The Power of Preferences: STV in Scottish Local Elections

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 26th April 2022

Much talk of the need for electoral reform focuses on Westminster and the goal of a proportionally elected House of Commons. But while the UK Parliament, and almost all of England’s elections, are still held back by First Past the Post, the UK’s other nations have made some real strides towards fairer votes. 

In our 2021 report Two Decades of PR we looked at the impact of 20 years of proportional representation on elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and London Assembly – revealing the impact that a fairer voting system has on the outcome of these devolved elections. Yet, in Scotland it is not just Holyrood whose elections have benefitted from a move away from Westminster’s distorting First Past the Post system. 

Since 2007 elections for Scottish councils have been conducted under the Single Transferable Vote (STV) – the gold standard of proportional representation. This May’s elections will be the fourth time this system has been used in Scotland and marks 15 years of proportional representation for Scottish Local Government. 

To mark this, we commissioned elections expert Professor Sir John Curtice to conduct analysis of the 2017 Scottish Local Election results and also look ahead to what might be in store in 2022. We wanted to see how, after several elections under their belts, the voters of Scotland have adapted to the power of the Single Transferable Vote. 

The results show an electorate that has embraced this new form of voting – ranking their preferences instead of being forced by a winner takes all system to take a gamble on one option, which they often view as the least worst. 

This report shows how Scottish voters are choosing to make the most of the power of preferences when they vote for their local councils. In 2017, 85.8% of ballots contained more than one preference while the number of ballots which contained three or more preferences stood at 60.7% – a steady growth since the first STV election in Scotland where just 54% did so. 

One of the benefits of this use of preferences is that voters are able to express their support for more than one party. Under First Past the Post voters have as many or as few votes are there are vacancies, meaning that voters are left unable to express a ‘second preference’ choice once they’ve backed their preferred candidates. 

In Scotland around seven in ten Conservative, Labour and SNP supporters chose to use their transferable vote to express preferences for other parties or independent candidates once they had voted for all the candidates of their party of choice. With Liberal Democrat voters it was even higher, with just one in five choosing to back the party and the party alone. 

And the increased use of preferences is important. In 2017 we saw just 38.5% of candidates elected on first preferences alone – down five points from 2012, showing the growing influence of those second, third or even fourth preferences on the outcome of Scottish local elections. Professor Curtice’s analysis found that 101 seats (or 8% of all seats) in 2017 were eventually won by candidates who were not in a winning position after the first round. 

These data show how, under STV, voters are able to shape the outcome of an election to make it far more reflective of their views and preferences than under FPTP. Indeed, the report emphasises how Scottish council elections held under STV have seen outcomes far more proportional than those seen in Scotland at the last three Westminster elections, held under First Past the Post. 

It’s too early to tell if these trends will continue into 2022, or if the increasing polarisation of Scottish politics along Nationalist/Unionist lines will impact the results but what this analysis does show is that, after 15 years of fairer votes, the people of Scotland have embraced the power of the Single Transferable Vote. 

With local authorities in Wales now also able to make the change to STV, the results in Scotland offer a powerful example of the benefits of adopting a fairer system. It’s now up to councils in Wales to take up that opportunity and continue the progress towards ensuring that voters throughout the UK benefit from fairer voting systems at every election.

Read Professor Sir John Curtice’s new report The Power of Preferences: STV in Scottish Local Elections. You can also attend a webinar on the findings on Tuesday 26th April.

Read the report The Power of Preferences: STV in Scottish Local Elections

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