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The Hitchhikers’ Guide To – Holyrood 2016

May 4, 2016

That time has come again. And here is the traditional election eve briefing, straight from the editor’s office on the 23rd floor. Tomorrow Scotland goes to the polls. It’s going to be a busy year for this blog, with the election in Scotland, an EU In/Out referendum in June, an Australian double dissolution election which will almost certainly take place on the 2nd of July and of course the one we’re all watching nervously, the caricature of democracy that is the year long US spending contest. They are all interesting in different ways. Very different ways. The referendum and the DD will be interestingly close, the US one – who knows? But let’s start with tomorrow. That’s not going to be close at all, except perhaps for 2nd place.


Every exercise of democracy in Scotland these days seems portentous and potentially transformational, this one no less so than others. The difference seems to be that many people are seeing this one as particularly complicated. I suppose it is when compared to the creakingly anachronistic ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) system favoured by Westminster. And when compared to the binary simplicity of a referendum. But if you want to see complicated come back and watch when it’s time to explain the impact of the new Australian Senate voting system in a double dissolution election. The only thing simple about that will be the colours of the ballot papers: green and white. I mean, lilac and peach? Seriously? So first let’s have a look at how this one works, with the usual proviso that if you are already confidant you’re across it you can safely skip to the next paragraph. 🙂

The System

Known by various names such as the Additional Member System (AMS) and the Modified d’Hondt System, it is a fairly crude and simple attempt at something relatively proportional and as such it works reasonably well. It does so with a parliament composed of 73 constituency members, and 56 ‘list’ members. The constituencies roughly correspond to the old Westminster constituencies we had before Holyrood existed, and are elected by the same old FPTP method we’re all familiar with. The additional positions on the list are allocated to eight regions with seven members each. Which means as a voter you will be theoretically represented by eight MSPs. Two of whom you’ll actually have voted for. Now, as I am a voter in Australia too I am quite used to having two ballot papers, and being represented by a local member and twelve Senators per state, but there the similarity ends. Australia’s is a bicameral parliament (upper and lower houses) so the elections are for a local member in the House of Representatives (lower) and multiple members in the Senate (upper). Voting is preferential, and compulsory. In a simple preferential system (Reps) the first preferences are counted, and the candidate in last place is eliminated. The second preferences of that candidate are then distributed and the process is repeated until there are only two left. You are then left with a score know as the Two Party Preferred (2PP) vote. And a result. The Senate is similar, but more complex. You can vote for parties, or for their individual candidates, in order of preference. It takes a long time to count, but everyone’s vote ends up with a candidate, whether it’s their first preference, or a lower one.

The designers of the Scottish system have gone for simplicity and, I can’t help feeling, they’ve done so at the expense of democracy. Instead of getting proportionality through giving voters multiple preferences, they have chosen to do so by means of a simple mathematical formula instead. It works by redressing the inherent imbalances of the FPTP system used in the constituency section through the list vote, in the following way: you vote for a party. Just one party. The vote each party receives is then divided by the number of constituency seats it won, in that region, plus one. ‘Why the plus one?’ you might be thinking. Well, it’s quite simple really. Some parties won’t win any list seats, but any number divided by zero equals infinity. Divided by one is okay though, the number doesn’t change. So they do the calculation and the party with the highest score gets one member. The party chooses which one. That member is then added to that party’s total and the calculation is done again. It’s done seven times to produce seven members. The important thing to note is that the more seats you win, the harder it gets to win another.

Now I should probably say at this point that this guide is being published so close to the election for two main reasons. The first is so that it can take account of as much of the late polling as possible. The other is because I knew that whatever I say, some people aren’t going to like it. And that’s a pity. But it can’t be helped. This blog’s mission is to take the best available information, analyse it and explain what it means. We are in the explanation business, but also the prediction business. We can’t shrink from it. Leave you hanging by simply explaining the working of the system without coming to a conclusion about how it’s going to pan out on this occasion. It would be a cop out. That puts a bit of pressure on, as I’m only human and I’d really quite like to keep my record of correct predictions, and also because opinion is quite deeply divided. As you must have guessed by now, I am speaking of the controversy over what to do with your second (list) vote to best advance the cause of independence. I will come to that. But first we must deal with a few other things, like the headline story for instance, and to do that we must take a look at…

