How far can political altruism take you, part 1.

In “The Age of Cult Politics” (in Standpoint), Nick Cohen writes

With Scotland already looking a little too close to a one-party state for comfort” (http://standpointmag.co.uk/screen-october-2015-nick-cohen-scottish-nationalism-jeremy-corbyn-eurosceptism?page=0%2C0%2C0%2C0%2C0%2C0%2C0%2C0%2C0%2C0%2C1). The opinion polls for the Holyrood election next year don’t point to a one-party state, but with the SNP’s constituency vote running at an average of 53.5% in the four polls in September, reported on the “What Scotland Thinks” website, as opposed to the 43.6% they were running at on average in the run up to the 2011 election (seven polls in April and May 2011, http://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/how-would-you-use-your-constituency-vote-in-a-scottish-parliamentelection#table), and the 44% they eventually achieved, it does seem likely that the SNP are likely not just to take the great majority of constituency seats next May, but to add to their number of constituency members. Having won 53 of 73 constituency seats in 2011 (http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/2011/05/09/snp_wins_majorit/), allied to the fact that in May they took 56 out of 59 constituencies, and that if they maintain their current vote forecast by the polls, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the SNP might well win 70 constituency seats. Their current proportion of Westminster seats is 95%, and 95% of 73 is 69.35. Purely for the purposes of comparison.

Indeed there are reports in the press that high profile SNP MSPs are not using the “insurance” of going on to the Regional List (“Justice Secretary takes back-me-or-sack-me option for 2016” http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/13786606.Justice_Secretary_takes_back_me_or_sack_me_option_for_2016/),. Those who have taken this step include Michael Matheson, Justice Secretary; Fergus Ewing, Energy Minister; Jamie Hepburn, Health Minister; as well as retired Ministers Mike Russell, Linda Fabiani and Bruce Crawford, and backbenchers James Dorman and Sandra White. If any of these fail to be elected by their constituents, they will leave Holyrood. As Tom Gordon notes in the Herald, this is a “mark of growing SNP confidence for May 2016“.

What follows is written on the basis that this confidence is not misplaced, and that the SNP do indeed clean up (or almost so) the constituency seats. In that event focus would shift to the Regional List seats.

The current distribution of seats at Holyood is 73 constituency members, and 56 members from Regional Lists drawn up and nominated by political parties. The purpose of the Regional List members is to make the Scottish election somewhat more proportionate than relying purely on the ‘first past the post’ system used at Westminster, where a government can secure 51% of the seats with only 36% of the vote, as the present Westminster government has done. It might also be argued that the purpose was to prevent any single party achieving a majority on its own. Indeed, in the first two Scottish Parliament elections the government was formed by a coalition of Labour and Liberal Democrats. In 2007, the SNP, as the largest party, formed a minority government, and in 2011 they achieved their own majority, something they look set not only to repeat next year, but perhaps on the basis of constituency seats alone. Holyrood has 129 members, so any party with at least 65 seats will have a majority. If the SNP achieve the 70 constituency seats, suggested above, then on the basis of those alone they would become again the majority governing party.

But what about the Regional Lists? As before, we turned to ‘What Scotland Thinks’ the polls on how people might use their Regional List vote (http://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/how-would-you-be-likely-to-use-your-regional-vote-in-a-scottish-parliament-elec#table). Using a base of 100,000 (the aggregate number of votes doesn’t matter – what matters is how they are distributed among the parties. If we doubled or halved the aggregate number of votes we still get the same answer) the number of Regional List votes for each party using an average of the four September 2015 polls on What Scotland Thinks gives the following number of votes for each party

Conservative

14200 

Labour

21700 

Liberal Democrat

5500 

SNP

46500 

Green 

7200 

UKIP 

2950 

Others 

1950 

 

100000 

 

This might initially look like good news for the SNP, but in fact it’s not because of the method used to allocate Regional Seats. This uses a method which initially divides the number of constituency seats in a Region by the number of Constituency seats won +1. Thus, if we assume a Region with the modal number of Regional seats – 7 – then the SNP vote of 46,500 would be divided in the first instance by 8 (7 + 1), assuming they won every constituency seat.

