Election Resources on the Internet:
Elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales
by Manuel Álvarez-Rivera
   

Scotland and Wales held elections for their devolved legislative bodies on Thursday, May 5, 2011. An overview of the Additional Member System (AMS) used to choose members of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales is presented here.

BBC News - Scotland Decides has detailed results of the September 18, 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Countrywide and regional results are available here for the following elections:

      May 5, 2011       Scotland       Wales      
      May 3, 2007       Scotland       Wales      
      May 1st, 2003       Scotland       Wales      
      May 6, 1999       Scotland       Wales      

The election statistics presented in this space come from results published by the Electoral Commission, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Parliamentary Elections in the United Kingdom: Elections to the House of Commons has U.K. election results for Scotland and Wales, as well as an overview of the British party system.


Historical Background

The devolution of legislative and executive powers to elected assemblies in Scotland and Wales - which have been part of the United Kingdom since 1707 and 1536, respectively - had been proposed as early as the 19th century, when Prime Minister William E. Gladstone of the Liberal Party unsuccessfully sought to enact similar legislation for Ireland, which was advocated by that country's Home Rule or Nationalist Party (at the time, the whole of Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom). Although the U.K. Parliament gave serious consideration to a Scottish Home Rule bill in 1913, nothing came out of it, and devolution for Scotland and Wales didn't become a salient issue in British politics until 1966-67, following upset victories in Westminster by-elections by nationalist parties in the two countries - the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru (PC; Party of Wales), both of which had contested elections with little success until then. As a result, in 1969 the Labour Party government appointed a Royal Commission on the Constitution; the Commission reported in 1973, endorsing devolution for Scotland and (in a more limited fashion) for Wales.

In the 1970 general election, PC lost its single seat in the House of Commons, while the SNP prevailed in only one of the 71 Scottish constituencies in place at the time. However, in two successive general elections held in February and October 1974, the SNP emerged as a major political force in Scotland, increasing its representation to seven seats in the February election, and then to eleven in October, when the SNP became the second largest party in Scotland in terms of votes cast. PC scored notable gains as well, winning two of thirty-six seats Welsh seats in the February poll, and securing a third seat in the October vote.

The Labour Party government that returned to power in February 1974 was alarmed at the rise of nationalism in Scotland and (to a lesser extent) Wales - both of them Labour strongholds - and sought to stem the tide by introducing legislation to establish elected assemblies with devolved powers in both countries. After Parliament failed to pass an initial Scotland and Wales Bill, the government then introduced separate bills for Scotland and Wales. These secured parliamentary approval, albeit with controversial amendments introduced against the wishes of the government, which provided for repeal of the acts by Parliament if less than 40% of the electorate in each country voted for them in referendums held in March 1979.

Although Welsh voters overwhelmingly rejected the Wales Act 1978 - by 956,330 (79.7%) to 243,048 (20.3%) - a narrow majority of Scottish voters endorsed the Scotland Act 1978, by 1,230,937 (51.6%) to 1,153,502 (48.4%). However, only 32.9% of the Scottish electorate favored the provisions of the Act, falling short of the 40% threshold. As a result, the Labour government - which by then no longer commanded an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons - chose not to proceed with devolution; consequently, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists withdrew their support to the government, which was narrowly defeated in a parliamentary vote of confidence, and voted out of office in the ensuing general election. Under the newly elected Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Parliament repealed both acts.

The Conservative Party administrations that ruled the U.K. from 1979 to 1997 under Thatcher and her successor, John Major, remained staunchly opposed to devolution for Scotland and Wales (but not for Northern Ireland). The SNP and PC lost considerable ground in the 1979 and 1983 general elections, winning only two seats each on both occasions; only in the 1987 general election did both parties manage to make a modest comeback, when each gained an additional seat. Although the Conservatives were returned to power that year with a large (if slightly reduced) parliamentary majority, the party fared badly in both Scotland and Wales, where it fell further behind Labour, losing six of its fourteen Welsh seats and eleven of its twenty-one Scottish seats.

The growing unpopularity of the Conservative Party in Scotland and Wales, which was increasingly perceived as having no mandate to rule in either country, led in turn to renewed interest in devolution. In 1989 the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) held its first meeting, which was attended by Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs and MEPs, in addition to representatives of local authorities, unions and churches, as well as other groups. Meanwhile, the case for a devolved Scottish legislature was reinforced by the outcome of the 1992 general election: for a fourth consecutive time, the Conservative Party prevailed on the basis of a victory in England (albeit with a drastically reduced parliamentary majority); the Conservatives managed to score modest gains in Scotland, but the party remained a distinct minority there as well as in Wales, where it continued to lose ground. The SNP made significant gains in terms of votes but secured only three seats, while in Wales PC increased its Westminster representation to four MPs. In any event, the SCC continued to meet, and in 1995 it issued its final report, Scotland's Parliament, Scotland's Right, which contained proposals for implementing devolution.