The Polls

So what can we say about the polls? Well, no predictions would be possible without them, but we know they can be misleading. Everybody knows they got it badly wrong in 2011, and none more so than the pollsters themselves. Getting it that wrong is quite simply bad for business, so all of them redesigned their metrics for Scotland. They had done this prior to the referendum which, sadly, we have to recognise they got more or less right. In last year’s GE they got England wrong, but were pretty much spot on in Scotland. I’ve been watching polls since, oh, I think 1974 was the first election(s) I was fully aware of. I can tell you that when they get it substantially wrong it tends to be characterised by volatility, outlier polls, etc. When they all agree, and don’t change much for well over a year, as in this case, that tends to indicate that people have made up their minds. Stopped listening even. The position from which they have not moved is an unprecedented one. One which would have been utterly unbelievable in my youth. The extraordinary collapse of support for the Labour Party would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.

Reports of my Death…

Have, in the case of the Labour Party in Scotland, not been greatly exaggerated. During the referendum campaign I put forward the hypothesis that the party had staked all its credibility, and for its parliamentarians, their careers, on the outcome of that vote. But it didn’t pan out the way they envisaged. They expected a crushing victory, which would demoralise the SNP (the Yes campaign and the SNP were synonymous in their minds) and enhance their prestige. That didn’t happen. They scraped a fairly narrow victory, with a major confidence wobble towards the end of the campaign when they stared into the abyss. Little did they know it was but a premonition of their coming demise. Credibility, like political capital, is a limited currency. As I predicted, Labour had spent all of theirs in the campaign. They alienated many of their own supporters, and even lost credibility with No voters because they just told so many lies. It was clear that they would say anything for political advantage. It’s my belief that many No voters must have been aware of that at the time, but were prepared to overlook it, such was their fear of independence. Once you come to look at a party which has acted this way in a subsequent election campaign though, you cannot un-see the truth that you saw about them in the referendum campaign. How can you ever trust anything they say again?

Now, this had already happened when I wrote The Party’s Over (An Obituary for ‘Scottish’ Labour) this time last year. The decline has only continued since then, however at a reduced pace, as the bulk of the damage was already done. They have fought a lacklustre campaign, punctuated by occasional train wrecks like their signature tax policy, which turned out to be unworkable and, well, just not thought through. Their leader, Kezia Dugdale, has been deeply unimpressive. Some seem to think she will be good one day, although I wouldn’t bet on it, but nobody seems to think she is ready for this level of responsibility yet. Indeed there were leadership rumblings from within the party, as Iain Macwhirter wrote in The Herald, even before the launch of the manifesto. All of which begs the question, why was someone so relatively young and inexperienced left to rescue the party’s Scottish fortunes in the first place? Well, it seems Labour’s fabled ‘big beasts’ are no more.

There should be plenty of them, after all forty of their Westminster MPs lost their seats last year. Well, that’s not quite true, some chose to jump before they were pushed. Some of the biggest (Brown, Alexander, Darling) have already moved on to lucrative positions in the corporate world, the customary reward for advancing corporate interests and maintaining the neoliberal orthodoxy for thirteen years while in government. Of the remainder, many are trying for election to Holyrood, but none it seems wanted to take on the leadership after the calamity of Jim Murphy’s Westminster campaign. They seem to have learned something, unlike their party as a whole, and what they have learned is that their brand is toxic in Scotland, Scottish voters have not forgiven them for their actions in 2014, and are in no mood to be kind to them. What they do not seem to have considered is the possibility you should always have a look at when everyone disagrees with you – that you might just be wrong. That thought doesn’t seem to have crossed many Labour minds at all, not in Scotland anyway. They remain wedded to a hard line, unionist position and to their Blairite past. That’s not winning them any friends these days. They could hardly look more out of touch if they got up half an hour early every morning to practise.

Meanwhile, back at HQ in London, the party is busily tearing itself apart precisely because there has been an attempt at renewal, and the Blairites don’t like it one bit. They have never accepted Corbyn’s leadership (as I predicted in An Open Letter to Jeremy Corbyn last year) and are intent on bringing him down. Some of his friends seem to be hurting him more than his enemies at present and the whole thing is an undignified mess. All of which is not helping matters for Kezia and Co. It already looked pretty bad a month ago. Here is a March poll-of-polls:


As you can see, they are hovering around the 19/20% level they’ve been at for most of the year. What has happened since then is that the battle for second place appears to have tightened in some recent polls. One or two even suggest they are lagging behind the Tories. Now, let’s be under no illusion about this, the situation has not come about because the Tories are gaining in popularity. They’re not. They have been stuck on that level of support for many, many years. It is a measure of just how far Labour have fallen. This is a party which won 41 Westminster seats in 2010, with over 40% of the vote. The SNP were then languishing back on around 20%. So what happened? Well I think 2010 might well be the last example of a familiar voting pattern in Scotland, whereby whenever the Tories looked like getting into No. 10 Scots would flock back to the Labour Party in the hope of influencing the outcome. But doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, it has been said, is a definition of insanity. Sooner or later we were going to twig to the fact that it didn’t work. There simply aren’t enough of us to tip the balance in a UK election, not unless it’s very, very close. But with the events of the referendum campaign we have a far more politically engaged and aware electorate than at any time in recent history. That is bad news for Labour.

The problem they have is this: Scotland, as I have argued before, hasn’t been the same polity as England for some years. Labour has been fighting the Tories in England, but fighting the SNP in Scotland. Their favourite tactic for doing this has been to tell Scottish voters that we have to vote for them, or risk a Tory government at Westminster. ‘Vote SNP, get the Tories’ as the mantra goes. It stopped working in 2010. Once more we voted Labour, and got the Tories anyway. But there’s a little bit more to it than that. The Tories failed to secure a majority, so it came down to who the LibDems would back. Labour were, it would seem, so ashamed of their performance in government that they declined to even negotiate with the LibDems. They refused to even try to block the Tories from taking power. Now that was not the deal. We vote for you, and you just stand back and meekly allow the Tories to walk into No. 10? Do you seriously think, or even imagine in your wildest dreams, that we’d have elected 41 Labour MPs if we’d known that’s what they would do? Are you mad? You may answer that last question, the others were rhetorical. Scottish voters answered them the following year by electing an SNP Scottish Government with an absolute majority. Labour then further undermined the idea by graphically demonstrating, in the referendum campaign, where their loyalties really lay. When the chips were down, they preferred to stand with their Tory ‘rivals’ rather than with their supporters in Scotland. That will not be forgotten.

The New Normal?

This has led us to the situation where we now have a Scottish Government, an SNP one which, it must be remembered, has already been in power for nine years, enjoying greater than 50% support (which hasn’t happened since the 1950s), roughly two and a half times more than their closest rivals (which is completely unprecedented), and we face the real prospect of the Labour Party being beaten into third place (which hasn’t happened since 1918). Voters are simply not buying Labour’s rhetoric any more, but the party seems incapable of coming up with any alternatives. So we now face a situation where there is no effective or credible opposition. The government goes into this election in such a strong position that it basically cannot lose. The time has come to take a look at that government and its approach to the election, because this has quite a lot of people confused. Particularly ‘Yes’ supporters from outwith the ranks of the SNP. We have been hearing a lot of messages, often accompanied by the hashtag #BothVotesSNP, telling us how crucial it is that we all vote that way in order to ensure the survival of the SNP government. Messages like this one:


Now, I don’t want to pick on Mhairi particularly, she’s a good kid, but this is a very strong, and fairly typical, statement which well-represents the sort of thing we’ve been hearing from SNP leaders and activists and, well, I had the graphic for this one. The point is, what are we to make of it? Is she right? In many ways, this question has become the most interesting issue of the entire campaign. It has sparked the liveliest debate. I’d go so far as to say that, apart for the question of who will come second (which is surely a matter of mainly academic interest by now), it is this question which preoccupies the thoughts of the nation as we go to the polls. So, is she right?

Is #BothVotesSNP the best Strategy?

Well no, she’s not. For several reasons. I’ll detail them in a moment, but first I have to explain, in the interests of full disclosure, why I’m a bit annoyed with the SNP at the moment. Perhaps I should not be surprised (I’m not really, just a bit disappointed) to see a political party behaving like a political party. But in 2014 we had something bigger than a party. We had a movement. The SNP were an important part of that movement of course, but were far from the totality of it. Again, perhaps I should not be surprised when, in the absence of any effective opposition from the Labour Party, the SNP casts about for someone else with whom to have an argument about something that matters. The problem I’m having is that the people they’re arguing with are the non-SNP elements from within the ‘Yes’ campaign. People like me. Now, in the referendum campaign, we all agreed to put other political differences aside for the sake of our common goal of independence. We worked well together. We didn’t quite make it, but we came close enough that pretty much the entire movement agreed to carry on, to stay together, to continue to make our arguments and secure the additional support we need to get us over the line next time.

