Gaming the Holyrood voting system is far too big a risk


WHEN proposing a “solution”, it’s always a good idea to be sure you know what problem it is you’re actually trying to solve. So when Ruth Wishart suggests that independence supporters should make a strategic switch on the Holyrood regional list ballot and start voting for an untried and untested (and at present extremely small) party, and that we should do so in the hope that the quirks of the voting system will deliver a greater number of pro-indy MSPs, the first question that needs to be asked is why that objective is so important.  

Is it because we won’t win a pro-indy majority in the Scottish Parliament if we don’t try something new and daring? Well, no, it can’t be that, because both of the last two elections have produced decisive majorities for Yes parties, and the 2011 election even produced a single-party SNP majority. All recent opinion polls suggest the SNP are sailing towards regaining that majority. OK, polls can be inaccurate and they’re only snapshots of opinion in any case – but if things go badly wrong on polling day, that will translate first and foremost into a heavy loss of constituency seats, which the SNP will need to make up for on the list if they’re to remain in power as a minority government. They’ll plainly be less likely to manage that if some of their own keenest supporters don’t even vote for them on the list.

Or is the problem that the voting system is somehow biased against the independence parties, and that we need to think outside the box to ensure that we get our fair share of representation? Nope, it’s not that either, because the 53% of MSPs who are pro-indy were elected on the basis of 47% of the constituency vote and 49% of the regional list vote. For as long as the SNP remain the dominant party, the forces of Yes can expect to be slightly over-represented, even under a system of proportional representation.

All of which leads me to conclude that gaming the system is something we don’t actually need to do, and that what we’d be chasing is just a few bonus seats which would be nice to have but that wouldn’t make any real difference to the cause. That being the case, it’s vital to be sure that the risks involved do not exceed the relatively modest potential rewards. If we’re putting the whole pro-indy majority at risk in pursuit of a lovely bonus, that’s not a rational thing to do. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it would only make sense to try any of this if the risks are essentially non-existent.

And that plainly is not the case. Independence parties currently have 10 list seats (the SNP have four and the Greens six), and without those MSPs there would be no pro-indy majority. Some may naively assume that defecting to a new Yes party on the list wouldn’t put those seats in jeopardy, because as the SNP and Greens lose seats, the new party would gain them. But it’s unlikely to work that way in practice, because to win even a single seat, a party needs to reach at least 5% or 6% of the vote in an electoral region. It’s extremely unusual for a fringe party to hit that target – the only time it’s happened in the history of the Scottish Parliament was in 2003, when the Scottish Senior Citizens’ Unity Party unexpectedly won one seat. But even that feat was only achieved by means of the eye-catching stunt of running Old Firm legends Billy McNeill and Eric Caldow as paper candidates (ie. they were both ranked far enough down the list that there was no chance of them being elected).

Proponents of gaming the system often talk as if pro-indy voters are pieces on a chess board, and that you can achieve the desired effect by casually moving several hundred thousand votes from one party to another. Just like that, as Tommy Cooper used to say. Real people are not so easily herded, and to achieve the scale of tactical switching that would be required to remove any risk, you’d need one of two things – either a mind-control ray, or an individual with an enormous personal following who can front the new party and bring a shedload of votes with them. Quite literally the only politician I can think of who ticks those boxes is Alex Salmond. If, hypothetically, he was to throw in his lot with the new party, or if he was to set up his own party, the equation would change.

But in the more likely event that Mr Salmond doesn’t do that, any so-called “tactical votes on the list” will effectively disappear into a black hole, and unionist parties will be the extremely grateful beneficiaries.

This article is part of a new digital-only section of our website we are trialling, where we’ll bring you reaction, analysis and opinion pieces by our best writers in real-time, without you having to wait for the newspaper to be printed. Please send any feedback to callum.baird@thenational.scot!

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