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The Hitchhikers’ Guide To – The European Elections (v 2.0)

May 21, 2014

I’m going to try to make this as brief as possible. I write quite a bit about Scotland, and many of my Scottish readers may not be aware that I also write about Australia. The two don’t cross over very often, but today they do. Today Scotland goes to the polls to elect six MEPs to represent Scottish interests in the European Parliament. Some people think it’s unimportant, even insignificant, but it isn’t because Strasbourg takes decisions that impact directly on Scotland. Areas like farming and fisheries spring to mind. So we want people there to speak up for Scotland.

Now in Scotland we’ve long been used to ‘First Past The Post’ elections, just put an ‘X’ next to your favourite candidate’s name. But the Euro elections are not quite so simple. They are actually a fair bit more complicated. That may in part explain why turnouts tend to be so low. That’s where Australia, where I’ve spent many years, comes in. Scotland is one constituency, with six members. Which is the same as an Australian state, in a half Senate election (there is such a thing as a ‘double dissolution, which includes a full Senate election, where you vote for 12 candidates, but they are rare and we needn’t discuss them here).

Now I had a brief chat on Twitter yesterday with a new acquaintance, the psephologist James Kelly of the Scot Goes Pop website. He was keen to point out the differences, but mainly the ones to do with the counting/calculation process, and I’m not going to attempt to explain that. Half of you would probably die of boredom. But he neglected to mention the two biggest differences of all. Probably didn’t occur to him, as to him they were obvious, but not necessarily to me, so  I will tell you  about those. Firstly Australia has compulsory voting. So saying, “That’s too complicated, Ah cannae be bothered,” isn’t really an option. Not unless you want to get fined anyway.

Now by an entirely unremarkable accident of history, the last two Australian elections have seen my two kids become old enough to vote, and both came to me the day before their first election to ask the big question. And this is it: How, in a multi member, preferential system can I not only vote for the people I like, but also make sure my preferences can never go to the people that I can’t stand? And the answer is simpler than you might think. It’s who you put last. Who you put last is, arguably, more important than who you put first.

But this brings me to the other biggest difference – the D’Hondt method, as the voting system for EU elections in the UK is known, is not preferential, only vaguely proportional and could only be described as democratic in the loosest possible sense of the term. You only get one vote, that ‘X’ again (was this, I wonder, designed for a time when many voters were illiterate and innumerate? “Just put your signature in the box, peasant”), and no chance to express any preference beyond that. So how do you vote against someone? Well, you can’t. Not directly anyway. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Let’s work it out.

So who do we definitely not want to get a seat? Let’s face it, whether you would vote SNP, Labour, the LibDems or even, I would hope, if you’d vote Tory, none of us want to see UKIP gain a foothold in Scotland. Let’s not mince words. They are a fascist party, no matter how much they deny it and try to disguise it. And they don’t like Scotland any more than Scotland likes them. They want to abolish the Scottish Parliament and gut the Barnett formula to massively decrease funds for Scotland. They have never had a Westminster MP, an MSP or an MEP in Scotland. Now, if you’ve seen the polls, you’ll know they are actually winning in England, but coming fourth or even fifth in Scotland. But even so, in a multi-member constituency system, a party that’s coming fourth can still grab a seat. Especially with a low turnout. This happens if supporters of the major parties allow their traditional rivalries to determine their vote, and fail to think tactically.


So how would the tactical voter approach this question? Well, the first problem, and I appreciate that it is a problem, is that you’d have to rely on the polls. And we all know that they are not always accurate, especially in Scotland. But what is clear is that if the polls are even close, five of the six seats are all but in the bag already, and the battle is for the sixth. That’s almost always the case in multi-member constituencies. To keep UKIP from getting that sixth seat the best tactical vote is a vote for the party most likely to pick up that seat. Many people were more than a little surprised yesterday to see that highly vocal supporter of the Labour Party, the Daily Record, seemingly advocate voting for the SNP. But that begins to make sense when you consider that the polls I’ve seen show the SNP as that party, the one most likely to pick up that last seat.