Thus in the first round of allocating Regional List seats, the votes taken into account would be

Conservative

14200 

Labour

21700 

Liberal Democrat

5500 

SNP

5812.5 

Green 

7200 

UKIP 

2950 

Others 

1950 

 

The SNP vote has been divided by 8, giving 5812.5, and the largest number of votes remaining for each party is the 21700 for the Labour Party, who would be allocated the first Regional seat. The Labour vote would then be halved for the next round (i.e. divided by 1+1)

Conservative

14200 

Labour

10850 

Liberal Democrat

5500 

SNP

5812.5 

Green 

7200 

UKIP 

2950 

Others 

1950 

 

Therefore the second seat would be allocated to the Conservatives, as their 14200 votes would be the largest number of remaining votes, the Labour Party having had their original number of votes halved. The process would continue till all seven seats are
allocated, and as we can see below

 

Round three 

Round four 

Round five 

Round six 

Round seven 

Conservative

7100 

7100 

7100 

7100 

4733.333 

Labour

10850 

7233.3333 

5425 

5425 

5425 

Liberal Democrat

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

SNP

5812.5 

5812.5 

5812.5 

5812.5 

5812.5

Green 

7200 

7200 

7200 

3600 

3600 

UKIP 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

Others 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

As we can see, in round three Labour have the greatest number of adjusted votes, and also in round four. In round five, the Green vote is highest, the Conservative vote in round six and the SNP vote not until round seven.

Thus the allocation of Regional seats in this illustrative region is three Labour, two Conservative and one each for the Greens and the SNP. If we gross this up to national level – 8 regions with 7 Regional seats each – then it would yield

Labour  

24

Conservative

16

SNP

8

Green

8

 

Or proportionately

Labour  

43%

Conservative

28%

SNP

14%

Green

14%

 

I am not going to suggest that this is in any sense a forecast. It is not. There will always be local circumstances, local loyalties to a long-serving member to be taken into account. More importantly there will be change of some sort between now and next May. Will the Liberal Democrats really disappear for instance? All we have done is to explore the arithmetic of how Regional seats would be allocated on the basis of what four estimates in September the year before suggest. All we have shown is that if the SNP were to win the sort of number of constituency seats that has been forecast, then the Unionist parties (Labour and Conservative) would be advantaged on the Regional Lists.

But isn’t this what the Holyrood voting system was supposed to adjust for – that when parties have their support spread thinly over the country, they can still achieve representation from their Regional vote? The difficulty is that this situation has been created by one party – the SNP – winning far more constituency seats than was imagined possible when the voting system was devised. Twenty years ago was it considered unlikely that even Labour would have won 95% of Scotland’s Westminster seats? We are, right now, in an unforeseen contingency, whereby the party that has largest number of Regional List votes (more than Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat combined) gets the smallest number of Regional List seats. Moreover, if we put this in the context of for or against independence – i.e. independence or Unionist – the beneficiaries are the Unionist parties. Is this a situation that independence supporters want to see come about?

Put short, given the relatively small number of Regional list MSPs likely to be won by the SNP, is a Regional List vote for the SNP a wasted vote? This proposition has been made by among others, Kevin Williamson in a tweet on 25th August, arguing that “if you want SNP Govt give them 1st vote. If you want strong pro-Indy opposition 2nd vote better elsewhere“.

The polls tend to suggest that there will indeed be an SNP government on the strength just of the constituency vote. But Williamson is going further than this, arguing that we need to think about how we use our Regional votes, which is supported by the outcome set out above – if 46.5% of the electorate vote SNP for the Regional List then the party will profit only to a limited degree. Our hypothetical arithmetic suggests that they will get 1 seat, while Labour and Conservative – whose combined vote would be less than the SNP– get five of the seven seats. Is that an outcome that supporters of independence want?

So let’s look at what happens to the numbers if we assume that Williamson’s advice is followed, that at least a portion of the SNP support votes SNP for their constituencies, but switches “elsewhere” for the Regional List. Given the presentation of opinion poll data “elsewhere” is likely to be to the Greens.

If we assume that 30% of the SNP Regional List vote switches to Green, then the reallocation of votes from above looks like this.

