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Our last blog dealt with John Curtice’s article suggesting that some SNP voters might care to think about where to put their second regional list vote, since if the SNP do as well as forecasts suggest they might at constituency level, their party is unlikely to achieve much on the regional list precisely because they have done SO well at constituency level. In particular, they might consider voting for another, smaller, independence minded party such as the Greens, RISE or Solidarity.

We are though being enjoined by a large number of well-respected commentators to avoid a tactical voting strategy at all costs as this will play to the advantage of the Unionist parties.

James Kelly (Scotland Goes Pop) in a blog yesterday “Have the Sunday Herald just totally misrepresented John Curtice’s stance on so-called “tactical voting”?” sets out how Curtice has been misrepresented by the Sunday Herald story, but in a way which points directly to ‘let’s not take a chance on this’. For instance, Kelly, whose own blog relies substantially on psephology, ventures the opinion here that “2) Opinion polls are not necessarily even 100% accurate as snapshots, and averaging them cannot be assumed to eliminate any error.” Or that “4) Extrapolations of constituency seats are also problematical, not least because we don’t know in advance the extent of anti-SNP tactical voting in a handful of potentially close contests.” – well that worked well for the Unionists in May last year, did it not James?

None of Kelly’s critique – not one ounce – actually engages with the point that Curtice has made, that with the likely outcome being that the SNP will dominate constituency seats in a big way (in passing if last year’s General Election result is replicated proportionately then the SNP would win 69 seats at Holyrood – 56 SNP Westminster seats/59 Scottish Westminster seats x 73 constituency seats at Holyrood) then their chances of Regional List seats are seriously diminished. The outcome might not be as bad as Curtice suggests in this respect, for with 70 seats the Regional List would be nearly as difficult for the SNP as it possibly could be. But even if it’s not as bad an outcome on the Regional List as Curtice suggests it might be, he is till posing a very real question for SNP voters, unless the polls, for more than a year now, have not just got it wrong, but totally and utterly wrong. We are not after all talking about two or more parties within margin of error of each other, or even almost so. Rather the situation is one where one party is not just way ahead, but so far ahead that their support is more than the sum of their next three challengers put together. Arguably, it’s not about the numbers but about the quantum.

Nor can any of this be addressed by outrage about Sunday Herald’s misrepresentation (Kelly in a subsequent blog debunks several Sunday Herald claim by juxtaposing them with what Curtice actually did say – I think Kelly is right here – http://scotgoespop.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/in-quotes-what-john-curtice-actually.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+ScotGoesPop+%28SCOT+goes+POP!%29) or roping in Willie Sullivan of the Electoral Reform Society (under whose auspices, Curtice published) that politics “should contain lots of different voices” (http://wingsoverscotland.com/reforming-your-principles/) and objecting that this is “telling people which parties they should and shouldn’t vote for”. “Lots of voices” might well be a ‘good thing’, but I would agree with Stuart Campbell that it is not such a good thing that it allows us to tell people how to vote. But Curtice is not telling people how to vote. He is drawing to our attention a very real lacuna in the voting system for the Scottish Parliament.

Nor does Derek Bateman get to the core of the matter when he concludes in a blog today that “I welcome diversity and support a move to STV for future elections. I also promote all views in debates at Newsnet and have given more airtime to RISE-supporting voices than any other outlet. None of which gives anyone a claim on my vote. To repeat – if you’re RISE, vote RISE. If you’re a green Nat – vote SNP and Green (like Peter Arnott). And I’m voting for the party most likely to deliver the outcome I want. So stop trying to hijack my vote to your cause.” (http://derekbateman.scot/2016/04/18/its-a-conspiracy/) That as a matter of principle is of course, fine, but it does not address the problem that Curtice isolates – that with 41% of the Regional List vote in Lothian, more than the combined Regional List votes of the Conservatives + Labour + Lib Dems, the SNP get no Regional List members at all. This is no longer a matter of principle, but of practical politics and maximising the value that we can obtain from the independence vote.

One thing that really makes me laugh is when SNP minded commentators warn us that tactical voting could let the Unionists in, when on the basis of practically every poll, it is NOT voting tactically that is letting the Unionists in. In our earlier blog (John Curtice and Prediction) we saw that if 0.6% of the SNP Regional List vote in Lothian moved across to the Greens, Andy Wightman rather than Sarah Boyack would be elected. The Unionists are, in fact, already coming through the backdoor. The issue is how to stop them.

In truth, it probably is at this stage (18th April), just over two weeks before the vote, too late to do much about this beyond raising the point that Curtice rightly does, and hoping that enough SNP voters take cognisance so that even if the differences are limited (eg Andy Wightman rather than Sarah Boyack) there are some differences and that we don’t end up with the same sort of Parliament as the one just dissolved, with the SNP defending independence against the three Unionist parties, carping their negativity one the sidelines. Our aim though should be to reduce them to a rump.

