2007 - 2021

A Post First Past the Post Scotland

Explaining the rise of the SNP has always been problematic for unionists. The most commonly used method is to decouple support for the party with support for its central aim of independence. This was Willie Ross’s response in the seventies and the landslide in 2011 was explained in exactly the same terms. The Scottish people, we are told, don’t want their own state: but are drawn to the SNP as competent regional administrators who ‘fight Scotland’s corner’ .

There are several obvious anomalies that spring from such an analysis. If support for independence is so low: why have those opposed to the idea been so keen to dance to the SNP’s tune? Why have decades and millions been lavished on commissions, referenda and conventions to stave off a vote on the question of independence itself? Whatever their hopes for next year unionists must realise that first past the post – the results of which form the bedrock of Labour success – is notoriously bad at reflecting what an electorate actually thinks.

In the current debate, there is only one poll that counts. First past the post elections like 2010 are characterized by patterns of behaviour, like tactical voting, that simply don’t apply to next year’s vote.

Let’s remember some of the deformities that Westminster elections produce:

The least worst option

This warped reality tells us nothing about how voters might act in a referendum. It may also be part of the reason why the SNP conference received positive coverage from the most unlikely of sources, the Scotland on Sunday. The paper’s leader,  stated:

It is now clear that the SNP has decided to fight the independence referendum in much the same way it fights normal parliamentary elections’.

This, says the editorial, contrasts with the vague, utopian tone of Yes Scotland which rather than appealing to ‘middle Scotland’ contains many voices ‘on the radical fringes of Scottish politics.

This is the beginning of a narrative in which a unique vote on Scotland’s future can be cast as just another election with ‘retail politics’ at its heart. Like far too many elections in recent years: this engenders a real danger that many voters will choose to switch off.

Dunfermline provides a topical illustration of how parties operate when fighting a first past the post election. They’re often hysterical and happy to mislead their potential constituents. The oppositional nature of such contests make them inherently easier to cover than one in which the winner doesn’t take all.

First past the post has created a stagnant political landscape and massive alienation. It has crushed a thousand hopes for local, regional or national change. All in the name of cherished ‘stability’ or the sheer bliss of parliamentary majorities unfettered by modern democratic process. We all know fellow electors rendered apathetic after a lifetime of tactical voting resulting in precious little change.

Though able to fight such elections – the SNP’s politics are more complex. For starters, it is a broad church and many in its congregation are no strangers to the ‘radical fringes’. Why do so many voices sit comfortably (for the most part) within it? Maybe it’s because it is a party with a reformist agenda that is, perhaps by accident, inherently radical. Unlike any other mainstream party: it is united behind a clear aim.

The Scottish electorate know this and may just be getting a taste for a politics that is not about choosing the least worst option. As commentators from across the spectrum are keen to point out: the Scottish electorate (that is the half that can be bothered to turn up) are a savvy bunch. Presumably these voters are able to calmly assess the referendum for what it is: a decision, like ’97, about where power lies. They also need to understand that, unlike the 2010 general election, it will be the majority, not the minority, of votes that will carry the day.

We live in a post first past the post Scotland: in which, whatever their faults, the SNP have become the party with the ability to shake things up.

Broken Promises

The excruciating decline of the Liberal Democrats is a daily reminder of this. Nick Clegg no longer walks along the embankment promising change –  weeping now mars his once presidential visage. His party’s journey back into the political wilderness is a very British farce in which it showed both the inadequacy of the system: then went on to blow their one chance to change it.

The significance of May 2011 was twofold. It saw not only a wave of support for a pro-independence party, but also the vital question of electoral reform at UK level holed below the waterline.

Lords reform, though often talked up, is off the table and this government (again by accident) has become the most Eurosceptic we’ve seen for a generation. None of these questions show that English or Scottish people have different values, or even different political priorities. They do show, with increasing clarity, that the system is broken. Given this critical sense of political failure within the UK: I don’t think it’s outlandish to suggest that the appeal of the SNP is that it is the only mainstream party that wants systematic change.

In contrast, the UK constitutional debate, for Labour and Tory, is a skeleton that refuses to stay in the closet.

