences to meet the quota, they are automatically elected. Votes over that quota are re-allocated to the second preference on the ballot, and then any candidates who reach the quota are also elected. If there are seats remaining – as there often are – the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated, and their second preferences are handed out. This continues until all the seats are filled.

So those are the three most important UK electoral systems, but what of their future?

Electoral reform in the UK

One of the key policies that the Liberal Democrats wanted from entering a coalition at Westminster was a change in the way MPs are elected to the House of Commons. Opponents of FPTP argue that it is disproportionate – that is, the number of votes cast and the number of MPs won is not as closely related as under other electoral systems. The largest number of votes will get you a majority, but smaller parties struggle to make a break through, and governments are often elected with the support of fewer than 40% of the electorate. The concession that the Lib Dems gained on electoral reform in 2010 was the promise of a referendum on changing the voting system for the House of Commons to the Alternative Vote – which is somewhat similar to STV. That referendum was held in May 2011 and resulted in a heavy defeat for electoral reform – 32% to 68%. Despite this, there have been other, more successful Lib Dem efforts to implement electoral reform. During the first government of Tony Blair (1997-2001), the Lib Dems helped drive through the AMS voting system for Scotland and Wales; they subsequently, in coalition with Labour in Edinburgh, implemented the STV system for Scottish local government.

But why change the electoral system in the first place? Defenders of FPTP argue that it produces stability – a majority government is almost always elected (only two elections since 1945 in the UK have failed to do this; February 1974 and May 2010) – and can readily take decisions and lead the country. As we’ve already noted, opponents argue that it is disproportionate, discriminating against smaller parties and resulting in governments elected by considerably less than a majority of voters. They argue that a system that is more proportional – that more closely ties the number of votes to the number of seats – is fairer, because any government will need the support of parties that attracted a majority, or nearer a majority – of seats. Opponents of reform often argue that the result is chaos; they point to countries such as Belgium, which once went over 500 days without a government while its political parties struggled to reach agreement to form a coalition with a majority in its parliament.

At the moment, the defenders of FPTP have the upper hand – they are able to use the AV referendum as a tool to push back on demands for electoral reform, and the Conservative Party, which is currently in power, shows essentially zero interest in extending electoral reform to Westminster, or to English and Welsh local government. But advances continue around the world – Maine, in 2016, voted to move to the Alternative Vote. Proponents of electoral reform in the UK have a steep hill to climb, but as 2011 recedes into the distance, their chance will likely come again.

Sarah Olney Vicotory celebration - 2nd Dec 2016

Member Monday: YOUR NAME HERE

Greetings newbies,

As Tim Farron observed in his conference speech yesterday, membership of the Liberal Democrats has risen to its highest this century; over 1,000 people joined us in the last ten days alone. Our spring conference also broke records: it was the best attended in party history, with the largest number of first timers ever.

As was often said to me during many conversations I had with both new, old and returning members, the concept of “a newbie” is a state of mind. Being a newbie could just as easily describe the renewed energy and confidence amongst our members which has led us to win 34 seats in council by-elections since the general election, along with the election of Sarah Olney, a newbie herself, in Richmond Park last year.

What is now clear is that the newbies have the potential to drive this party back into government, perhaps even in their own right, and, as Tim said yesterday, this should be our aim.

As part of that aim, we want to give our members, particularly our newbies, the chance to share their views. As can be seen from our policy debates at conference, we are an open party where opinions can be shared and respected. Not only that, but ideas from our members can become law. The increase in personal tax allowance, which is now enjoyed by every income tax payer in the country, came from an ordinary member of the Liberal Democrats.

So if you’re interested in contributing to our Monday Member blog, we are taking submissions.

You can submit an article or contact us for more information by emailing ben@libdemnewbies.org.uk

We look forward to hearing from you.

Polling Station Sign

By-Election Report 16/03/2017

It was a quiet set of results in last night’s Principle Council By-Elections with none of the 4 seats contested changing hands.

Throwback Thursday: Conference

Tomorrow sees the beginning of our Spring Conference for 2017, once again in York. It’ll be my first party conference and I look forward to meeting many of you there!

This week we step away from the series on Party Political Broadcasts and take a relatively short hop back in time to our last conference in Brighton back in September. This is Tim Farron’s closing speech which, in my opinion, is where we see him at his most passionate.

It had been a tough year so far but it was also a year that saw thousands of new members join our ranks.


Westminster Wednesday: Devolution

This week, we’ll be looking at the devolved assemblies of the United Kingdom – in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of them presents a different case study, and so we will tackle them one by one, rather than going by theme as we have in previous weeks. We’ll briefly see how these bodies came to be, what powers they have, and how they function in turn. We’ll also consider, right at the end, the missing piece of the puzzle, as it were – England.


Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has not had a happy history – since the division of the island of Ireland in the 1920s, the province has been the scene of tensions between the Catholic (Nationalist) and Protestant (Unionist) communities. For the first 50 years of its existence, there was a Parliament of Northern Ireland, dominated by the Protestants. However, in the 1970s, a spiralling surge of violence in the province led to the dissolution of the Parliament and the assumption of direct control by the government in London. This continued up until the late 1990s, when a lengthy, tangled peace process finally resulted in an agreement between Nationalist and Unionist politicians. The centrepiece of this agreement was a new Northern Ireland Assembly, which came into being after the peace agreement was approved in a referendum in 1998.

The Assembly has power over agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, justice, and a variety of other areas, with members of the Assembly (MLAs) serving as members of the Northern Ireland Executive. Both the Assembly and the Executive function differently to how similar bodies in the UK function. In the Assembly, for example, certain votes require majority support of politicians from both the Protestant and the Catholic communities. The Executive is comprised of members of both communities – and sometimes from parties that define themselves as “other” – and there is no collective responsibility. Each minister is scrutinised by an Assembly committee chaired by someone from another party.

Since its creation, the Assembly has been suspended several times – most notably between 2002 and 2007 – when agreement between the two communities represented in the body broke down. Most recently, it has been dominated by the two largest, and traditionally less moderate, parties of those communities – the Nationalist Sinn Fein, and the Unionist Democratic Unionist Party. At the moment, there is an election campaign in process for a new Assembly, after the previous one was dissolved in the midst of a political scandal. This election, like all others, will be held using the Single Transferrable Vote system, but will see fewer MLAs than before – 90, rather than 108 – elected.



Wales’ path to devolution has been a far less violent one than Northern Ireland, but also a far less enthusiastic one. In a referendum in the 1970s, the people of Wales rejected the offer of a devolved assembly – when asked again in 1997 by the Labour government, they very narrowly voted (a margin of just over 6,000 votes) – in favour of the proposition. Wales is not a nation with a long history of independent political institutions from the rest of the UK – since the 16th Century it had broadly been governed on the same basis as England, and only after the Second World War did a party dedicated specifically to advocating for Wales – Plaid Cymru – emerge.

The Welsh Assembly that was approved in the 1997 referendum has typically had far fewer powers than its Scottish cousin – most notably with regards to tax, which the Assembly has no power to vary. It does have power over areas such as agriculture, education, health, local government, policing and transport, and an executive to carry out the responsibilities attached to these areas. But it has lagged behind Scotland in the scope and strength of powers it has had devolved to it by Westminster. The Assembly has long been dominated by Labour – though they have rarely had a full majority – and comprises 60 members, elected originally every 4 years using the Additional Member System.



The Scottish Parliament is perhaps the most complete, and stable, example of devolution in the UK. Much as with Wales, the Scottish people were offered a chance at devolution in the 1970s – and indeed voted in favour of the proposal, but a clause in the Westminster legislation requiring 40% of eligible voters to support the proposal meant that devolution was not pursued. Again, it was left to a 1997 referendum, offered by the Labour government, to re-open the issue. On a higher turnout than Wales, the Scottish people backed a Scottish Parliament by 75% to 25%, and giving it tax raising powers by 63% to 37%. Scotland had retained a host of independent institutions after joining the UK in the 18th Century, including its own legal and education systems, and its nationalist party – the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) was much more electorally successful than Plaid Cymru managed to be.

Subsequently, there have been further rounds of devolution to Scotland, as with Wales, most notably after the 2014 referendum on independence. The Scottish Parliament and Executive have control over a wide range of policy areas – cultural, education, health, environment, local government, justice, housing and planning are some of them. There are 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), elected, as in Wales, with the Additional Member System. The system originally delivered Parliaments where Labour were the largest, and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats – 1999, and 2003 – but since 2007 the SNP have been the largest party, and indeed from 2011 to 2016 they maintained a majority in the Parliament.



The ‘missing nation’ in this equation is, of course, England. The Labour government elected in 1997 was open to devolution to England, on a regional basis – in 2004 they held a referendum in the North East of England on the establishment of an assembly, a proposal that was very firmly rejected by voters there. Whilst London experienced a form of devolution through the Greater London Assembly, the rest of England has yet to gain devolved institutions.