Curtice will almost certainly be proven right when he concludes “Even though the party could conceivably win a higher share of the vote than it managed last May, the SNP will not sweep the parliamentary board”. But should we be concerned about this, in either of its two senses

  1. That to achieve independence we need to maximise the SNP vote. Certainly that might take us closer, but does independence need to be so tightly coupled to the prospects of a single party? In Catalonia the independence movement is a number of parties, going pretty much across the political spectrum from left to right. Catalonian independence is not a matter for just one party, but for several. It is extremely unlikely the Scottish independence movement will not be dominated by the SNP, but should we be concerned if other independence supporting parties develop? Should the SNP perhaps, even passively, encourage such developments to the extent that their development supports the movement toward independence?
  2. The alternative claim that Scotland has become a one party SNP state, as if Scotland was some sort of North Korea. This coming Thursday the Electoral Reform Society is holding a meeting under the title “‘One Party To Rule Them All: Does Scotland Have A Predominant-Party Problem?’ – i.e. predicated on the idea that single party rule is dysfunctional. In principle of course, it can be argued that a plurality of almost equal voices is best, but what the proposition forgets is that it depends on the views of the electorate. Iain McWhirter has, for instance argued recently that “The whole point of a proportional electoral system is to lever in diversity into parliament and prevent one party unfairly dominating the legislature, as so often happens in Westminster. Many Scots may be tempted to split their ticket, whether they support independence or not, because they believe the Holyrood system works better with minority governments” (https://iainmacwhirter.wordpress.com/2016/04/18/tactical-voting-on-the-list-its-not-just-about-the-snp/). But however true that is, the electorate has to be master of its own destiny. We cannot say to the electorate, you should – or even wors, must – vote in a diversified way because that achieves an outcome with more diversity of opinion.

This second point has been linked to the issue Curtice raises, certainly by the use that the Sunday Herald put his work to, but also by those – such as Kelly, Bateman and Wings – who sought to rebut the interpretation by the Sunday Herald. But even if we accept the rebuttal of the Sunday Herald’s view, Curtice’s question still remains. If the SNP are likely to clean up the constituency vote to the point where they cause themselves difficulties in securing Regional List seats, how should an SNP voter use their second vote?

John Curtice and prediction

Rather a lot of heat, rather than light, has been generated in the last couple of days by the Sunday Herald picking up on a paper by the statisticians’ psephologist, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University published by the Electoral Reform Society. You can find the offending article here – http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/sites/default/files/files/publication/The-2016-Scottish-Election-Briefing.pdf – though describing it as “offending” is a bit tough on the Prof, who has done little more than run the numbers and pose a few questions.

What seems to me to be the main issue comes from the data of Table 3 in Curtice’s article, which sets out how the allocation of seats from the regional list vote in Lothian would play out. To do this, he calculates the variation in support for parties since the last election in 2011 and applies this over the country as a whole. This allows him to predict results on a constituency by constituency basis and then, with a forecast of regional votes, as well as the allocation of constituency seats, how Regional List seats would be allocated. The outcome of this is a forecast that the SNP will win 70 out of 73 constituency seats, but only two Regional list seats, in the Highlands & Islands. The Lib Dems would win one constituency (probably Shetland) and the Conservatives would win two. Curtice does not divulge where these are, but it seems most likely to be in South Scotland. Thus in the other five regions – Central Scotland, Glasgow, Lothian, Mid Scotland & Fife, and West Scotland, it is likely that the SNP will have won all the constituency seats.

Curtice however focuses on one of the regions where the SNP has won all the constituencies – Lothian (where there are 9 constituency seats), but the same analysis could be done for the other four regions set out above.

The playing out of the allocation of Regional List seats in Lothian demonstrated by Curtice in this table, which shows that on the one hand, the SNP Regional List vote is 41.2%, which is more than the three Unionist parties’ Regional List votes put together. Yet the SNP win no seats, while the Unionist parties win six – three Labour, two Conservative and one Lib Dem. The Greens take the other Regional List seat.

The operation of d’Hondt works against the SNP, since their 9 constituency members means their Regional List vote is divided by ten from Round 1, meaning they go into the first round of allocating Regional List members with a vote of not 41%, but 4.1%. There would have to be ten rounds (and thus ten Regional list members) before the SNP would take a seat.

The section in Curtice’s paper on which there has been all the comment is this “That this situation could arise in a number of regions, given the SNP’s current standing in the polls, has led to speculation that nationalist supporters might be wise on the second ballot to vote tactically for a different party, such as the Greens or the left-wing RISE grouping, both of which also support independence. That way their vote might contribute to the election of another independence supporting MSP rather than apparently being wasted.”

On the basis of this analysis this seems to me to be a reasonable observation, though it most certainly does not justify the Sunday Herald’s headline that “Independence supporters should not cast second vote for SNP at Holyrood election, says study”. I think it is clear that Curtice is saying no such thing. He is pointing to an issue – that if the SNP dominate constituency outcomes as much as the polls (and Curtice’s own forecast) suggest, the operation of the Regional List allocation of seats makes it difficult for the SNP to do well there. Might SNP members do better to use their Regional List vote otherwise than voting for the SNP? What is an SNP voter to do, is basically what, I think, Curtice is enjoining us to think about?

One noticeable feature from the above table is that the party that just loses out on round 7 are the Greens, who on 5.8% are just a fraction behind Labour. To get in front of Labour they need a further divided vote of just 0.3% to have 6.1%. Taking that back to the opening vote (what Curtice calls Stage 1) this would be a vote of 12.2%, or 0.6% more than they are forecast to get. Thus if that proportion of the SNP Regional List vote were to vote Green instead, then instead of Sarah Boyack (3rd on the Labour list) being elected for Labour, Andy Wightman (2nd on the Greens list) would be elected. Seems a decent swap to me.

Thus, Curtice is posing a very a real question. If the SNP are so dominant on the constituency vote, the electoral system we use makes it very hard for them to win more than a handful of Regional List seats. Taking the Lothian example, it means that 41% of the Regional List vote elects precisely no one, and given its relative allocation among the other parties, allows the Labour Party to pick up 3 seats with just under 18% of the vote, but with a small addition to their vote the (independence supporting) Greens could have had 2 seats and the Labour Party would have been reduced to two seats .