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By Jason Michael
WITH THE HOLYROOD ELECTIONS on the horizon, the Scottish National Party is asking its supporters and the wider independence movement to give it both their constituency and their regional list votes. Deputy First Minister John Swinney rejected calls from within the party for people to give their regional list vote to another pro-independence party, saying that in 2011 the system worked for the SNP – resulting in an overall majority. Stewart McDonald came out swinging, stating emphatically that the ‘only strategy that ever delivered a pro-independence majority … was the one that advocated [both votes SNP]. In response to another defection from the party line, Julie Hepburn – a party activist – tweeted that both votes SNP is ‘a proven way to achieve a pro-independence majority,’ and that ‘it worked in 2011.’
Pete Wishart has been going around in circles over social media repeating the exact same message; supporting the SNP with both votes gave the party an overall majority in 2011 and made the 2014 independence referendum possible. On the face of it, this is faultless reasoning. If this strategy worked in the past, and the polls are indicating similar levels of support, then it can work again – it stands to reason that the party should be asking for voters to give them both votes. But this is wrong. The Scottish parliament’s FPTP-D’Hondt mixed member system, widely believed to have been designed to make it difficult for the SNP to get an overall majority, actually works against the SNP now.
In May 2011 the SNP broke the system and won the slimmest of slim majorities of just 5 seats in a parliament designed to force parties into coalitions – weak governments, and it managed this because of a number of factors. Sure, the most important factor was support. Led by Alex Salmond, the SNP increased its number of seats from 47 to 69 – winning 45.4 percent of the constituency vote and 44 percent of the regional list. But the number of seats it failed to win in the constituency vote also contributed to the success. The SNP did exceptionally well in the constituency vote, picking up 53 of the available 73 seats, and with 15 Labour members, 3 Conservatives, and 2 Liberal Democrats elected to 20 constituencies it was able to secure 16 religion list MSPs – bringing the total number of SNP MSPs to 69. This was, of course, facilitated by the fact that the party’s vote share only dropped by 1.4 percent from the constituency to the regional list, compared with a fall of 5.4 percent for Labour, 1.5 percent for the Conservatives, and 2.7 for the Liberal Democrat. All of these factors conspired to give the SNP its 2011 majority – a slim majority.
But this picture changes entirely in the 2016 election, an election in which more people voted SNP in both the constituency and in the regional list – and it lost 6 seats. Again, this happened due to a couple of factors; a change in voting behaviour and the effect of the D’Hondt formula in the regional list vote, and these are important to us when it comes to thinking about the May 2021 election. Following the 2014 independence referendum the collapse of Scottish Labour began, resulting in it losing some 116,200 votes in the constituency ballot and 87,550 in the regional list. With much of the unionist vote consolidating around the Conservative Party, the Tories gained votes; bringing them almost neck-and-neck with Labour in both ballots – thus considerably weakening both parties in the constituency vote and – owning to the gains of the SNP (6 more seats) – significantly strengthening them in the regional list vote.
This 6 constituency increase for the SNP resulted in an absolute wipe out in the regional list. This time, rather than having fewer voters on the regional ballot than in the constituency, unionists voted tactically and migrated to the Conservative Party, and, given the working of the D’Hondt system, secured 24 seats with 22.9 percent of the vote. Labour won 21 with 19.1 percent of the vote, the Greens 6 with 6.6 percent of the vote, and the Liberal Democrats got 1 seat with 5.2 percent of the vote. But with a whopping 41.7 percent of the vote – 953,587 votes, the SNP won a paltry 4 regional list seats – 2 less than the Greens with their 150,426 regional list votes.
The conditions that prevailed in 2011 are no more. The 2014 referendum and the ongoing constitutional war of attrition have fundamentally changed the dynamics of how we do politics, of how we think politics. Unionist support is continuing to rally behind the Conservatives, and this, along with the continued success of the SNP in the constituency vote, will now always work against the SNP. Yet, Stewart McDonald is right. The SNP strategy in 2011 has been the only one that has worked, and it has won an SNP majority. It can win that majority again – theoretically, at least. But this was achieved in the favourable conditions of 2011; before the independence referendum, before the polarisation, before the collapse of Labour, and before the unionist tactical voting. Achieving another 2011 result is a tall order – but it can be done.
Yet, this is not quite what many in the wider movement and some in the ranks of the SNP want. They don’t want a slim SNP majority or a near miss supported by a handful of Greens. They want a supermajority of pro-independence MSPs – somewhere approaching 94 seats (in the best-case scenario), the kind of majority that would give our parliament the democratic and moral authority last enjoyed by the 1919 Chéad Dáil in Dublin; the Irish parliament that set in motion the process that led to Irish independence. But the SNP doesn’t want to give this. In selling a ‘majority’ – a slim majority – rather than a supermajority, the SNP gets to keep power – what little power a devolved parliament affords us – to themselves, and with that slim majority the process of ‘gradualism’ can continue – for as long as that takes. This isn’t a failure of our politics. Our political system works well enough at what it’s designed to do. What this is, is a failure of imagination and ambition. This is the road to another missed opportunity.
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7 thoughts on “The 2011 Myth”
Good strategy, but how to get this over to your average voter? Meanwhile “… what little power a devolved parliament affords …” is soon going to be stripped away piece by piece with the post-Brexit ‘UK Common Market’ or whatever they’re calling it, and who knows what else. Scotland must take the initiative and do so soon.
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So Jason do you believe we’ll have a Scottish Parliament next year?
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I do. We may have to fight for it, but yes.
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Yes, but still having a Scottish Parliament isn’t at all the same as being confident that will not be a neutered one, with powers taken to WM and/or administered through the so-called Secretary of State for Scotland and the ‘UK Govt in Scotland’s’ mega hub sitting ready in Edinburgh. Nor that much of the ‘block grant’ currently going directly to ScotGov won’t be diverted through the same Brit agencies, and distributed as largesse with a Butcher’s Apron flag all over it. That’s before we look at how the Barnet consequentials themselves will be ‘reformed’ in the post-No Deal Brexit ‘UK’ in ‘the national interest’. Or what WM legislation will come rapidly down the pipeline from WM introducing new laws and joint ‘four nation’ agreement requirement in respect of any referendums etc anywhere in the English controlled fiefdom masquerading as ‘the UK’. All of this can only be avoided by ScotGov exercising Scotland’s sovereignty NOW.
If there is a 2021 election, and boris seems determined there won’t be, I can see the SNP campaigning as the Nicola Sturgeon No To Injdyref2 Party.