How far can political altruism take you? Part 2

Some things take a long time to get done, and this has been one of them. Nearly three months ago (October 13th in fact) I drafted Part 1 one of an examination of how the independence supporting voter might use their two votes in May for the next election to the Scottish Parliament.

What we showed there was that the SNP were likely to win at worst almost all the constituency, first past the post, seats. However, for Regional List seats, because a party’s regional list vote is divided by the number of seats won in a region, including constituency seats, plus one, the SNP would win very few Regional List seats, with the majority going to the Unionist parties, in particular Labour, then the Conservatives and then the Liberal Democrats.

Since October that situation has changed little. The most recent poll at the time of writing (Thursday, 07 January 2016) is one by TNS (http://www.tns-bmrb.co.uk/press-release/snp-shrugs-opposition-attacks-increase-holyrood-poll-lead). For constituency seats the voting intentions are as follows

SNP             58%

Labour         21%

Conservative        12%

Liberal Democrat    4%

On regional list, the numbers are

SNP             54%

Labour         20%

Conservative        12%

Liberal Democrat    4%

Greens        9%

If we put these numbers into Scotland Votes (http://www.scotlandvotes.com/holyrood) the number of seats for each party is

Party

Constituency seats

Regional List seats

Total seats

SNP

71

7

78

Labour

0

25

25

Conservative

1

14

15

Liberal Democrat

1

1

2

Green

0

9

9

 

The number of seats needed for a majority in the Scottish Parliament is 65 (total seats 129), thus even on the basis of their constituency seats alone, the SNP would have a majority.

I am quite clear that independence supporters should vote for their SNP candidate in their constituency. What I want to examine is what independence supporters should do with their second, Regional list, vote. Should it go to the SNP? Or elsewhere?

First of all, TNS makes clear that the majority of Scottish voters – 54% – intend to vote SNP on the Regional List vote. Yet this will get the SNP “only” 7 additional seats. Thus for each Regional List member, the SNP must win 7.7% of the vote. Contrast that with the other parties

Labour win 25 seats with 20% of the Regional List vote – that is 0.8% of the vote per Regional List member

Conservatives 14 seats with 12% of the vote – that is 0.88% of the vote per Regional List member

Liberal Democrats 1 seat for 4% of the vote, so 4% of the vote per Regional List member

Greens 9 seats for 9% of the vote, so 1% of the vote per Regional List member.

Thus for every Regional List member elected, the SNP must get 9.6 votes for each one secured by Labour. They must get 8.75 votes for each one secured by Labour and 1.9 votes for each Regional list seat secured by the Liberal Democrats. Finally, they must secure 9 votes for each seats secured by the Greens. Less so in relation to the Liberal Democrats, it is quite clear the voting system for allocation of Regional List seats works substantially against the SNP. If we believe in independence should we not ask how that might be mitigated?

However, there is another reason for posing that question – what kind of opposition do we want at Holyrood?

Currently the opposition at Holyrood numbers 59, mostly (37) Labour, with 15 Conservatives and 5 Liberal Democrats. The remaining 2 are Greens.

If we think of this as independence supporting, or Unionist, then the former would include just now only the Green Party’s 2 members (3%), with the other 57 (97%) being Unionist of one party or another.

If we use the figures from the TNS survey, then the situation has changed only a little. The opposition (ie not SNP) would number 51, with only the Greens 9 members (18%) supporting independence, while the remaining 42 (82%) would be Unionists of one type or another. Is this a situation that we want to see come about? Might an initiative to encourage those of us who supported Yes in 2014 to vote for someone who is other than SNP but supporting independence, be a worthwhile project?

An example of the argument that there should not be any such initiative is by the well-known nationalist blogger Peter Bell. He has argued (this is from a note on his Facebook page at 09.02 on 31st August) that it’s hard to see “how fragmenting the pro-independence vote makes independence more likely“. An important part of Bell’s argument concerns the proposition that while a “multi-faceted approach was beneficial during the referendum” – ie that a Yes vote was not necessarily a vote for the SNP – “it must be a good idea in the context of electoral politics“. Bell argues this is simplistic in the extreme, and that the SNP is the “effective political agent with the capacity to realise the fundamental aims of the campaign.” The left wing agenda of such as RISE can be achieved, he argues, once Scotland is independent, but until that point we should all support the SNP.