   

Round one 

Round two 

Round three 

Round four 

Round five 

Round six 

Round seven 

Conservative

14200 

14200 

14200 

14200 

7100 

7100 

7100 

7100 

Labour

21700 

21700 

21700 

10850 

10850 

10850 

7233.333 

7233.333 

Liberal Democrat

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

SNP

30000 

3750 

3750 

3750 

3750 

3750 

3750 

3750 

Green 

23700 

23700 

11850 

11850 

11850 

7900 

7900

5925 

UKIP 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

Others 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

The outcome, with a 30% move from SNP to Green for the Regional vote would thus change as below

 

No change 

30% change 

Labour  

3

Conservative

2

SNP

1

Green

1

Thus, the change is relatively minor from the point of view of the wider independence movement (though good for the Greens). Indeed exactly this was pointed out by Stewart Campbell (Wings Over Scotland) in his analysis of this issue (see http://wingsoverscotland.com/ams-for-lazy-people/)

On the other hand, what change there is, is positive for the independence movement, as the following shows more clearly

 

No change 

30% change

Total List seats (no change) 

Total List seats(30% change) 

Percentage of list seats (no change) 

Percentage of list seats (30% change) 

Labour  

3

24 

24 

43% 

43% 

Conservative

2

16 

28% 

14% 

SNP

1

14% 

Green

1

24 

14% 

43% 

Thus representation of the wider independence movement has increased, albeit we might have hoped for more. On the other hand, Stewart Campbell is very critical of the idea that the Green vote could be increased by that sort of margin. He describes that level of switching vote to the Greens as “”basically a completely farcical notion“. Put another way, instead of 71% of Opposition MPs being Unionist, a 30% switch to the Greens would allow them only 57%.

We will return to Campbell’s argument directly, but for now let’s be totally farcical – as he would see it – and look at what happens if 50% of the SNP vote was persuaded to vote otherwise (Green in this instance) on the Regional List. The outcome would look like this:

 

Adjusted Votes

Round one 

Round two 

Round three 

Round four

Round five 

Round six 

Round seven 

Conservative 

14200 

14200 

14200 

14200 

14200 

7100 

7100 

7100 

Labour 

21700 

21700 

21700 

10850 

10850 

10850 

7233.333 

7233.333 

Liberal Democrat 

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

5500 

SNP 

23200 

2900 

2900 

2900 

2900 

2900 

2900 

2900 

Green 

30500 

30500 

15250 

15250 

10166.667 

10166.6667 

10166.67 

7625 

UKIP 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

2950 

Others 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

1950 

 

The full implication of this is more apparent if we compare the outcome to “no change”.

 

No change 

50% change 

Total List seats (no change) 

Total List seats (50% change) 

Percentage of list seats (no change) 

Percentage of list seats (50% change) 

Labour  

3

24 

16 

43% 

29% 

Conservative

2

16 

28% 

14% 

SNP

1

14% 

Green

1

32

14% 

57% 

With no change – with the SNP constituency vote following through to its Regional List vote – the opposition would have a majority of MSPs from Unionist parties. If 50% switch then the majority Party in the opposition would be the independence-minded Greens. The Opposition would have only 43% representation from Unionist-minded parties. The opposition might still disagree with an SNP government, but there would be agreement on the need for independence.Therefore, it seems to us that the SNP has a choice to make.

The fact is that with the voting system used at Holyrood elections, if the SNP win even almost all of the constituency seats, they will be at a significant disadvantage when Regional list seats come to be allocated. Remember, in a 7 constituency region, the SNP Regional List vote would be divided by 8 from round 1. The vote of the Unionist parties would each need to be something less than 5% of the vote each before the SNP would have much future on the Regional List.

The question then becomes, what kind of opposition would they rather face? There are differences between the SNP and Green, or RISE, just as there are differences between the SNP and Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems. But the distinction of the former (Green and RISE) is that they too are committed to achieving independence for Scotland. It might also be that their opposition would be more constructive than the opposition we have become used to from the Unionist parties at Holyrood which has often been, simply to point to shortcomings, with no consideration of putting forward an alternative proposition.

In any event, is it clear that, unless the Unionist parties go into a final, terminal meltdown in the next few months, the choice isn’t

  • an SNP government with a majority and a primarily Unionist opposition OR
  • an SNP government with a majority and lots of its own Regional List MSPs,

The latter is not going to happen, it’s not a practical possibility. In fact we might describe the latter as “farcical”. If the practical alternatives are

  • an SNP government facing an opposition with a majority of independence-minded parties, or
  • an opposition dominated by Unionists,

is the former not a more attractive option?

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2 thoughts on “How far can political altruism take you, part 1.

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