What’s happening in Scotland?

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 29th April 2015

If the polls are to be believed, next Thursday Scotland will vote to send more SNP MPs to the House of Commons than ever before. Why is what used to be a stable voting pattern seeing such a massive change?

Since devolution, or rather since 2003 when they got to grips with voting in the devolved election, Scottish voters have behaved differently when voting for Westminster than for Holyrood.

Thanks to the Scottish Parliament’s more proportional voting system, the spread of votes for parties who had traditionally not done well under First Past the Post actually had an impact and voters were given the opportunity to see multi-party politics, and they understood how to use their vote to make the most of the system.

They also understood that the FPTP system meant it was unlikely that these parties would win seats in a General Election, and in any case, we would be as well to vote for one of the parties that might get to form a government – or be a reasonably sized party of opposition – rather than a small group shouting from the fringes.

So, despite the SNP winning (just) more seats than Labour in Holyrood in 2007 and running a minority government that seemed to be reasonably popular with the electorate, in the 2010 General Election every seat in Scotland stayed exactly as it had in 2005.

But then the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections went a bit off piste. The SNP started winning the constituency FPTP seats as well as securing a high percentage of the proportional regional vote. They were seeing up to 20% increases in their vote share in some constituencies. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat vote was collapsing in similar proportions. In fact, they lost their deposit in 45 of the 73 seats they stood candidates in.

And then there was the referendum.

45% of voters chose Yes, which was almost the same as the vote share of the pro-independence parties at the 2011 election.
What was unexpected was when the polling for Westminster started repeating these trends. The SNP are still polling an average of 45% if you look at the poll of polls.

In the past it was difficult for the SNP to win FPTP elections as their vote share was spread quite thinly around the country. 2011 saw a dramatic shift in that pattern, which looks to be repeated on May 7th.

In many ways therefore this level of support for the SNP isn’t surprising, it’s been evident since 2011. What is surprising is the change in voters’ attitude towards sending SNP MPs to Westminster. On the other hand, given that a poll in the final weeks before the referendum by ICM for the Guardian which tested reasons why people in Scotland were planning to vote Yes or No found that for 51% of Yessers their motivation was “Your feelings about Westminster and the types of politicians there”, maybe even that shouldn’t be a surprise.

All of which suggests that reforming Westminster is high on the agenda for Scottish voters and that they consider the best way to make that happen is to send SNP MPs down to London. Which is ironic, because if Westminster is reformed then for many voters independence will be a less attractive prospect.

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