By Alasdair Galloway of the Scottish Writers Independence Group [SWIG]. SWIG has two members and the other one is SNP.
Numerous critics have been critical of the establishment of alternative Yes parties seeking election via the Regional List system, including by Brenda Steele on “Talking Up Scotland”. I don’t have any problem with the view put forward by such as Peter Bell and Craig Murray that the SNP remains the “essential vehicle to take us to independence”, as the latter put it most recently, but at the same time there is a difficulty with the SNP vote and what happens to on the List, which cannot just be written off.
My difficulty is that the working of the Holyrood voting system puts the SNP, at their current voting support, at something of a disadvantage. Specifically, when List seats are being allocated, the List vote is divided by 1+number of constituency seats already won by any party. As the SNP are very likely to win a majority (or almost all) the constituency seats(as they did in 2016 and given current polls, except perhaps in South Scotland), it makes it very difficult for them to win List seats.
The Glasgow Region List seat allocation is one instance, as if the SNP repeat their 2016 performance and win all nine constituency seats, their List vote would be divided by 10, right from round 1. In that election SNP List votes elected precisely no one.
Between them Glasgow, Central Scotland, North East Scotland, Mid Scotland & Fife, and West Scotland have 47 of Holyrood’s 73 constituency seats (64%) of which the SNP won all but 4, but not a single list seat. Even in Lothian, where they won “only” 6 of 9 constituencies, they won no List seats. In fact the only List seats won by the SNP were in Highlands & Islands where despite winning 6 of 8 constituencies they won a single List seat, and in South Scotland where, having taken 4 of the 9 constituencies, they won 3 more List seats.
That data alone confirms there is a problem for the SNP with the List, having won so many constituencies. However, the system is behaving as planned, for when devised the intention was to stop Labour – who at the time would have won the great majority of constituencies – from dominating Holyrood ad infinitum. Thus, the list was a device intended to prevent a permanent Labour domination, though for Labour read SNP now. It might be argued that to create a new independence party to stand only list candidates to avoid the difficulties faced by the SNP is “gaming the system” (not hard to find Unionists arguing this) but the fact is that the origins of the system were to “game” the system to avoid a consequence unintended by its authors.
If you remain unconvinced there is a problem, consider how many SNP list votes are in effect wasted. In Glasgow, Central Scotland, North East Scotland, Mid Scotland & Fife, West Scotland and Lothian the SNP List vote amounted to 752,230 votes which elected precisely no one at all.
A frequent argument against alternative parties is that the votes they take away from the SNP cause them to lose List seats. If you vote SNP in your constituency you should do so on the List as well. There are two things wrong with that argument.
One is that it is downright unreasonable to expect those who chose to vote for alternative parties – in which regard the Greens are a good example – to make a claim on the List vote because that is how they voted in their constituency. Some might disagree with their parties policies, but how many Green voters vote SNP in their constituency because there is no Green candidate, but Green on the List? More importantly, if that is their opinions why should they not?
The second problem is that the SNP just haven’t had the votes to avoid this. Taking Glasgow as our example, by the time we get to the 7th (and final) List seat being allocated, this went to the Conservatives with an deHondt adjusted vote of 14,766.5 (their list vote was 29533, but having won one List seat already, this is divided by two – normal 1 + 1 seat). The irony of this is that the SNP list vote was 111,101 or more than three and a half times as much. But, as above, the SNP’s problem is that they won all nine constituencies so at the start of allocating the List seats their vote is divided by 10. There would have to be 10 List seats in the Glasgow Region for the SNP to win a List seat.
What, though, if every SNP constituency voter voted for them in the List, following #BothVotesSNP? If this had happened, then the SNP List vote would have been 128,443, which divided by 10 is still short by 1922 of the number of votes with which the Conservatives won the final list seat.