I should also declare that I was one of those arguing for a formalised Yes Alliance to continue that co-operation into future election campaigns. It may even have been my idea, as I was calling for it even before the referendum. I continued to argue for it after that, and its first task would have been to take a united front into the UK General Election last year. When we were unable to secure such an agreement from the SNP who argued (correctly as it turned out) that they could be competitive in every constituency, we took it on the chin and argued for an SNP vote, for strategic reasons, and for the good of the nation. I wrote, again in my election article ‘The Party’s Over,’ in support of that position:

“If people could really get that we don’t need to accept any of the second hand damaged goods sent to us by Westminster in our Scottish political system, what kind of a parliament might we not produce, in all our myriad colours, at Holyrood in 2016? I don’t know, but I’d be fascinated to find out, wouldn’t you? And the feeling is there to do this now. To strike while the iron’s hot. I sense a hugely important symbolic and strategic turning point is within our grasp. I say we grab it, and worry about the tactics later. Labour will say we’ll have a one party state (conveniently forgetting all the decades when they enjoyed that situation), but we know that’s not what’s going to happen. Let May the 7th 2015 be remembered as the start of the great realignment of Scottish politics and the beginning of a new Scottish Enlightenment.”

This wasn’t just my position. It was, at that time, the SNP’s position too. “Lend us your vote,” they said. “and your time will come, in the Holyrood elections next year.” And now that the time has come, the SNP are no longer asking us to lend them our votes. They are demanding them, in increasingly petulant terms. So, back to that statement (and the many others like it). What’s wrong with it? Well, it’s simply an unsupported assertion. And a non-specific one. What does she mean by ‘everything?’ All available data is telling us there’s no conceivable ‘risk’ whatsoever to the SNP’s overall majority. There is no poll which shows them getting less than an absolute majority from constituency seats alone. The same arithmetic means it will be impossible for them to win more than 2 or 3 list seats, and that those will be in ‘Highlands and Islands.’ If you live in any other region a list vote for the SNP will have no effect (not contribute to electing any MSPs). If, on the other hand, you look at what’s best for the movement (as opposed to the party), obviously it’s good for the cause of independence to have a pro-indy government. Equally obviously, it would be even better for that cause if that support was bipartisan, i.e. both government and opposition were pro-indy.

I mention this because, with 50-56% support in the constituency vote, it was in the power of the SNP, by directing their supporters to vote for another pro-indy party in the list ballot, to also choose their preferred opposition. Not to do so ensures that the Labour Party remains the opposition, and they will receive all the media attention that goes with that status. And all the publicly funded staff that go with the MSP positions. To have a pro-indy government and opposition would marginalise unionism as a political force in Scotland. It would effectively be the end of the argument. Their opinion would no longer be heard, and after that independence would be virtually a fait accompli. Just a matter of time. Now, Labour are on 20% or less, and it is absolutely impossible to win from that position in any electoral system. Ditto the Tories on about 15%. Black’s attitude, as with the rest of the SNP leadership, is predicated on the fear that all the polls are wrong and are overestimating the SNP’s true support by at least 10-15%, and that all the unionist parties would be capable of forming a ‘grand coalition.’ That is simply an unrealistic scenario. Not going to happen. So from the point of view of the independence movement there is in fact nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by using your 2nd ballot to vote for another pro-indy party/group.

An Argument From Personal Incredulity

The first reason the SNP are arguing against such a strategy seems to be that they can’t believe their eyes. Or their luck. Or, they tell me, the opinion polls. I’ve had the discussion with a number of SNP supporters. The majority of these discussions didn’t last very long, because most rank and file SNP supporters tended to go with the line that, “Nicola Sturgeon wouldn’t ask for both votes if it wasn’t important.” So basically, “Mummy knows best.” As that is not, and could never be, a serious argument for me, I tended to make my excuses and withdraw from the conversation at that point. The more serious answers that I got to my challenge – “Please explain to me why voting SNP 1&2 is a superior strategy for advancing the cause of Scottish independence.” – however were all predicated on the aforementioned possibility of the polls being wrong. I have already discussed why I do not consider that likely, and that brings me to what I suspect is the second reason. I believe the SNP are thinking tactically when they should be thinking strategically. I believe the reason for their intransigence is as much psychological as it is political – they decided on their position last year and thus painted themselves into a corner. Now, although it has become clear that their poll numbers are not coming back to the field (as they thought/feared they would), and the equation has changed, they cannot change with it. Conventional political wisdom says you should never allow yourself to become complacent. But what last September looked like complacency now looks like simple realism. So, to the advice for tactical and strategic voters.

