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By Jason Michael
BELGIUM IS FAMOUS for producing some of the best beer in the world, and I can personally attest to this – myself and Shane Spelman have drunk a lot of it. And it makes sense that little Belgium brews great beer, because let’s face it – sorry Belgium – the place is boring. It must be the only place where speed bumps are used to keep Sunday drivers awake. King Leopold II is probably the most famous Belgian, but the Belgians don’t like talking about him all that much – some business to do with a plot of land he owned in Africa. It has produced other people of note; lawyers, priests, and mathematicians – and some of them lawyers and mathematicians, and priests and mathematicians. In fact, Belgium is the home of the Big Bang Theory. You’d think that was interesting, but the mastermind behind it was no Dr Sheldon Cooper; it was Georges Lemaître – a priest and mathematician, a snore-fest combination that could never have the sex appeal of a patent office clerk and physicist (let’s be honest). But we’re going to talk about the brainchild of the lawyer and mathematician Victor Joseph Auguste D’Hondt – and even his name sounds boring.
Scotland’s system of proportional representation follows what has come to be known as the D’Hondt formula or the D’Hondt system – or [quotient = V/s+1] – and it isn’t the easiest to understand. It’s even less easy to understand for those of us used to the Westminster system of first-past-the-post, an electoral system designed to benefit the establishment parties and ensure the least amount of representation. In any given parliamentary constituency, following the Westminster system, the candidate with the most votes wins the seat – leaving everyone else (often the majority) completely unrepresented for the whole of the parliamentary term. Victor D’Hondt – using his maths superpowers – devised a way to make things fairer. The Scottish parliament uses a ‘mixed member system,’ as described in the 2011 Scottish Parliament Fact Sheet:
The system used for Scottish Parliament general elections is a mixed member system comprising a first-past-the-post component, under which seats are allocated in single member constituencies, and a proportional representation (PR) component based on regional party lists.
So, in practice, you have two votes; a constituency vote and a regional list vote. Your constituency vote is first-past-the-post and your regional list vote takes a little explaining if you don’t quite understand it already. Let’s consider the 2016 election. The Holyrood parliament is a 129-member assembly, divided into 73 constituency seats and 56 regional list seats. In the constituency vote, 1,059,898 votes were cast for the Scottish National Party, amounting to 46.5 percent of the vote, securing the party 59 of the available 73 constituency seats – just short of 81 percent of the seats. In the regional list vote, however, 953,587 votes were cast for the SNP, that was 41.7 percent of the vote, securing the SNP only an additional 4 seats – a mere 7.1 percent of the seats; a result which effectively meant 885,882 votes for the SNP – a staggering 92.9 percent – were wasted votes. With only 22.9 percent of the regional list vote, the Conservative Party won 43 percent of the seats. Labour, with 19.1 percent of the vote, won 37.5 percent of the seats, and the Liberal Democrats, with 5.2 percent of the vote, won 9 percent of the seats.
If the point is to show support for the SNP, then 1 and 2 SNP is great. But if the point is to get unionists out of… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) July 12, 2020
The net result of the SNP gaining 46.5 percent of the constituency vote and 41.7 percent of the regional list vote – even increasing its constituency vote by 1.1 percent on the last Holyrood election – was that it lost a seat. What this tells us – in terms of pure numbers – is that the better a party performs in the constituency and the regional list votes, the more punitive the D’Hondt formula will be on the regional lists. Let’s have a look at how this happens:
You will remember the formula, [quotient=V/s+1]. In plain English this means that the likelihood of an extra seat being awarded is determined by dividing the number of votes cast (‘V’) by 1 (because you can’t divide by zero) plus the number of seats the party already has (‘s’). To better illustrate this, we can take a look at what happened in Glasgow, where the SNP increased its share of the regional list vote by 4.9 percent and won 44.8 percent of the vote with 111,101 votes (beating its nearest rival, Labour, by 51,950 votes) – and never won a single regional list seat. This happened because the SNP had won 9 constituency seats; meaning – following the D’Hondt formula – that the 111,101 votes was divided by 10 (9+1), giving it a quotient of 11,110.1. On the same round (as regional list seats are allocated in rounds until the available seven seats are doled out), Labour, after losing 11 percent of its votes on the last election and so with only 59,151 votes, gains a seat because 59,151/0+1 (= 59,151) is more than five times better than the SNP’s quotient of 11,110.1. In each successive round the same thing happened until the SNP had the nine constituency seats it won and no additional member seats, even though it received the highest percentage of regional list votes.
Conclusion: a single party dominating the Scottish parliament is a mathematical impossibility, it cannot be done. This of course applies, mutatis mutandis, to a single pro-independence party dominating the Scottish parliament so as to stop anything like the 1918 Dáil Éireann election result from happening again; when Sinn Féin took 73 (that is 76.7 percent) of the available 105 Dáil seats (which led to Irish independence). Granted, however, this system was not designed with a view to penalising the SNP in particular. As can be seen in the South Scotland region, the matched performance in the constituency vote of the SNP and the Conservative Party penalised both in equal measure in the regional list vote. But it remains a system that obviates supermajorities (majorities of over 75 percent) – exactly what is required if Holyrood is to be used as the primary instrument for securing an independence referendum or for furthering the cause of independence by other means in the event of a referendum being refused.
--Scottish Parliament 2021*-- Scottish National Party: 63 Pro-Independence Party: 31 Conservative Party: 15 Lab… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) July 13, 2020
The obvious circumvention of this obstacle is that another pro-independence party – or coalition of pro-independence parties and independents – stands candidates for regional votes. As shown, ‘both votes SNP’ cannot bring about a supermajority. SNP voters who vote SNP in the constituency vote but lend their regional list vote to non-SNP pro-independence candidates – provided enough are willing to do it, will bring about a supermajority with ease. Over a certain threshold, given the 2016 regional list vote for the SNP and current polling (50 percent, 30 June – 3 July), this will see the elimination of the majority of unionist seats and a pro-independence party – or coalition – form the opposition to a pro-independence SNP government (now polling at 55 percent in the constituency vote, 30 June – 3 July).
The decision, then, is Scotland’s. If the purpose of those who vote ‘1 and 2 SNP’ is to vote SNP, then the makeup of the next Holyrood parliament will not be very much different to its present makeup. But if the purpose is to return as many pro-independence MSPs as possible, then the writing is on the wall – it falls on those in Scotland who want a supermajority in the Scottish parliament for independence to vote SNP in the constituency vote and vote for another pro-independence party in the regional list vote. This is the only way such an outcome can be achieved – and it is well within our ability to do this.
How the Holyrood Voting System Actually Works