After eighteen years in opposition, the Labour Party won a landslide victory in the 1997 general election; the Conservatives were wiped out in Scotland and Wales, losing all of their Westminster seats in both countries, while the SNP gained three seats, for a total of six, and PC retained its four seats. The new Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had campaigned in favor of devolution for Scotland (on the basis of the SCC report) and Wales, promptly moved to hold referendums in both countries the following September. The Liberal Democrats also supported the government's devolution proposals, and the SNP and PC endorsed the devolved assemblies as well, viewing them as a step forward in their quest for independence for their respective countries. However, the Conservatives continued to oppose devolution for Scotland and Wales, on the grounds that it would lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom; they also argued a Scottish Parliament would result in higher tax rates.

However, voters in Scotland overwhelmingly endorsed the creation of a Scottish Parliament by 1,775,045 (74.3%) to 614,400 (25.7%), as well as tax-varying powers for the body, which were decisively approved by 1,512,889 (63.5%) to 870,263 (36.5%); but in Wales, which voted a week after Scotland, the outcome was extremely close, with 559,419 votes (50.3%) in favor of a Welsh Assembly and 552,698 (49.7%) against, while voter turnout - which stood at 50.1% - was considerably lower than in the Scottish referendum, which had a 60.4% turnout rate. Nonetheless, the government had secured a mandate in favor of its proposals, and proceeded to introduce devolution bills for Scotland and Wales, which were passed by Parliament and enacted as the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 1998.

The Scotland Act 1998 established a parliamentary system of government in that country, with a Scottish Executive headed by a first minister; the government, drawn from members of the Scottish Parliament, would be formed by the majority party or parties. The Act also listed matters reserved to Westminster (which include the country's uncodified Constitution, foreign policy, defense, macroeconomic monetary and fiscal affairs, and the currency), rather than those devolved to the Scottish Parliament, which has extensive primary law-making powers over areas such as health, education, local government, housing, economic development, regional transport, the environment, agriculture, sport and the arts, among others. The Scottish Parliament also has the power to vary the basic income tax rate by three percent within Scotland.

However, the Act reaffirmed the principle of Westminster parliamentary supremacy, and the United Kingdom Parliament retained its power to make laws for Scotland, even in relation to devolved matters. Nonetheless, a convention was established whereby Westminster will usually not legislate on devolved matters in Scotland without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. Under this convention - named the Sewel Convention after Lord John Sewel, a Labour life baron - consent is also sought for legislation on reserved matters if it would alter the powers of the Scottish Parliament or the Scottish Ministers.

Meanwhile, the Government of Wales Act 1998 established a more limited form of devolution for the principality, under which the National Assembly for Wales only had power to make secondary legislation in those areas where executive functions had been transferred to it. The Act did not provide for a separate Welsh executive; instead, the Assembly chose a first secretary and established committees, whose secretaries (i.e. leaders) formed, together with the first secretary, an Executive Committee.

Although the Assembly was given control over the Welsh budget, and assumed responsibility over areas such as agriculture, culture, economic development, education, the environment, health, housing, local government, sport, student loans, social services, transport and the Welsh language, the limited scope of Welsh devolution eventually proved to be unsatisfactory. In 2005, the U.K. Labour government announced it planned to give more powers to the Assembly, and subsequently introduced a new devolution bill for Wales, which was enacted as the Government of Wales Act 2006. The new Act, which repeals most of the Government of Wales Act 1998, retains the National Assembly for Wales but establishes a separate Welsh executive - the Welsh Assembly Government - chosen along the lines of its Scottish counterpart, and gives the Assembly to the power to make law in devolved areas; the Assembly will be given legislative competence - the legal authority to pass measures - on a case-by-case basis by the U.K. Parliament. The Act also provides for primary law-making powers, which were approved by Welsh voters in a March 2011 referendum by 517,132 (63.5%) to 297,380 (36.5%) on a 35.2% turnout rate.

One notable feature of both the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 1998 was the introduction of a proportional representation electoral system: the Additional Member System (AMS), proposed by the SCC for the Scottish Parliament and adopted for elections to that body as well as for the National Assembly for Wales, is reviewed below.