Now I have to say something here on the subject of minor parties. This is where the advice gets very different from that which I gave my kids. Because you see unlike me, my kids weren’t brought up on Clydeside, and therefore ‘genetically programmed’ to favour Labour. They were brought up by a couple of old lefties though, with progressive sort of lefty values. Hey, we’re not religious, and you gotta go with what you’ve got. Now the Australian Labor (sic) Party, or ALP, is a pale shadow of a Labour party these days. Much like ‘Nu-Labour’ you might well say, and I could not disagree with you. Not very appealing to idealistic first time voters anyway. On the other hand, they could not tolerate their votes ending up with the Liberal Party, Australia’s version of Tories.

Considering these things, both of them decided, independently, three years apart, that they’d quite like to vote for the Greens. But not if it would help the Tories (I’m going to call them that to avoid confusion, and the term is sometimes used anyway, famously by ex-PM Paul Keating for instance). I was able to tell them that it was simple – they could put the Greens first, but because realistically there were only two parties in the fight, so as long as they put the Tories last their votes could never go to them. Unfortunately Scottish voters do not have that luxury. The polls suggest that neither the Greens, nor the LibDems have any chance of winning the sixth seat. So, unlike the party list section in the Holyrood elections, though it pains me to say it, it would appear that a vote for them, or for any smaller parties or independents, would be wasted in this system. Worse, it might inadvertently help UKIP to scrape in.

The inescapable conclusion is that to keep UKIP out you have to vote for a party with a realistic chance of taking that seat. The two most likely are the SNP and Labour. In that order. My tactical voters have to think carefully, because if they split evenly between the two that could also benefit UKIP. And of course most will prefer one over the other. Now we all know how these traditional political rivalries run deep. But think carefully. Who is really worse? Labour supporters – would you rather see another SNP MEP, or a UKIP one?

I wanted to say, and in my first draft I did, that it didn’t matter who you put first, so long as you put UKIP last! Well, it turns out you can’t do that directly. So here is my advice, and my plea to all of you. If you want to make certain Scotland does not have to carry that opprobrium, that shame, into the Councils of Europe, for all our sakes, then everyone has to get out and vote, and vote for the party most likely to keep UKIP out! And it would certainly appear that on this occasion at least, that party is the SNP.


Let’s keep it that way!

Late Breaking News: There is a late YouGive poll out, analysed in this article, and it’s a major outlier as far as other polls I’ve seen are concerned. If it is right, then you should all go out and vote Green, as they are the only ones who can keep UKIP out

Here is another article which uses the ICM poll, and arrives at similar conclusions to mine. Compare the two and see how different the polls are. I give up. This is a dog of a system. It’s like doing the football pools with a pin. With your eyes shut.


26th May 2014.

P.S. You might think that one of the advantages of writing a political blog would be the ability to say from time to time, “I told you so!” and be able to back up that claim by reference to an earlier post. Well, this has just happened. It seems my call was the correct one, insofar as a vote for the SNP was indeed the vote most likely to keep UKIP out. But I’m afraid that I can take no joy in it whatsoever. If more people had followed my other injunction, to get out and vote, perhaps we wouldn’t be contemplating this unutterably depressing outcome today. But let’s not succumb to depression. Let’s re-double our efforts to ensure that Scotland regains her freedom this September, because let’s not forget that though UKIP may have scraped in for a seat in Scotland, coming fourth in the popular vote, in England THEY WON! And let’s make sure he is the first and last UKIP member ever to be elected to so much as a Village Council in Scotland! To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, UKIP if you want to, Scotland’s not for kipping! Let’s show the world that we have awoken, and nothing will ever be the same again!

  1. But-
    It is a proportional system, but we only get one vote. That a vote is proportional- Wikipedia explained the d’Hondt method so I could understand it- does not mean it must be transferrable. The AV system of the recent referendum would not have been necessarily more proportional.