It is certainly arguable, as Bell does, that politics in an independent Scotland will be different from where they are now, and that a changed, and perhaps wider range of politics will be the norm in an independent Scotland. But that is a matter for the future. The issue at hand though is how best to get there. In that respect the recent experience of the independence movement in Catalonia during the Spanish elections, when their relative success owed much to their willingness to enter into agreements with other parties is instructive.

While Bell endorses the “multi-faceted approach” of the referendum, he contends that this worked during the referendum because its diffuseness was focused by “the lens of the SNP“. Where Yes is concerned, its success, Bell argues, was because it had “the SNP as an effective political agent with the capacity to realise the fundamental aims of the campaign“.

The SNP, as Bell’s argument implies, is indeed a fearsome political machine. But is he really arguing that the SNP alone – without that rainbow coalition that was Yes – could have achieved so much last year? If we return to ‘business as usual’ do we not lose something of the unity that Yes formed?

A similar point is argued by Jim Sillars in “In Place of Failure”, that “The strength in depth [of Yes] came from the number of local Yes groups, in which thousands of people right across the political spectrum came together, learnt organisation, and engaged in political study and action. Rarely did those local groups rely on one political party, the SNP” (pg 17, my emphasis).

In any event, what those of Bell’s opinion have to contend with is that, the numbers suggested by current polls indicate that the SNP will themselves profit little in Regional List (reverting to the figures above, less than 9% of their MSPs would be Regional List and they would still have a majority without a single Regional List MSP), if they succeed to the degree the polls also suggest in individual constituencies. If there is no switching of votes, then its inevitable (on the basis of current polls) that the SNP government will face an Opposition dominated by Unionist parties. If so, should we not be looking at how we might at least limit this? It is all very well for Bell to argue that the SNP has been the leading actor in the pursuit of independence – and so it has – but if it cannot profit from the Regional List should we not expect it to act in a way that maximises support for independence from that source, otherwise? A little altruism, perhaps?

A similar argument is put forward by Stuart (ok Stuart?) Campbell in “Some very brief thoughts on RISE” (http://wingsoverscotland.com/some-very-brief-thoughts-on-rise/) Rather than try to precis his argument, I will just reproduce it here, because it is very brief:

If you’re primarily or solely contesting regional seats, and you’re chiefly (as seems to be the case) targeting people who are going to use their first vote for the SNP, “Vote for us so that we can provide strong opposition to the SNP” is a pretty weird pitch.

You’re basically asking people to use their second vote to cancel out their first. And that’s quite a tough angle to be trying to sell them. Just saying, like.”

What I want to take issue with here are two things. One is the latter assertion that if you vote for different parties in constituency and regional list votes you are using your second vote to cancel out your first. Yet, for instance, some people may perceive that the Green candidate has no chance in the constituency vote, but they want to show their support by voting for them in the Regional List. That seems eminently reasonable to me, and indeed one of the justifications for a constituency and Regional List vote.

More importantly, I disagree with Reverend Campbell when he argues that “Vote for us so that we can provide strong opposition to the SNP” is “a weird pitch“. The fact is that unless they secure every single seat whether constituency or regional list, the SNP will face an opposition of one kind or another. Would it not be better for them to face an opposition which supports independence, or at the very minimum has a stronger element of supporting independence than the opposition we are heading for which will have more than 80% Unionist content? Would it not be better if the opposition were putting forward progressive and innovative policies on how Scotland might be improved, even under devolution, rather than the constantly negative, carping and often downright misleading, if not dishonest, opposition that we have just now? Put short, is it not better to have an alternative to the Kezia and Ruth show?