General Aspects of the Electoral Systems

The Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales are both unicameral bodies, composed of 129 and 60 members, respectively, which are directly elected by universal adult suffrage for a four-year term of office.

The composition of both legislative bodies is determined by the Additional Member System (AMS) system, which combines elements of the single-member constituency plurality system with proportional representation (PR). Under this system, both countries are divided into a number of single-member constituencies. There are 73 constituencies in Scotland and 40 in Wales. Constituency seats are filled by the plurality or first-past-the-post method used in elections to the U.K. House of Commons, under which the candidate obtaining the largest number of votes in each constituency is elected.

The single-member constituencies used for elections to the Scottish Parliament since 1999 were originally identical to those established for House of Commons elections in Scotland, with the exception of the Orkney and Shetland Islands, which formed a single constituency for Westminster elections, but two separate constituencies for Scottish Parliament elections. However, when the number of Scottish Westminster constituencies was subsequently reduced from 72 to 59, it was decided that the size - and number of constituencies - of the Scottish Parliament would remain unchanged. Meanwhile, the forty Welsh Westminster constituencies have been used for elections to the National Assembly for Wales since 1999 (although the 2007 election will be contested under redrawn constituency boundaries).

In both Scotland and Wales, single-member constituencies are grouped into electoral regions, where political parties set up lists of individuals. In Scotland (but no longer in Wales, following passage of the Government of Wales Act 2006), these lists may include candidates running for single-member constituency seats. The electoral regions correspond to the single-member constituencies used to elect U.K. members of the European Parliament from both countries until 1999, when Great Britain switched to PR for supra-national elections. There are eight electoral regions in Scotland (each one of which returns seven members, for a total of 56 seats), and five in Wales (each one returning four members, for a total of twenty seats). Each voter in Scotland and Wales casts two votes, one for a constituency candidate and another for a regional party list. Party lists are closed, so voters may not choose individual candidates in or alter the order of such lists. The regional vote is the most important of the two votes, since it is the one that determines the composition of both the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.

There is no threshold to participate in the proportional allocation of seats on either body, but the electoral system establishes an effective regional barrier of approximately six percent in Scotland, and eight percent in Wales. In both countries, all seats in each region (constituency and regional) are allocated according to a variation of the d'Hondt or largest average method of PR, in which the number of votes obtained by each party list is divided by the number of constituency seats won by the party, plus 1, 2, 3 and so on; under this procedure, parties keep all the constituency seats they have won in a given region, irrespective of their proportion of the regional vote. Constituency seats won within the region by a party are then subtracted from the total number of seats allocated to that party's list, and the remaining seats are filled by the candidates on the party list in the order determined before the election.

It should be noted that AMS is closely related to the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system used for parliamentary elections in Germany and New Zealand; in fact, AMS and MMP are often used interchangeably to refer to electoral systems such as these. The main difference between AMS in Scotland and Wales and MMP in Germany and New Zealand is that under the latter, legislative mandates are apportioned on a nationwide basis, which results in a more proportional distribution of seats.

The Political Parties

The United Kingdom's three major parties - Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats - all play prominent political roles in Scotland as well as in Wales. Nevertheless, the Scottish and Welsh party systems are characterized by the presence of strong nationalist parties - the SNP and PC, respectively - that advocate independence for these countries. Moreover, for many years Labour has been by far the dominant party in Scotland and Wales; although the party has polled an absolute majority of votes in Wales only once (and never in Scotland), it has usually secured a large majority of House of Commons seats in each country. In fact, one of the arguments in favor of proportional representation for the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales - instead of the first-past-the-post system used in Westminster elections - was that the latter would have led to near-permanent Labour majorities in both bodies.

The results of the first elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, held in May 1999, appeared to confirm this perception. Although Labour only won a plurality of votes in both countries, it captured an overwhelming majority of single-member constituencies in both instances, largely at the expense of the Conservatives, which obtained a significant number of votes but won no constituency seats in Scotland (and just one in Wales), and to a lesser degree the SNP, which polled strongly but won comparatively few constituency seats. As in previous Westminster elections, the Liberal Democrats' share of constituency seats in Scotland was roughly proportional to their electoral strength; this was also the case in Wales for PC, which scored its best election result ever.

