How the SNP broke the electoral system last time (and why they’re unlikely to do so again)

The regional list system advantages the larger parties, but in particular the one that wins. This is for a number of reasons. In 2011, the SNP succeeded in picking up the all-important last seat in five out of eight regions, which can boost your share of seats far in excess of that which your share of the vote would entitle you to.

By contrast, if the Scottish Parliament’s regional lists were, instead, a national list, then the SNP would have won 60 seats, rather than 69 – five short of a majority. So how do you break the Scottish Parliament electoral system? And why is it unlikely that the SNP will do so next time?

Win all the constituencies

45%, uniformly, should win you almost all of the constituencies. In 2011 there was only one constituency where a candidate won 45% of the vote and still lost the seat – Frank McAveety in Glasgow Shettleston. Of course no one’s vote is uniform, but if you’re doing that on average you’re going to win a thumping majority of constituency seats. 50% on average across the constituencies likely wins you almost all of them. As constituencies account for 57% of Scottish Parliament seats, by winning them all can win you a thumping majority even when you haven’t won a majority of the vote. You’ve beat the system.

Some regions are more proportional than other

All regions have the same number of proportional list seats (7), but not necessarily the same number of constituency seats (ranging from 8-10). So if you’re going to dominate a region, it’s better to dominate regions like the North East with 10 constituencies, than the Highlands and Islands with 8 constituencies.

Divide your opponents

D’Hondt isn’t a transferrable voting system, so votes that don’t translate into seats don’t transfer to second preferences. In other words, it is in the dominant party’s interest to have a few parties on around 5%. These votes usually won’t amount to enough to win seats, allowing the dominant party to clinch those all-important final couple of seats in a region.

Bring your vote to the regions

In 2011, the SNP’s constituency vote carried over astonishingly well to the regional lists, while Labour has always struggled to do the same. This might be explained, partly, by Labour’s previous hegemony over constituencies creating a sense that regional list votes for Labour were worthless. So when Labour lost constituency seats, the extent to which they were compensated in the regions was disproportionately low. For example, had Labour carried its constituency vote share over to the regions in the Lothians, Labour would have won four regional list seats in addition to their single constituency there, and not three. The fact the SNP carried their vote over meant that they were in a good position to win “bonus” sixth or seventh seats in all most regions.

Why not text time?

In most regions, a clean sweep of constituencies wins you around 56% of the seats, meaning you’d need to win approaching 60% of the list vote in order to pick up seats in addition to those that you’ve already won. While it’s conceivable in the North East, the likelihood of the SNP winning 60% of the vote across Scotland is slim (that said, five years ago I would have considered the possibility of them winning 50% of the vote remote). But even if they did, because there are no more disproportionate constituency seats to win, every seat picked up above the 56% mark is going to relate much more closely to share of the vote.


Will Scottish Labour EVER Gain a Seat from the SNP?

Labour has never won a Scottish Parliament Constituency from the SNP.

In fact, Labour has never gained a Scottish Parliament Constituency from any of the other parties. These facts, I’ve found, tend to startle my comrades in the Scottish Labour Party when they learn them. And quite rightly too when one considers that the SNP now hold 52 out of 73 Scottish Parliament Constituencies. Even if the SNP doesn’t win a single Regional List seat in 2016 hanging onto that 52 would be a bigger win than Jack McConnell achieved in 2003. The SNP has only ever lost ONE Scottish Parliament Constituency, and that was Galloway and Upper Nithsdale to Alex Fergusson in 2003.

In hindsight, the only real opportunity the Scottish Labour Party has ever had of poaching a seat off of the SNP came in 2003. In that election there was only one SNP held constituency in which Labour were within 10 percentage points of the SNP: Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber, with a majority of just 441 (or 1%). It also bore the dubious distinction of being the only seat at that time to be held by Labour in Westminster but by the SNP at Holyrood. Not only was the Scottish Labour party unable to gain this seat, and not only did the SNP more than double their majority, but the SNP also snatched Ochil, Aberdeen North and Dundee East from Labour despite suffering a net loss of 8 seats overall. Though little significance was attached to these results at the time they foreshadowed the very real difficulty Scottish Labour has in winning seats back once lost to the SNP.

Even if one looks through the doldrums of history to the dark days of the SNP, Labour has only ever won 4 seats back from the SNP: East Dunbartonshire and Clackmannan & East Stirling in ’79, and Dundee East and the Western Isles in ’87. Labour has never won a seat from the SNP in a by-election.

I offer no explanation as to how or why SNP incumbents are hard to shift. The problem, however, doesn’t appear to be that SNP incumbents simply dig-in their heels (though as one former colleague remarked to me recently “the bastards make bloody good MSPs!”) The problem, I fear, is much more deeply rooted in that once Scots break their lifetime habit of voting Labour it’s very difficult to win them back. If this is indeed the case then the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party, whomever they might be, has a far greater mountain to climb than perhaps they realise.

