The various nationalist parties experienced mixed fortunes in the UK elections on 5 May, and all are now operating in a different political climate. Dr Kenneth Bunker assesses what challenges lie ahead for the different parties.
The unpredictable victory of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in the 2015 Westminster general elections gave its party leaders a new found hope of increasing the control they have over the territory they claim as their own. Even though the SNP had just lost the 2014 independence referendum, party leaders were astutely able to transform the campaign momentum into a wave of electoral support. They did this so well that not only did they reverse the control that Labour leveraged over the majority of Scotland Westminster constituencies, but were significantly able to increase their presence in Parliament—they went from 6 to 56 seats, out of a total of 59 Scottish seats. It was no surprise then that this electoral phenomenon attracted attention from other major nationalist parties across the United Kingdom, who also aspired to increase their own control and representation.
This was the backdrop for nationalist parties in the “Super Thursday” elections held on May 5, 2016. The SNP aimed to capitalise on its 2015 electoral gains in the Scottish Parliament elections, Plaid Cymru sought to overtake Labour in the Welsh Assembly elections and take control of the Senedd, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) intended to increase its overall leverage in the UK in a series of other elections held across the nation. After votes were counted, however, the taste was bittersweet for these parties. The SNP lost its overall majority in the legislature, but increased its number of individual constituency victories; Plaid Cymru only marginally increased its share of seats in the Assembly, but it was enough to break Labour’s longstanding majority; and UKIP did not have quite as much the impact they were hoping for, even though they did make crucial advances in Wales and in London.
Since the next major legislative contest is not due to take place for at least four years, these results seem bitter. Put in perspective there seems to be little they can do to advance their agendas in the next few years. In other words, there is a generalised sensation that all of the cards have already been dealt. This does not imply, however, that parties should go idle. On the contrary, like in a good game of poker, parties have to make the most of what they have. And here comes the sweet part of the showing: Plaid Cymru, the SNP and UKIP have gained enough in the 2016 elections to move forwards. They can still repackage and advance their own particular agendas over the next four years without new legislative elections. Plaid Cymru can bid for a confidence and supply situation to gain control of the Senedd; and the SNP and the UKIP can use the Brexit result and campaign, respectively, to fortify their agendas.
Plaid Cymru has the opportunity to lead the Senedd for the first time. As I write this article, the election of the first minister is in a deadlock. Indeed, no clear majority arose from the Assembly election. The new distribution of seats, specifically one loss for Labour, one gain for Plaid, and 7 new seats for UKIP dramatically changed the configuration of the party system in favour of Plaid. If Labour cannot garner enough support to lead the Assembly, it is likely that Plaid Cymru will obtain the support of Conservatives and UKIP to do so. While Plaid leans left politically, right wing Conservatives and UKIP both have strategic reasons to prevent the ascension of Labour. If the negotiations are successful, it will be a major victory for Plaid, who will not only lead the Senedd for the first time, but will also be sitting in the pole position for the next Welsh elections.
The SNP is in a slightly more complicated place, considering their defeat in the independence referendum and their recent setback in the Scottish Parliament. Party leaders thus will be reluctant to lay any major groundwork to forward the nationalist agenda upon voters – some argue that the small surge in favour of Conservative candidates is precisely due to the fact that the SNP gave too much attention to nationalist issues, neglecting wider concerns of voters. In this light, the SNP will have to rule out any direct action. However, they can use the Brexit in an indirect manner. If the UK does vote to leave the EU, it will be an important incentive for the SNP to lead a second push for a referendum. If the SNP argues that they want to remain in Europe (as they hitherto have done), but the Brexit is imminent, then their best shot at rallying voters will likely be to revive the independence debate.
In comparison to Plaid Cymru and the SNP, the challenges that lay ahead for UKIP are clearer. In a nutshell, if the British people vote for a Brexit, UKIP wins a significant victory. This is why their recent electoral results are not as important to them as they are for other nationalist parties. Of course, they will seek to squeeze the results in the press, but only with aims to fuel their campaign for a Brexit. In contrast to other nationalist parties, a win in the referendum is the ultimate victory. That’s why the seven weeks that separates “Super Thursday” from the EU referendum is so important for UKIP. On the other hand, the implications of a losing will depend on the magnitude of the loss. If it is close, UKIP can use the results, in very much the same way the SNP has used their loss in the referendum. Only if the prospect of leaving the EU is buried under ballots in favour of staying, will UKIP take a stake to the heart.
The road ahead for nationalist parties in the UK is long and winding. Even if they do everything right, they will still face unpredictable obstacles from a deeply entrenched political system that has only just started to open up in recent years. As established above, most of the hurdles these parties must jump over are already in place. But failing to pass the first ones could signify a massive setback. If Plaid Cymru does not seize leadership now, it will be harder for them to do so in the future. Likewise, if people vote to remain in the EU, the SNP and UKIP lose the opportunity to use the results as a platform to launch their next election campaign, and will have to play on the par with traditional parties, where the asymmetry of power is significantly tilted against them.
This post represents the views of the author, who writes in a personal capacity, and not those of Democratic Dashboard or the LSE.
Dr Kenneth Bunker has a PhD in Political Science from London School of Economic. He is also Director of Tresquintos.com, an electoral forecasting website focused on Latin America.