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.


Projection: SNP majority of 13, big gains for Greens and UKIP

MAR 1 survation

SNP: 71 (+2)
Labour: 22 (-15)
Conservative: 16 (+1)
Lib Dem: 5 (-)
Green: 9 (+7)
UKIP: 6 (+4)

Survation 1 March 2016

Apologies for the delay in crunching the numbers on this – I was on holiday!

Last week’s Survation poll stands in some contrast to the TNS poll published on the same day, reporting a modest seat-gain for the SNP, although another disaster for Scottish Labour.

On Survation’s figures, the SNP look set to win 67 out of 73 constituency seats, leaving Labour with all but one of their constituencies – Dumfriesshire. The SNP also poach Liam McArthur’s seat in Orkney. By contrast, the Tories retain their current crop of constituencies, and snatch Eastwood from Labour’s Ken MacIntosh too.

Central Scotland sees the seven regional list seats divided up between Labour and the SNP, with the SNP taking the final two seats in the region, although Conservatives, UKIP, and the Liberal Democrats are all competitive for the final seat here.

The Conservatives poll strongly in the South of Scotland, though their strong performance in constituencies here leaves them with no regional seats. The Tories lose a regional seat each in Central Scotland, and Mid Scotland and Fife, while gaining a seat in both Highlands and Islands and North East Scotland.

The Greens chalk up impressive gains, gaining an extra seat in Glasgow, as well as wining two in both Mid Scotland and Fife and South of Scotland. Similarly, the Lib Dems win not one but two seats in the Lothians, a reflection, perhaps, of the party’s former strength in Edinburgh. UKIP are the other big gainers, winning six seats, and in the case of South of Scotland and Highlands and Islands winning them comfortably.

The SNP’s failure to make significant gains in South of Scotland would see Justice Minister Paul Wheelhouse, Environment Minister Aileen McLeod, and high-profile MSP Joan McAlpine out of a job. North East MSP Christian Allard would also fail to be returned in the North East, while former MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville is once again left-out of the Scottish Parliament.*

While a near-clean sweep of constituencies appears to be on the cards, the data appear to show some competitive three-way races in Edinburgh Central, Southern, and Western, as well as Eastwood. Tactical voting may well produce surprise results in these seats. Labour also remains competitive in East Lothian.

 *Correction: it has subsequently been drawn to my attention that SAS is standing in Dunfermline, which would mean that she would, in fact, return to Holyrood.

Projection: SNP majority of 31, Willie Rennie to lose seat

mar 1 tns

SNP: 80
Labour: 28
Conservative: 13
Lib Dem: 5
Green: 3

TNS 1 March 2014

This week’s TNS poll brings great cause for cheer for the SNP, reaching new heights in both constituency and regional voting intention – polling at 60% and 55% respectively. Labour are on 21% by both measures, which at least brings the comfort that they don’t appear to be declining any further (small comforts, eh?)

On the latest figures, I’m projecting SNP on 80 seats, winning a thumping majority of 31. 28 seats for Labour is at the higher end of recent expectations of the party’s performance. The Greens gain a second seat in the Lothians, and the Lib Dems remain static. Perhaps, most surprisingly, the much-touted Conservative surge is still yet to materialise – with a projected 13 seats, a 2 seat decline on 2011.

Once again, the South of Scotland provides some of the most interesting data, with Tory support there plummeting. Perhaps by broadening the Tories appeal to newer voters, Ruth Davidson is alienating some of the more traditional support in Tory seats.

The Tories are projected to lose all of their seats in the South of Scotland, but gain Eastwood from Labour. The Lib Dems retain Shetland, but lose Orkney, and are compensated with a seat on the Highlands and Islands list. On the basis of the TNS poll, it’s a constituency wipeout for Labour.

On a regional basis, Labour is projected to win 28 seats. Central Scotland is projected to be Labour’s strongest performance, winning 5 seats, with 4 in Glasgow and West. While the Liberal Democrats remain static on 5, their leader Willie Rennie is forecast to lose his seat in Mid-Scotland and Fife. the Lib Dems are projected to pick up regional seats in Glasgow, Central, and Highlands and Islands – meaning returns for former MSPs Robert Brown and Jamie Stone. Perhaps most astonishingly, the SNP wins FOUR regional list seats in the North East, in addition to sweeping all 10 constituencies. 

The resurgence of smaller parties projected by the previous Survation poll isn’t borne out by TNS, with the Greens forecast to pick up only one more seat in the Lothians.