    • Well, that’s just weird. I’ll look into it further and make some changes, but I was hoping not to have to tell people who to put first. Maybe that’s not possible. If you only get one, how is it transferable? Do the parties decide?

      • d’Hondt method.
        If the only parties were Conservative, Labour and LD, an alternative vote system would not produce a proportional result: where no party got 50% of the first preference, a disproportionate number elected would be LD. In England, the Tories would gain from AV as UKIP second preferences might go disproportionately to them.

      • But in that case, who decides where those second preferences go? Not you, if you only get one vote. The parties? That would be completely undemocratic! I don’t see how you can elect six candidates with one vote anyway. So you’re electing six, but you can only vote for one. So if, when your vote is counted, the candidate you voted for already has enough votes, what happens to yours? Is it not counted? Or is it allocated on, out with your control?

      • Look at the link! It is the d’Hondt method! I found that simple enough to understand.
        I have voted in the East Midlands for a party which will not come first, but might get enough votes to get one MEP. It would not be right for the party with the most votes to get all five of our MEPs.

      • No that’s not what I was suggesting Clare. I’ll explain, but let me check your link first.

      • Euu, that’s horrible! I was labouring under the misapprehension that it was vaguely democratic! And that it didn’t assume voters were stupid. I see I was mistaken. What SHOULD happen is that you get to number ALL the candidates in order of preference. That way, let’s say you vote 1-6 for party ‘A’ and that party gets enough votes for 3.5 candidates, then the additional votes are distributed, as per your next preferences. Rather than discarded as they are in this system. There is a quota in that system also, but if you vote for a party that doesn’t reach that quota then your preferences are also distributed to your next six choices.

        This is the Australian Senate system I mentioned. In recent years another option has been introduced, for idiots, which is known as ‘above the line,’ where you do simply vote for a party. However this does not mean it’s not preferential. It just means that your preferences will be distributed however the party you voted for decides. Which is of course also deeply undemocratic, but most people now vote that way because they can’t be bothered thinking. Some of us have advocated a party preferential option, whereby you can vote for a party list, but still direct your preferences by party, rather than have a party do it for you, but that is still under consideration. If you are interested, here’s the wiki link for the system:

  2. Hi Derek,
    In your last sentence you say “…whoever you put first”.
    In today’s election I had expected to be listing the candidates in order of preference, eg: SNP 1, Green 2, SSP 3, etc and therefore able to keep the likes of UKIP blank with nil pointes. But my voting card tells me I am only to put my cross against one candidate. Obviously this will have the same effect when I vote for anyone except UKIP but I just wondered if you were suggesting something else that I was missing?

  3. The above comments relate to the first version of this article. They may not make much sense as I have now rewritten it. I’m leaving the comments up in the interests of full disclosure, and to make a point. Sort of. The point is this, and it’s something I think readers should know about me in the context of the forthcoming referendum debate: I base my conclusions on the best available evidence at the time. If the evidence changes, I am prepared to change my conclusions. This is because I am not the type to bend the evidence to suit the conclusion I’ve already decided to reach. Though I have already been accused of it by unionists on numerous occasions, I am not a romantic type. I am not a ‘believer’ in things not justified by evidence. I would beg readers to bear this in mind when reading my conclusions on matters related to Scottish independence. It’s a little thing I like to call objectivity. It seems to be a bit out of fashion these days, but I commend it to you when making your own decision.

  4. Great! I guessed right. I went to the polls today and marked my X for SNP, without having read this excellent brief. I saw some Yes badges at the polling stations, so I am feeling confident about the outcome. No UKIP, although maybe quite a few in rUK… Good post!

    • Well, you guessed right if I’m right mate, keeping my fingers crossed until the results are declared. 🙂

      • And there you go, turns out I was right, and I take absolutely no joy in it whatsoever.

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