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Tactical voting on the list. It’s not just about the SNP.

The mild-mannered Professor James Curtice has thrown a psephological hand-grenade into a debate that has been raging in the independence movement since the general election over what insiders call “tactical voting on the list”. As we report today, his analysis of the opinion polls since the election confirms that – crudely speaking – a second SNP vote in May’s Holyrood elections could be a wasted vote. This blows a hole in the campaign that the SNP and its internet supporters have been mounting for months claiming that only by voting twice for the SNP can the unionist representation be minimised in Holyrood.

SNP loyalists like James Kelly, author of the influential polling blog “Scotland Goes Pop” and Rev Stuart Campbell of “Wings Over Scotland”, have been arguing vehemently that tactical voting on the list is a “mugs game” and will only play into the hands of the “Red and the Blue Tories”. They fear that promiscuous votes for parties like the Greens, RISE or Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity, might effectively cancel each other out and let Labour or even the Conservatives back in the electoral race. Why take the risk? If you want independence, just wear your “bothvotessnp” twibbon and don’t think twice.

But this isn’t just an argument amongst supporters of independence. 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. Even Alex Salmond seemed to believe that in the past
Holyrood’s 129 MSPS are elected on what is called the Additional Member System. The first 73 constituency seats are elected on First Past the Post – the system that operates in Westminster. To make the distribution of seats more fairly reflect the number of votes cast for each party, Scots also have a second, list vote. Elected in Scotland’s 8 regions, these 56 list seats are distributed in a way which effectively compensates the losing parties by topping up their seats in the chamber to reflect their overall votes in the country.

Under the d’Hondt method, the number of votes a party wins on the regional list is divided by the number of constituency seats they have won plus one. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually fairly simple. In Glasgow there are 9 constituency seats and 7 list seats up for grabs. Say the SNP win all 9 constituency seats in Glasgow in May and also get 100,000 list votes. Their list votes will be divided, in the first round, by their 9 seats plus 1, meaning that they effectively have only 10,000 votes in the list. That may not be enough to win any seats.

If Labour win no constituency seats in Glasgow, but get 80,000 votes on the list, they would end up possibly having all 7 of the list seats. Though obviously other parties like the Greens, who only stand for list elections, might also win seats. There are seven rounds of calculations on the list votes. It’s estimated that if a party gets around 6% of the list votes in any region it will get a seat. On present polls, the independence-supporting Scottish Green Party could get up to 8 list seats across Scotland.

These additional members help to make the shape of the Holyrood parliament more representative of the votes cast overall. And it generally works, though not precisely. If the 2011 Holyrood election landslide had been under FTFP alone, the SNP would have had more than 100 out of 129 seats even though it won a minority of the votes overall. Actually, the SNP still had an overall majority in 2011 even though it had only 45% of the Scottish vote. This was because there appear to have been a disproportionate number of votes on the list for the SNP.

Indeed, there might not have been a referendum if d’Hondt had worked perfectly, because the SNP might not have reached the magic 65 seats. This is why supporters of the SNP insist that a second SNP vote is never wasted. If in 2011, all those list votes had gone to little parties, and none of them had reached the 6% threshold, then Labour might have got back in the game. This time the SNP are even further ahead in the polls than in 2011, but its leaders worry that complacency, and loss of votes to the smaller parties, might deny them another overall majority.

But Professor Curtice believes that 2011 was a unique event. His projections indicate, because the SNP is in line for a near clean sweep in the 73 constituencies, it is only in line to win a list seat in one of the eight regions, Highlands and Islands. “This has led to speculation” he writes “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”. Prof Curtice will no doubt be accused by more militant nationalists of aiding and abetting the unionist parties. They want another landslide like the 2015 Tsunami to maximise support for independence.

But the political context is actually very different. The 2016 Holyrood election will be the first in nearly a decade in which independence is not a key issue. The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has made clear that an early repeat referendum will not happen unless there is a very significant majority of Scots demanding one. And right now, there isn’t. The Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, has tried to make the SNP’s “obsession” with independence an electoral issue, but with little success.

No, this election is almost a referendum on another issue entirely: taxation. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are calling for a one penny increase in the basic rate of income tax to generate more money for schools and hospitals. Labour’s Kezia Dugdale has also called for a 50p tax band on those earning over £150,000. Nicola Sturgeon has rejected this on the grounds that wealthy people would “alter their behaviour” in such a way as to avoid paying it. She also opposes the 1p on the basic rate.

Many supporters of independence, like Greens, and websites like Bella Caledonia and the Common Weal, were disappointed at the SNP’s conservatism on income tax. According to an STV/Unison opinion poll, 7 out of 10 Scottish voters also want a 50p rate. This does raise a possibility which perhaps Professor Curtice doesn’t fully appreciate in his analysis. There could be some Yes voters who “lend” their votes to Labour or the Liberal Democrats on the list because they want more radical policies on taxation.

The SNP is understandably worried about letting the tactical voting cat out of the bag – they want a monopoly of the independence vote. But there is a more fundamental issue here than tax or independence and that is diversity. The Scottish parliament, many believe, worked at its best during the 2007 -11 period when the SNP was the largest party but had to work with others. In May 2007 Alex Salmond made a virtue out of minority government, and claimed that that it was “a new politics of cooperation and consensus” that was in keeping with the true spirit of Scottish democracy. The end of winner-takes-all politics; the end of government by diktat and the dawn of government by persuasion.

The truth is, Holyrood was never meant to have majority governments. The proportional representation system was devised precisely to prevent any one party dominating. It was is also about ensuring that the chamber includes smaller parties with different political priorities to the established ones. Back in 2003, the Green Party had 7 MSPs and the Scottish Socialists had 6. This meant that policies like free school meals and abolition of warrant sales had advocates in the chamber. The big parties eventually adopted both.

The SNP dominates Scottish politics right now quite fairly because the other parties have lost their way. Scotland is not thus a one party state, as some Westminster commentators have suggested, but an intensely competitive multi-party system in which one party has become unusually popular. Scotland will remain a plural political culture. This is a mature electorate which is inherently suspicious of establishments of whatever political hue, having been on the rough end of Westminster’s absolutist governments in the past. I suspect that, in this election, many SNP voters will split their ticket, not because of the numbers game or d’Hondt, but because of a very Scottish concern that Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t get too big for her boots.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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