Are the SNP about to break the Holyrood voting system (again)?

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 24th August 2015

This article was co-authored by ERS Scotland’s Juliet Swann and Danny Zinkus Sutton from Unlock Democracy   

Pollsters are perhaps not to be relied upon after their predictions for the General Election earlier in the year. Yet, despite scepticism, the polls for Scotland turned out to be largely accurate. And, as we reflected on in the week before the election, the predictions weren’t terribly different from the election results in 2011, although First Past the Post exaggerated SNP gains.

Barely three months on, the latest TNS poll for next year’s Scottish Parliament elections has the SNP polling at 62%. This is unprecedented. In 2011 and May 2015 the SNP polled up to 50%. And the Yes vote in the independence referendum was also around 45%. If the TNS poll is correct, that presents a massive leap in support.

Next year’s Holyrood elections are a chance to see the clear difference in operation of different voting systems at Westminster and in the Scottish Parliament. One of the reasons the polls (and the result) seemed so shocking in May was that the Additional Member System used for Scottish Parliament elections had balanced out some of that SNP gains with the proportional top up from the list MSPs.

The Scottish Parliament elects 129 MSPs. 73 of these are elected through a First Past the Post (FPTP) election in 73 constituencies across Scotland. Those constituencies are then grouped together into eight regions. These regions return seven additional MSPs, who are elected from party lists. But in order to make that top up proportional across the region, the number of FPTP MSPs already elected are taken into account in sharing out the list vote.

This means that if a party does well in the FPTP contests then even if they get a substantial share of the list votes, they may not win any list seats. The system instead ‘tops up’ smaller parties to achieve proportionality.

Yet in 2011, in the North East region, the SNP won all of the FPTP seats. The list candidates went home from the count, thinking that no list seats would go to the SNP. However, the number of list votes for the SNP was so high that they still polled enough votes to secure one list MSP.

On current polling the SNP look likely to win the vast majority of the 73 FPTP seats, much as they did in the Westminster Election in May. The proportional top-up should then ensure that the list seats are fairly divided amongst the parties. Even if the SNP get the highest number of list votes, it is likely they won’t win any list seats, because the of the ‘top-up’ nature of the system.

That is unless, as happened in North East Scotland, the list vote is so high that the SNP squeeze in there as well. In 2011 the percentage vote share on the list for the SNP was 52.7%. They are polling 54% on the list, which suggests they could win a few list seats as well as constituency seats in some regions.

Our high-level model, using a uniform swing, has the SNP winning 71 of the 73 constituency seats next May – 97% of the seats on about 62% of the constituency vote. The Lib Dems and the Conservatives pick up one each, while the Labour Party with 20% of the constituency vote would win no seats.

At the regional level it looks like the SNP might pick up 8 top up seats for a total of 79 seats or 61% of the total. Labour pick up 25 of the remaining regional seats for 19% of Holyrood seats. The Conservatives get 14 additional seats for a total of 15 seats (12%), and the Greens’ 8% of list votes garners them 9 seats (7%).

To a certain extent this shows that the system is working. If the SNP poll 62% of the vote (as predicted by the TNS poll), then a proportional share of seats in the Scottish Parliament would be around 78 – so most of the FPTP seats plus a few list seats.

However, it’s not all as it seems. Can the voter truly express their preference if tens of thousands of SNP votes on the list are effectively thrown away? Particularly if, despite the final result in terms of number of seats being proportional, the voters can’t kick out their safe-seat constituency MP, or feel forced to still vote tactically in that ballot.

If instead of just one vote, the electorate were able to rank their choices, as we do in local government elections using the Single Transferable Vote, then those first preferences for the SNP could be transferred to another party, potentially changing the make-up of the list results.

Why is this important? Firstly because every vote should count. But secondly because Holyrood is a unicameral parliament. We don’t have a second chamber to revise and check, so diversity in that single chamber is vital for accountability of our decision makers.

The SNP have a long standing principled commitment to using the Single Transferable Vote. Maybe it’s time we thought about using it for our Holyrood elections as well as local government. 

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