Why can’t the gilded splendour of the Palace of Westminster, the robes, the quasi-religious pomp and ceremony, suffice? In recent years it has become all too clear that, both literally and figuratively, this institution is only nominally representative. “The mother of parliaments” is a strange place. Its mythic status as the fountainhead of democracy (though it is of course far younger than the Althing of Iceland) has allowed it to consistently remain, like a gentlemen’s club, a place so obscure and archaic that few bother to question its workings. The union can also lay claim to the largest second chamber on the planet (after China) and to being the only such body, other than Iran, in which divine authority gets to chip in.

Westminster in decline

Labour’s decline north of the border was set in motion by conceding fairer voting systems at Holyrood and in local government. Then again, leading One Nation Labour politicians in Scotland remain ensconced in very safe Westminster seats. The constituency that Anas Sarwar inherited from his father was voting Labour 33 years before he was born. His fellow frontbencher in neighbouring Glasgow East, Willie Bain, can cuddle up at night with a Labour majority that has existed since 1935.

The cause of electoral reform in the UK is almost as old as that of Scottish Home Rule. The first of a long list of commissions whose recommendations would never be enacted sat in 1910 and recommended the introduction of AV. The fact that this incremental reform could still not be implemented a century later, speaks volumes about the UK’s inability to refashion the route to which people gain power. It is clearly incapable of doing so.

Perhaps hatred of Salmond stems not so much from his proposition; centred, as it is on a modest; transitional change. If he could just propose trying to implement it over the course of a century, he might be onto a winner in the eyes of the British establishment. It might even land him a peerage. Yet perhaps part of this most ebullient politician’s popularity is that he never has and never could be integrated into the British establishment. In Westminster, he and his far too speedy programme for constitutional change has always been decidedly foreign.

Politically, independence is the inevitable result of the lack of electoral reform. Labour remain trapped in the dirty, mean, negative practices of first past the post. The Liberal Democrats have lost what was once for many a compelling narrative on changing it. The Tories have only ever been interested in reform as a means to check further progress.

There is of course a simple reason why the words ‘reform’ and SNP are hardly ever uttered together. The union is what gets reformed.  Like every other school child in Scotland lessons on democracy centred around a list of dates in a textbook that started in 1832 and ended in 1948.

Today we’re still told that “social justice” can be delivered without changing the centralised, unrepresentative and undemocratic network of patronage through which most of our politicians gain power. The vital question of who makes the decisions is a distraction from more important affairs of state. We have to remember that these are the same arguments that have been deployed against every agenda for reform ever put forward in these isles.

What is precious and perhaps unique about the coming referendum is that we have two contrasting visions of future governance up against each other and every vote will count. This is not a general election. It is a rare opportunity for a group of citizens to be able to choose their optimal result, not the second best, or the least worst.

Half of the Scottish electorate didn’t turn up to vote in 2011. That figure alone is perhaps the most compelling reason for the radical shake up of our democracy that independence represents.


Comments (7)

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  1. Fantastic piece of work!!!

  2. David Smillie says:

    I enjoyed this article and agree with its thesis. Nonetheless, I have often wondered if the SNP’s electoral popularity might one day bring about an actual constitutional revolution under first past the post. What if the level of support the SNP got at the last Holyrood election were to be given to them, under FPTP, at a UK General Election? I haven’t done the arithmetic, but might it mean that they swept the board under FPTP? And, if so, we have the possibility of Irish-style UDI, whereby the SNP group withdraws from London, reconvenes in Edinburgh and gets on with Scottish business just as the first Dail did. Mind you, we all know how Westminster reacted to that.

  3. Political Tourist says:

    What exactly was the SNP position on a referendum during the 1970s.
    I’m sure their position was a majority of Scottish MPs was enough to start talks with London.
    Something like 37 out of 72 as it was back then.
    Wasn’t the 1979 referendum a completely Labour idea.

    1. Sunshine on Crieff says:

      I seem to remember that being the case. Whether the outcome of negotiations would have been put to the electorate I don’t know (or can’t remember).

  4. Political Tourist says:

    What i do remember from the mid 1970s was handing a workmate a couple of pound notes to join Jim Sillars Scottish Labour Party.
    Couple of days later i asked for my membership card.
    “there you go says my workmate and oh, your expelled”.
    Must be some sort of world record.

  5. A simple majority of Westminster seats ‘should’ be a mandate for Independence. But faced with the British State, winning a referendum, and a majority of MP’s is likely to be needed. Little by little we’re getting there. Good article: the fact that the UK is utterly resistant to reform is a major reason to quit the Union

  6. mark says:

    So is fptp still notoriously bad at demonstrating what an electorate thinks?

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