Spring Conference - York

Spring Conference 2017 Newbie Special

This year Lib Dems from all over the country will once again descend on York this Spring for a weekend of for fun, policy, debate, training and (most likely) drink! Once again there will be record breaking numbers of Newbies and First Time Attendees!
Going to conference is incredibly fun, giving you a chance to chat to people who you may only see once or twice a year, or to meet people in real life who you only ever talk to on Twitter or Facebook (I’m not the only one to have started talking to someone before realising that they have no idea who I am as I’ve only ever spoke to them online… Am I???). It is also the serious policy making heart of our Party, and sets us apart from other parties. If you have never been you might think it isn’t for you, however I can confirm that it absolutely is for you, and the shorter Spring format is ad ideal taster.
Attending your first conference can be bit daunting so I thought I’d set out a few thoughts about things to do, what to expect, and a few tips from my first time and from a few others here at Newbie HQ. This is by no means exhaustive and I’d recommend also reading Caron Lindsay’s excellent articles about conference on Lib Dem Voice here and here.
Things to do…
Lib Dem Pint – Friday 17th March 2016 19:00-23:00
To mark the start of conference Newbie HQ have arranged a social event to welcome members new and old to York. As those who follow #LibDemPint events know it is traditional to secure a speaker for these events and for Brighton we have a cracking line up with some new members speaking, and some VERY well known members speaking. Taking place at Revolution York, you can find full details here, respond to the Facebook event, and book your free ticket here (Space is limited so make sure you book a place).
First Timers FCC Q&A – Friday 17th September 16:45-17:30
Your chance to quiz the Federal Conference Committee on all things conference or about how the party works in general.
Members Rally – Friday 17th March 2016 18:30-19:30
Technically a fringe event the members rally is a set of speeches by a variety of speakers that is a way of energising everyone who has come to conference. I promise it is a lot more fun than I’m making it sound!
First Timers Reception – Friday 17th March 2016 After Rally
If you are a first time attendee you should have already received an invite to this event, and is sadly only for first timers. Whilst billed as a session to orientate new comers to conference and to answer any questions you might have this was probably my highlight of York’s Spring conference this year. As well as answering your questions and meeting other people who are at their first conference too it’s a great chance to hear the likes of Sal Brinton (and Andrew Wiseman) up close and to get a free drink or 2. To my surprise this wasn’t a whistle stop drop in my Tim fresh from his Rally speech he hung around for a long time chatting to people and posing for numerous selfies and if that is what you are after (and let’s face it who doesn’t want a selfie with the leader?) this is your best bet.
Tim Hallam, James Harvey, Tim Farron, Chris Cooke, Ross Shipman
Conference itself – Saturday 18th – Sunday 19th March
There is lots on offer and too much to list highlights as that will depend on what you want to get out of the 1 1/2 days. I would recommend that to get the most out of your time try and attend at least 1 of each type event from social events, fringe events, training, consultations, speeches, and policy debates.
Some of these tips are my own and others from members of Newbie HQ and as such are offered with no guarantee!
  • If at a loose end head to the conference bar. There will always be lots of people milling around to chat to. Don’t be afraid to talk to other members that you don’t know – Lib Dems may have strange taste in foot wear but the never bite!
  • Find out who from your local party or region is also going and make arrangements to meet up early in the weekend that way you know you’ll have a touch point early on and can arrange further meet ups then.
  • Plan but plan in pencil, things will change as you talk to people and do things.
  • Read the motion papers and get hold of conference daily. I know it seems a bit dull at first, but if you want to follow any of the policy debates you really need to have read the motion and the amendments. Some of this can sound complicated, and it is, but after a couple of sessions it will start to make sense.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak on a motion. The phrase “This is my first conference” or “this is my first time speaking at conference” in your opening statement will be bound to get you a cheer and boost your confidence.
  • Make sure you eat, drink and sleep! With everything going on and sessions running from early morning to past midnight it can seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day! Make sure you allow time to get some food, many fringe events offer food and some offer drinks (be it coffee or wine) and these can be vital pit stops as well and interesting sessions.
  • Be prepared for a lot of selfies, if you come across any of Newbie HQ we will be sure to grab a selfie with you!
My final piece of advice is relax and enjoy it. Yes conference is serious and critical to the functioning of our party, but it can also be a hell of a lot of fun!
If you have any tips of your own please add them in the comments section.
See you all in York this weekend!

York Spring Conference 2017 #LibDemPint

EVERYONE WELCOME (newbies & oldies)

If you are heading to Conference in York on Friday, 17th March 2017 the Newbies will be hosting our welcome to conference.

Please get your free ticket for our Lib Dem Newbie UK #LibDemPint here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/york-conference-libdempint-event-tickets-31025069819

Location: Revolution York, Coney Street YO1 9NA York

Doors open at 7 with events starting after the Rally has finished at the main conference venue.

This event has been organised by a group of volunteers from the Lib Dem Newbies UK Facebook group and promises to be a great start to the weekend!

Facebook Event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1290273754354294/

Liberal Democrats Winning Here Sign

By-Election Report 09/03/2017

Yesterday there were seven principle council by-elections and with Liberal Democrat candidates in all seven, including two with no recent past Liberal Democrat candidates, there were plenty of reasons to be hopeful.