The Hitchhikers’ Guide – Tactical

It seems to me there are few options for tactical voting in this election, however two do come to mind. The first is for unionist voters. It’s unlikely that they will, but they could decide to consider which of them has the best (though still slim) chance of edging out the SNP in their constituencies, and which has the best chance of maximising anti-indy representation in the list section for their regions. That latter, however, is a fiendishly complex calculation that even this babel fish would hesitate to attempt, simply because Labour and the Tories are running virtually neck and neck. The other obvious tactical option would be to do as Mhairi Black says, and use both votes for the SNP, in the hope of improving their majority by two or three seats. This would be the tactical move to make if you conflate the SNP with the independence movement. But, it will not make much of a difference. This is because in order for the SNP to win more than a few extra list seats, their actual support would have to be about 10-15% greater than it is now, at about 65-70%.

The Hitchhikers’ Guide – Strategic

Firstly I am pleased to note that the term ‘strategic voting’ has rather caught on in the last year. Pleased because I coined it. I’m not sure all of those using it fully understand it though. What I meant by it was looking beyond any current electoral considerations to the bigger picture. In the Scottish context what I meant by ‘bigger picture’ was looking at what was best for the cause of Scottish independence. I am convinced today, as I was when I first wrote about it, that the best way of advancing that cause would be to reduce, and if possible remove, the influence of the unionist parties in Scottish politics. The SNP could, as I’ve already mentioned, have decided to pursue this outcome, had they been sufficiently bold. Had I been in Nicola Sturgeon’s position, I would have trusted the people and done a deal with one of the other pro-indy parties/groups. Because let’s face it, on 50%+ of the vote, with their nearest rivals on 20%, if even half of SNP voters followed such advice, that party/group would be the 2nd largest in parliament and become the official opposition. They have not proved to be sufficiently bold, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be. The consistent gap of 7 or 8% between the SNP’s poll numbers in the constituencies and that in the lists suggest that a significant number of you already intend to do just that. I encourage you to do so, and assure you that in so doing you will not be risking the SNP’s overall majority. Such votes will increase the chances of other pro-indy MSPs winning seats, but they would come at the expense of Labour and the Tories, not the SNP. Because that is how the system works.

The Predictions

So lastly I come to the matter of what I think is going to happen. I haven’t done this before, not actually predicted numbers. I want to do so this time because it will be interesting to compare them to the actual outcome, as well as the predicted outcome of various other list vote options, so here goes:

SNP – 73 (70 constituencies + 3 list seats)

Labour – 23-25 (no constituencies, all list)

Conservative – 18-20 (2 constituencies, remainder list)

LibDem – 3 (1 constituency + 2 list seats)

Green – 6 or 7 (all list)

So there you go. Let’s meet back here on Friday and see how I went. 🙂 You will notice there is still a little flexibility in my predictions. This is because there is still a chance of RISE or even Solidarity picking up a seat or two if just a little more SNP support in the constituencies were to come their way in the list section. You will also notice that the SNP’s total doesn’t seem to change much (up 4 from 69), but this disguises a significant increase in constituency seats, offset by an inevitable decrease in list seats. For comparison purposes, here is what we might have been looking at had Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP followed my advice and chosen to support another pro-indy group (I’m going to assume it would have been RISE as none of their leadership has been convicted of perjury, and unlike the Greens they are not standing against the SNP in any constituencies) for the list vote, and if just half of those voters followed that advice (which assumes the other half vote SNP despite the advice):

SNP – 70, RISE – 26, Labour – 15, Conservative – 14, Green – 3, LibDem – 1.

I know, that’s not going to happen now, but I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been. I have one more for you. This is what would have happened if everyone had followed my advice, right from the start. RISE, Solidarity and the Greens would all be part of one group, which I’ll call ‘Yes Alliance.’ The SNP vote remains the same, but they do not stand in the list vote, so all of it transfers to Yes Alliance, as does the Green vote of course:

SNP – 70, Yes Alliance – 42. Labour – 9, Conservative – 7, LibDem – 1.

Oh, wouldn’t that have been wonderful?


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  1. Steven Arnott permalink

    A fantastic article, Derek, which I missed at the time due to my broadband being discontinued on may 4th and not reinstated until 21st May.

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