Sillars develops a similar argument in “In Place of Failure”. He argues that the SNP manifesto for 2016 may go down the road, consistent with Bell’s argument, of defending its majority, and continuing the strategy of increasing the perception of its competence in govt as a way of increasing confidence in independence, so that at some future point we will take their advice and vote Yes. But as Sillars points out (pg. 114) while that strategy got them into government and secured a majority, it did not succeed in winning the referendum vote. If the aim is to do more than simply elect an SNP government, but instead a Parliament that will lead us to independence, do we not need to embrace and yoke the same multi-faceted approach of the referendum? This makes stark the choice facing us. Do we proceed as before to elect an SNP government, or an independence Parliament?

How might this be done? Sillars makes an interesting proposition to this end in an article in the National (http://www.thenational.scot/politics/jim-sillars-new-book-extract-we-need-an-honest-assessment-of-what-the-yes-campaign-got-right-and-wrong.7247), that “Yes Scotland’s central organisation in Glasgow was seen as too close the SNP in the formative stages of the campaign, perhaps not surprising as the party provided its start-up costs, and it never quite shook off the Better Together gibe about it being an SNP front“. He suggests one means to do this would be by establishing a “Yes Referendum Trust Fund”, appealing to the 1.6 million who voted Yes. The organization would be run by trustees from Yes organizations still in existence, using crowd funding and other fund-raising. If establishing a Yes Referendum Trust Fund seems over-optimistic, the crowd funding achievements of Wings over Scotland should not be forgotten, nor that the fund for the People versus Carmichael stands, at the time of writing, at £204,101 (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-people-versus-carmichael#/). Would an organization, committed to supporting and working toward the achievement of a Yes vote in due course, be likely to fall short of funds, particularly from the politically uncommitted? Would the establishment of a non-party, politically non-aligned organization, but committed to independence and working out the best route(s) to this, and specifically what options it might follow once independent not be a good thing? An organization such as a Yes Trust might even act as an umbrella organization – without limiting their independence – for such as the range of think tanks (Common Weal for instance) and Yes supporting media organizations.

This is not to say there would not be problems. The proximity of a “Yes Referendum Trust Fund” to the SNP would be watched with considerable attention by the Unionist parties and their toadies in the media. Any hints of a split would be emphasised at the same time as getting too close to the SNP would be criticised fiercely. The two would need to be kept clearly and distinctly separate, and avoid at all costs the proposition that if the Trust Fund were to run Regional List candidates that this is not simply a means of avoiding the normal rules of constituency and regional list votes – put simply that the Yes Trust fund candidates aren’t SNP sheep in Yes Trust clothing.

However, the issue of keeping the SNP and Yes Trust distinct raises the issue of what the policy set for the latter would be, other than supporting independence. The SNP is a broad church which has its own centrist set of policies that have clearly found favour with the electorate. What policies would be followed by a Yes Trust? Just now the policies being put forward by parties/ organizations pitching for support on the Regional Lists are broadly left of centre – the Greens and Rise. Some of the more centrist or even right wing SNP vote might be unwilling to support such organizations. Moreover, as we showed in part 1, to be successful in electing an “independence parliament” – to adopt Sillars’ phrase – that vote cannot afford to be split. Ideally, the entire SNP constituency vote would transfer to Yes Trust Regional List candidates.

Perhaps the centre of gravity for “Yes Trust” might be working on many of the issues that plagued the campaign the last time (e.g. EU membership, currency, pensions etc), but more currently on working on policies that would be widely accepted for Scotland to become the better and fairer place that was promised during the referendum?