How the Scottish Labour Leadership contest should look (but won’t)

Perhaps the greatest service Tom Harris has ever done for the Scottish Labour Party is to try to flush out contenders for the Scottish Labour Party’s leadership, by declaring that if no one good stands – he will. While Deputy Leader Johann Lamont is widely expected to run others potential contenders like Ken MacIntosh, Jackie Baillie and Hugh Henry seem to have gone off the idea – and who can blame them?

Despite resistance from some MSPs the expectation is that the review led by Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack is to recommend that the leader of the Scottish Labour Party can be drawn from elected representatives in The Scottish Parliament, Westminster, or the European Parliament. In theory that could mean a busy leadership contest with a wide variety of candidates, and a genuine debate about the future of the party – but I fear that may be wishful thinking. Here’s who I think should run, but probably won’t:

David Martin MEP

David is one of the most senior Members of the European Parliament, having been elected for the Lothians Constituency in 1984. He was Vice-President of the European Parliament and is currently a senior member of the Parliament’s influential Trade Committee. He could certainly take-on Salmond in Statesmanliness, having been one of Scotland’s overseas representatives for the best part of 30 years.

Now based in Bearsden David straddles the East-West divide quite nicely. He’d make an ideal candidate for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, as well as the West of Scotland list. Though he can often appear decidely middle-class he’s imbued with the sort of thoughtful socialism which the party has sorely lacked in recent years. He also appears to be well regarded by the press which, if this year’s election taught us anything, is a must.

Duncan McNeil MSP

My real outsider. A former colleage once said to me of Duncan McNeil that “along with Frank [McAveety], he has the very best grasp of ordinary voters out of everyone in the Scottish Parliament” – I couldn’t but agree. Absolutely no-one is suggesting Duncan as a potential leadership candidate but in my opinion, they should be.

Though he’s not necessarily a household name, Duncan is popular and often father-like figure within the Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament. A former organiser with the GMB, he was Government Chief Whip under Jack McConnell and was elected Chair of the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party in the last Parliament. Duncan also played a prominent role in the recent Inverclyde by-election, and I’m pretty certain that were it not for his personal popularity Labour would have lost Greenock and Inverclyde to the SNP in May.

At 61, Duncan is unlikely to have the appetite to run, however were he to do so he’d bring a much-needed dose of reality to the debate about the future of the party.

Margaret Curran MP

Margaret Curran has been touted as a potential leader of the Scottish Party since she was Communities Minister in Jack McConnell’s Government. She was one of the favourites to succeed Wendy Alexander until she was harangued into running in the Glasgow East by-election, all-but ending any change of her ever leading the party. With the north-east of Glasgow losing a seat in the Scottish Parliament Margaret’s eventual election to the House of Commons helped avoid a messy selection battle between herself, Paul Martin and Frank McAveety.

Though she’s only been an MP for little more than a year Margaret has settled well into the Commons (and eventually got out of the habit of call the Speaker “Presiding Officer”!) Word on the street is she’s Ed Miliband’s go-to-gal on matters north of the border, and should receive the backing of Westminster if she were to throw her hat in the ring.

In government and in opposition the Party’s media team carved out a highly unpleasant “attack dog” image for Margaret, which in my opinion put-off more voters than it impressed. Since leaving the front bench Margaret’s managed to soften her image somewhat to reflect the warm and witty character that she is in reality. She has the experience and fortitude to be credible against Salmond. In addition to being popular with activists (in particular Young Labour and Labour Students) she has the vigour required to shake the party up internally, something which is sorely needed.

While Tom Harris may not be alone in wishing Douglas Alexander or Jim Murphy would stand, they’ve set their sights on senior jobs in the UK Government. If the party wants MP as its leader, it has to be Margaret Curran.

Ken MacIntosh MSP

In the days that followed the election in May Ken emerged as an early favourite for the leadership, though as I mentioned above he seems to have gone off the idea. He recorded an impressive result in May, regaining his notionally Tory Eastwood Constituency and turning a notional 2,000 vote deficit into a 2,000 vote majority – though it must be noted that in a Tory/Labour marginal Ken was fighting a very different fight from most seats in the country.

Prior to his election Ken was a producer with BBC News in London. His experience with the media is immediately apparent, and he impressed many with his witty-yet-considered stint on BBC Scotland’s election coverage. Yet despite his being the Labour Group’s star-performer with the media Ken’s talents have seldom been acknowledged by successive party leaders. Overlooked for ministerial office, the only post he ever held in government was as an unpaid parliamentary aide – a position from which he resigned over hospital re-organisation. Though having never been a minister could actually work in his favour.

From a tactical perspective, I believe that Alex Salmond would find it difficult to work out how to handle Ken. With his cheery persona and ‘family-man’ image (six kids, and counting) Ken could deflect the bluster of Alex Salmond far more effectively than anyone else. If the MSPs are determined to be led by one of their own then they should be doing everything they can to make sure Ken runs.