More needs to be done
The Electoral Reform Society are the UK and Scotland’s foremost supporters of proportional representation, but we know that no national political culture is malleable enough to be transformed by a simple change in electoral system. Scotland’s distinct political identity, obvious in electoral results from the 1970s onwards, is not only heavily influenced by the fondness for a single “national party” promoted by both Labour and the SNP, but was also forged under FPTP. The combination of an assertive national identity and a winner-takes-all electoral system has meant that many Scots have become comfortable with – even fond of – one party predominating in national elections so long as it is seen to represent, defend and expand a widely accepted sense of national autonomy.
The SNP’s rise to predominance in Scotland, despite the Scottish Parliament’s semi-proportional electoral system, shows just how sturdy political culture can be. However, there are several features of the Scottish Parliament that not only allow for party predominance, but may actively encourage it.
Much of this comes down to the particular type of proportional representation used in Scotland – better described as “semi-proportional” rather than strictly proportional. As discussed above, the electoral system features both constituency seats and regional list seats. Because the constituency seats are elected via the winner-takes-all FPTP system, they require a higher investment of party resources, which tends to shut out smaller parties.
This system also favours the incumbent: a single MSP representing all the voters in a single constituency, while multiple list MSPs from different parties share representation of a single region, which 4 encourages constituency MSPs to build support across party lines amongst their constituents. Curtice and Steven found that there was a clear “incumbency bonus” in many constituencies in the 2011 Holyrood election22. As a result, Scottish Labour’s loss of vote share in constituencies was less severe than on the regional list.
The Scottish Parliament has more constituency MSPs than list MSPs. Indeed, it is possible to win a majority of seats on constituency MSPs alone – this is precisely what Curtice suggests will happen according to the trends in current polls. A disproportionately high success rate in constituencies was one of the reasons that the SNP won a majority in 2011 on 45 percent of the vote, while they may win a majority of seats this year with just 46 percent of the list vote if the polls are accurate.
If the party succeeds in winning close to a majority of seats on constituency seats alone this year, it may be able to use the resulting “incumbency bonus” to nurture a near – or absolute majority of ‘safe’ constituencies, ensuring future parliamentary majorities against the party’s vote share falling well below 50 percent.