Long Read: are SNP list-voters ‘throwing themselves on the barbed wire’ of the electoral system?

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

26 thoughts on “Long Read: are SNP list-voters ‘throwing themselves on the barbed wire’ of the electoral system?

  1. The argument is fine but depends on voters placing their cross accurately.
    I think enough errors could be made to cause the main yes parties SNP and green to lose seats and list parties not to get enough. In parliament all we need is a simple majority. If we are greedy like the dog on the bridge who sees his bone reflected larger in the water we may lose what we have already.


  2. Why does this article not mention the ISP @IndyScotParty? That’s weird. They are the most popular pro indy list only party on twitter. As far as I am aware. The other new entrants may well be spanner parties which are a response to ISP.



    FOR COMING IN third an fouth



  4. Many folk I know , of all airts and pairts and levels of education , think Nicola Sturgeon is the bee’s knees. So do I. Not everyone studies form the way people on here do. Many will vote “for Nicola”. Other independence -seeking parties could cause confusion, and favourable votes could be lost if new party titles appear on any ballot paper.
    For me, the logical move would be to stick with my (SNP) party, and , having won independence, begin to work on any desired party, personnel or policy changes.
    I have huge admiration for Ms Sturgeon, for Alex Salmond – my very 1st FB profile photo shows us sharing a hug – for the current very able Holyrood Cabinet AND for our Westminster MPs, who hold the bridge against the barrage of sneering contempt from the contemptible Tories. Ian Blackford, Philippa Whiteford, Joanna Cherry et al have more intelligence in their pinkies than that useless shower.
    I am always interested in other independence-supporters ‘ views, and I was once very impressed by Jim Sillars’ passion and Robin McAlpine’s oratory. However, I think this is not the time to split the party to which I have been devoted for 50 years., and for whom I have won many supporters among friends and family.


    1. actually I agree. I dont want to split the SNP either – see my opening paragraph – but we do need to recognise there is a problem with the voting system and to take the cause forward (eg Sillars’ independent Scottish Parliament) something needs done.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You have based your calculations on just SNP votes transferring to alternative list parties but I believe that there was a poll conducted (Wings perhaps?) which showed that there were Labour/LibDem and even Tory voters who would vote for an Independence party but drew the line voting for SNP even on the list.

    Bringing these into the mix could bring a win/win result. More votes for the Indy list party and fewer for Unionist parties!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. fair point, but I have to say, I have my doubts about this. I suspect Labour is almost down to a core of unionists (who would put their “Socialism” before independence, even if they knew it would take socialism forward in Scotland at least). What happened with Labour for Yes is illustrative. We also know about Conservatives for Yes. In any case, if they wanted to vote SNP on the list, nothing to stop them before, so why now?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This idea _could_ be very successful BUT would need careful organisation and co-ordination, not to mention lots of clear publicity explaining it all.
    Ideally the SNP would simply not stand on any of the lists, and ONE clearly named and identified alternative Indy party would need to stand on EACH list … I think? Would there be any advantage in second pro-Indy parties standing on the same list, or would this simply split the vote?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Once, “interested parties” would have met, surreptitiously, to divvy up continents, countries, elections etc.
    The Brit Nats have done/do this. We should do the same.
    It’s a great shame that the media profile on this, is let by such as Sheridan and Sillars, neither of whom is without problems for a UNITED push for independence.
    I would hope some kind of reconciliation could be reached between Salmond and Sturgeon, that would be an ideal solution.
    Even if Salmond did not stand, I would trust his judgement to choose responsible candidates, an important consideration. The last thing we need is for independence to be dependent on ego-driven buffoons,, who would be front page fodder for the Brit Nat media.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Do we get anywhere if we don’t win over 50% of the vote.
    In fact a reasonable margin over 50% say 55%. If the SNP go into the 2021 election on an Independence ticket with the intention of (hoping) to force Johnsons hand into granting a Sect. 30 order, declaring UDI whatever, the party would need a not just a majority of MSP’s they would need a majority of the vote. This would result in a majority of SNP MSP’s
    So I don’t see a good reason for a seperate pro Independence list party.
    We need to focus on winning big. . . . Thats it!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Both votes to SNP unless your constituency is one of those where the SNP are guaranteed a win in which case your second vote to THE list party

    There should only be ONE LIST PARTY

    Those who want to be a list party have to amalgamate


  10. ” …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.”
    No “pro-independence” party has won over 1.5% of the list vote in the last 3 elections. Such a party would require to win about 6% even to win a single list seat.
    As the opinion polls currently stand, the SNP would win a comfortable overall majority in May 2020.
    Imagine the powerful psychological effect of the SNP taking over 50% on both constituency and list votes. If its list vote dropped dramatically, the unionists would spin it as division in the Yes ranks and would start hammering that wedge in.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m with Einstein. How can the SNP achieve a worse result that zero list seats in those regions where it totally dominates the constituency vote ? How many list votes would it require to win a single list seat in those regions where it won none last time ? The answer seems to be a number higher than the total number of votes cast for SNP constituency MSPs – is that going to happen ? No . Do the arithmetic and vote accordingly, don’t listen to comments from any commentator who does not include a set of numbers to back up their view.


  12. A good summary of the way the electoral system can be tactically used to the advantage of Indy, and let’s face it, few would weep at losing a few spanners in the works such as Turdo from Holyrood.
    To work it would require a degree of coordination and a single party to stand in selected List seats, it looks like a confused bun-fight at the moment.


  13. There is NO loss of Votes to the SNP.

    –You are not getting the Point here
    EVERYONE is Voting for SNP NO 1

    For the Regional Vote a NEW Independent Party just for Ladies would be for the Ladies List Votes.

    Another NEW Independent Party just for Men would be for the Men List Votes.

    That way the List votes would compete with the Unionist Parties on even terms.

    and with those numbers we could wipe out ALL the other Parties and have a completly Independent Scot Gov.

    It is so simple, Job Done! We have the whole of the INDY Movement Voting together to get

    Independence Votes counting for a Scottish Government and Freedom.

    Look at previous Voting and work it out for yourselves and you will see it is right.


  14. Playing the D’Hondista may look very smart, on paper, but realities just make it plain daft. How do you tell, inform, request between 4-10% of your members, supporters, voters to vote ‘tactically’ for an unknown, untested candidate for the Independence movement? Email certain %’s depending on local circumstances? Put up and post leaflets asking if you are willing to vote for others on your Regional, collate the returns then ask some to vote this way or that? Fantasy politics, almost as ridiculous as long articles showing how wonderful it could be. As for ‘throwing themselves on the barbed wire’, kind of says it all when whistling, dog or officer, is headlined. Not to mention the ‘wasted vote’ slogan. Why don’t we just shoot ourselves in the foot, stop us going over the top and let the Empire survive by self-slaughter? Looks like Baldrick has a cunning plan.


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