However, the allocation of regional mandates under AMS insured a more proportional distribution of seats among political parties (particularly in Scotland), and Labour fell short of an absolute majority in both bodies. In addition, two minor parties - the environmentalist Scottish Green Party (which fielded no constituency candidates, running only in the regional ballot) and the militantly left-nationalist Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) - secured a single seat each in the Scottish Parliament, as did a rebel Labour MP running as an independent. Ironically, the major beneficiaries of PR were the Conservatives, who have accepted devolution as the will of the voters, but remained staunchly against AMS.

Voter turnout in both elections was slightly lower than in the 1997 referendums, and considerably below turnout rates in previous Westminster parliamentary contests.

Following the elections, Labour and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government in Scotland under the leadership of Labour's Donald Dewar, while in Wales the Labour Party formed a minority administration under Alun Michael. However, Dewar - who was widely regarded as the father of devolution - passed away in 2000, and his successor, Henry McLeish, was forced to resign after barely a year in office, in the wake of a controversy surrounding use of his Westminster constituency office - the so-called "Officegate" scandal; Jack McConnell succeeded McLeish as first minister. In Wales, Alun Michael resigned ahead of a no-confidence motion after only eight months in office; his successor, Rhodri Morgan, formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

In the May 2003 elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, which were characterized by a further drop in voter turnout, Labour remained the largest single party in both countries; the party won exactly half the Assembly seats in Wales, but suffered a setback in Scotland. The SNP and particularly PC both lost ground in the elections, but support for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats remained stable in both countries, the former scoring modest gains in Wales as well as in Scotland, where they captured three constituency seats. Nonetheless, the Conservatives remained the prime beneficiaries of proportional representation.

In Scotland, minor parties (especially the Scottish Greens and the SSP) scored substantial gains in the election, as did independent candidates; with seven parties represented in the Scottish Parliament, the country appeared to be developing a Scandinavian-style multi-party system. Nevertheless, the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition government of First Minister Jack McConnell remained in power with a reduced parliamentary majority. Meanwhile, Labour formed a single-party administration in Wales, which continued to be led by Rhodri Morgan.

The Labour Party suffered a major setback in the May 2007 elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. In Scotland, the SNP emerged as the largest party, narrowly ahead of Labour but well short of an overall majority. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats lost only one seat each, but the smaller parties fared badly: the Greens were reduced to only two seats, while the SSP was wiped out and the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party lost its single parliamentarian. The election - which was characterized by an unusually large number of invalid ballots - left the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition two seats short of an absolute majority, and SNP leader Alex Salmond subsequently formed a minority government supported by the Scottish Greens.

AMS played a decisive role in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election. Despite polling fewer votes than the SNP, Labour won an absolute majority of constituency seats - 37 of 73 - while the SNP prevailed in only twenty-one constituencies. However, the top-up regional seats compensated for the disparities introduced by the first-past-the-post system, and the overall distribution of parliamentary mandates was fairly proportional, with the SNP securing a one-seat lead over Labour.

In Wales, Labour remained the largest party, but fell short of an overall legislative majority. Both Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives scored gains in the election, while the Liberal Democrat vote remained stable. Labour formed a minority administration after the Liberal Democrats rejected plans for a "rainbow coalition" with PC and the Conservatives, but in June 2007 the ruling party reached a historic "One Wales" agreement with Plaid Cymru, and the two parties formed a coalition government with Rhodri Morgan as first minister and PC leader Ieuan Wyn Jones as his deputy.

After nearly a decade in office, Rhodri Morgan stepped down as head of the Welsh government in November 2009. Counsel General Carwyn Jones succeeded Morgan as both Welsh Labour leader and first minister.

In the May 2011 elections, SNP won an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, while Labour won exactly half the seats in the National Assembly for Wales. Both Alex Salmond and Carwyn Jones remained in office, the latter heading a Labour minority government. Meanwhile, after having won a clear mandate in Scotland, First Minister Salmond sought to hold an independence referendum, as promised by the ruling SNP's 2011 election manifesto (party platform). Following negotiations with the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron, in 2012 the U.K. and Scottish governments reached the Edinburgh Agreement, which granted the Scottish Parliament the power to hold the referendum. The Scottish Parliament subsequently passed the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013, which provided for a referendum to be held on Thursday, September 18, 2014, in which Scottish voters were asked if Scotland should be an independent country. However, in the referendum - which had a record 84.6% voter turnout rate - independence was defeated by 2,001,926 votes (55.3%) against to 1,617,989 (44.7%) in favor. Following the vote, Alex Salmond announced he would step down as both Scottish head of government and leader of the SNP.

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Last update: September 20, 2014.