Now, to be clear, the criterion I am using is not a high bar – it is the LAST List seat. Think of all the Unionist politicians elected via the List. Labour’s 24 members include 21 on the List – including Richard Leonard. The Conservative total of 31 includes 24 List members, though in fairness Jackson Carlaw did get elected in Eastwood. Yet the combined Conservative and Labour List vote nationally (1,016,105) is less than the national SNP List vote (1,059,898), yet they won 45 seats via this route while the SNP won only 4 (four).
The purpose of the voting system we have is laudable – to prevent one party with 40-50% of the vote dominating with less than a majority of votes (as Labour used to do), winning all (or almost all) the first past the post constituency seats. List seats were intended to put some balance in, by reflecting the proportions of votes cast.
The problem, in my opinion is that the independence debate is structured around one major party proselytising independence, facing three unionist parties. In the constituencies this works to the advantage of the SNP (as the Unionist vote is split), but on the list we need more diversity on independence candidates, since, since as the SNP win almost all the constituency seats, they will have problems picking up List seats.
What to do? There are many who argue that we should continue to give both votes to the SNP, but as Einstein is reputed to have said one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result.
Perhaps the SNP could gain enough votes to make inroads on the List? Certainly the polls suggest that their vote may be up around 54%, which, if realised (and we are 10 months out) is 16% more than last time. Applying that increase to the actual SNP List vote would increase it to 128,877, adjusted to 12887.7 (divided by 10=9 constituency seats + 1), which is still short of the Conservative total for the last List seat. Adjusting their total constituency vote in the same way would give an adjusted List total of 14899, which would be enough to win the last List seat. But only just! Moreover, it makes the assumption that all SNP voters will vote SNP in their constituency AND on the List. Last time they lost 15% of their constituency votes to other parties – that’s 3 in every 20 constituency voters. This might be reduced, but is unlikely to be eradicated!
So, if increasing the SNP vote is, at best, not without its difficulties, what else might we try? A variety of parties have come forward including the Greens (with some success), RISE (with no success) and some more recent initiatives including former SNP MSP Dave Thomson’s initiative, “Alliance for Yes”. Such as Peter Bell, James Kelly and most recently former MP George Kerevan have come out against this, and there is a potent argument for their view, since it is certainly true that if there are a plethora of alternative independence parties on the List – say SNP with up to three or four others – this kind of initiative could be catastrophic, as the independence vote gets behind not one party (the SNP who have little chance of winning List seats), but five.
What this points to is the need for the independence vote to get behind a single alternative to the SNP, which will make a range of demands, organization and political modesty on the part of the parties involved who have to keep their eyes on the prize (independence). Not much to ask, since if we really do will the ends (independence) should we not will the means as well?
If this is the case – let’s say via “Alliance for Yes”, with a range of candidates drawn from several parties, and perhaps none – and, say 25% (as a number to work this through) of the SNP List vote voting for them, then we could expect that to win one List seat in Glasgow. At, a no doubt kind of optimistic, 50% then two seats could be expected – one each from Labour and Conservative.
A modest return? Yes. However, we are dealing only with seven seats, but to the degree this outcome is repeated nationally it provides yet another shift in the balance of influence at Holyrood in favour of independence. Moreover the closer to 100% this party gets, the better the outcome from the perspective of independence as the independence majority will be all the greater.
There are, I would suggest, a number of conclusions to be drawn from this
- There IS a problem when vast numbers of SNP List votes are effectively throwing themselves on the barbed wire of the current electoral system. That, it seems to me, cannot be disputed.
- The question is what to do about it? Do we carry on as before and hope for better? Certainly if the SNP were to make even more significant gains than the polls currently suggest, the problem might well disappear, but I rather think an election would be the least of it for the Union itself as well as its supporters. However, should this increase in vote not be forthcoming, then the independence cause is likely to be condemned to an outcome in May next year of an outcome which does not fully reflect the domination of the independence cause, and in particular its support outwith the dominant political grouping, the SNP.