In the wake of the seven way leaders debate a couple of weeks ago, many a left-winger took to social media to ask “Can I vote for the SNP if I live in England?” The answer is, of course, no and more pertinently, will never be yes. The SNP are specifically a party relevant to Scotland; this is the reason for their success, impending and historic, and is coincidentally key to their ability to breakthrough and become a major player in the Westminster system, which they look poised to do after this general election.
The reason for this is the nature of the voting system. First Past the Post is designed to keep a two party system going. The problem is that when those allegiances start to really wither, the opposite effect can kick in: ultra-fragmentation. However, that fragmentation can only take hold if parties go regional.
The big problem that UKIP have is they are spread too thin; same with the Greens. Trying to be a small party that wants to win seats in large portions of the whole country will face a massive wall blocking their way eventually under First Past the Post. But let’s say a party sets itself up in the northwest of England and only campaigns on issues relevant to that part of the country (there is a such a beast which calls itslef the Northern Party, right now). It could break through in a way comparable to way the SNP have managed because the key component is exactly the same: people tired of having no choice but Labour are offered a party that is entirely dedicated to getting as much stuff as possible for the northwest.
This might sound far fetched, but look at what the SNP have done over the last decade and a half. They were helped greatly by a PR voting system at local level plus a devolved parliament, but both of those things, or something equivalent, could happen relatively soon for parts of England anyhow.
The problem with taking this narrow approach is that while it can net your nascent regional party seats if you play the game correctly, the chances for you to branch out from your heartland are pretty much zero – for the exact same reason that allowed you to get seats in the first place, namely that you are a regional party. As a result, over the next couple of decades, we could see this huge fracturing of the UK party political scene take place that will make what is happening before us now seem like the canapés before a large steak dinner.
I suppose then the next question then is this: does the scenario I’ve laid out appeal to or repulse you? It would make national politics increasingly irrelevant, but perhaps a de facto federal system could work. Of course, the other question that would then arise is why we don’t just have a fully federalised system, everything devolved to a sub-Westminster level, but perhaps this isn’t a bad question to ask either. A worry is that politics could become extremely localised and more about every region just trying to get their slice of the pie to be bigger than about any larger philosophical ideas. But again, as ever, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Whether the idea of all of this scares you or thrills you (or you couldn’t give a toss either way), truth is it could be coming all of our way. The SNP surge could be the future.