Assuming that all the regions were identical – unlikely but taking an average – the Regional Lists would work out as follows (the winning party in each round being indicated by red),

  1. using the TNS figures for Regional List votes,
  2. assuming that the SNP Regional List vote would transfer over to Yes Trust en masse,
  3. in return for a commitment by Yes Trust not to run constituency candidates, while the SNP committed to not running Regional List candidates

Party

Round One

Round Two

Round Three

Round Four

Round Five

Round Six

Round Seven

Yes Trust (SNP vote transferred)

54%

27% (vote divided 1+1)

18% (vote divided 2+1)

18%

13.5% (vote divided 3+1)

10.8% (vote divided by 4+1)

10.8%

Labour

20%

20%

20%

10% (vote divided 1+1)

10%

10%

10%

Conservative

12%

12%

12%

12%

12%

12%

6% (vote divided by 1+1)

Liberal Democrat

4%

4%

4%

4%

4%

4%

4%

Greens

9%

9%

9%

9%

9%

9%

9%

 

Thus in the admittedly unlikely event that the entire SNP vote transferred to a Yes Trust candidate (though how much of the 9% Green vote will have voted SNP for their constituency), the opposition at Holyrood would gross up to (there being eight regions)

Yes Trust        40 seats (71%)

Labour         8 seats (14.5%)

Conservative         8 seats (14.5%)

In the Parliament as a whole

SNP             71 seats (majority of six)

Yes Trust        40 seats

Labour        8 seats

Conservatives    9 seats

Liberal Democrats    1 seat

Or put another way

Unionist Parties         18 seats (14%)

Independence Parties     111 seats (86%)

Stuart Campbell is right in many of the criticisms he makes of an approach which asks people to vote on way for their constituency and another on Regional List. In an earlier excursus into this he suggests the following problems, some of which at least can be addressed

  1. A constituency landslide doesn’t prevent list seats” – true enough, but as we have shown above, despite having the majority of Regional List votes the SNP would end up with just seven seats. Having 54% of the Regional List vote gets them 12.5% of the seats. There is absolutely no doubt that winning a lot of constituency seats makes winning Regional List seats more difficult, and the more you win the more difficult it becomes. That is how the system works. Is this not a problem that should concern us? What we are arguing here is that a way round this needs to be put in place.
  2. “You can’t predict local factors” – again, true enough, but these can be taken into account in the advice given on how to vote locally. A “one size, fits all” approach might well not be appropriate in every case.
  3. You don’t know what percentage of the vote the landslide party will get.” – true enough, but the trends to date, as well as the May 2015 election do suggest a fairly clear direction of travel. The TNS poll we have cited here, as well as the others since Part 1 have tended to indicate “no change” after weeks of the Unionist media hammering away at Jennifer Dempsie, Michelle Thomson, Nicola McGarrie, Lisa Cameron and Phil Boswell. However, what this and the previous point to is the need for some kind of organization to influence the necessary change, and that this requires a local dimension.
  4. People don’t actually like voting tactically“. Certainly it’s true that the “SNPout” campaign, encouraging tactical voting by Unionists to resist the SNP voting tsunami last May, which resulted in 56 SNP MPs, failed spectacularly. But, of course there was little organization or planning for this initiative. This therefore, points less to an insoluble problem than to a need for organization.
  5. The tactical vote itself is split“. In itself a reason for a Yes Trust to be established, to work for independence alongside – though not in partnership – with the SNP, and to focus the independence vote on the Regional List.

Of course there remains the view put by Peter Bell that fragmenting the vote makes no sense and “that the SNP is the “effective political agent with the capacity to realise the fundamental aims of the campaign.” But in respect of the former, we have shown that voting SNP x 2 actually makes no sense, as it leaves the Unionists with a larger foothold in the Parliament.

As for the latter, as Joni Mitchell wrote when she told Graham Nash that she was leaving him “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers.” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-2418626/Graham-Nash-Come-house-Ill-care-Graham-Nash-Joni-Mitchell-Crosby-Stills.html). In the same way, if the SNP seek to corner and maximise their vote in May then they actually do a disservice to the cause of independence, in that by accepting the need, as in the Yes movement during the referendum campaign, to reach out to those who believe in independence but who, for their own reasons, are not minded to join the SNP, they maximise support for the cause of independence. Rather than drifting in the political wilderness they can be structured into an organization which supports independence, if not the SNP. This is neither a challenge not a conflict, but an addition to the core purpose of the SNP.

 

 

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