Labour’s Scottish Message vs. Ramsay MacDonald

With Britain’s two main parties running neck and neck in a race in which neither is expected to get an outright majority of seats, each is trying to persuade minor party voters to “come home”. For example, to help stanch Labour’s Scottish losses to the Scottish National Party, Labour advocate Jim Murphy is arguing that a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Tories:

It is a simple fact that the single biggest party gets to form the next government.

I couldn’t square this claim with my recollection of UK political history (more on that in a moment), so I consulted Southampton University Professor Will Jennings, who blogs at the excellent site Politics Upside Down. I asked Will what David Cameron could do if the Tories didn’t get a majority, but eked a few more seats than Labour (say 290 vs. 286) because the SNP managed to grab a number of seats (say 40) that otherwise would have gone to Labour. If Labour and SNP wanted to form a majority coalition of 326 seats, could Cameron stay on anyway on the basis of his being the single biggest party?:

the incumbent government has the right to attempt to form a government. However, the government would still need to command a majority in a vote of no confidence, and that would depend on the arithmetic of the opposition parties. So if the Conservatives won with the seat permutation you suggest, it would quickly become apparent they would lose a vote of confidence, and would have to step aside for an alternative government.

Ramsey Macdonald

I was grateful to Will for confirming my suspicions, which funnily enough come straight from my recollection of the founding of the Labour Party by Scottish politicians, most notably Ramsay MacDonald. Having read up a bit over the weekend, I can now relate the intriguing story.

The MacDonald-led Labour party secured 191 seats in the 1923 election, well behind the Conservatives’ tally of 258. Under “Murphy’s Law”, this would have ensured a Tory government with Stanley Baldwin as PM. But H.H. Asquith of the third place Liberal Party threw his 158 seats behind Labour, which meant that Baldwin couldn’t possibly win a confidence vote in the Commons. Thus, despite coming in a distant second in seats, MacDonald became Labour’s first Prime Minister.

A vote for the SNP in Scotland is thus..a vote for the SNP in Scotland.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.