26 April 2016

Just how solid is Scottish Labour's list vote?

Amid all the process and horse race stuff in this Holyrood election, there is one rather important question going conspicuously unasked: just how solid is Scottish Labour's list vote anyway? 

All the mischief has focused on the loyalty of folk likely to vote SNP in the constituencies. Will they stick with "Nicola Sturgeon for First Minister", or split their tickets, lending support to some other party for the regional calculation? This is all well and good. But the endless, circular conversation about the virtues and vices of #BothVotesSNP overlooks the fact that it is Kezia Dugdale's party whose fate will largely be determined by the d'Hondt calculations and the weight of support she can command on the regional ballot. 

And Scotland's electoral history being what it is, I wonder if Scottish Labour aren't more vulnerable to - potentially catastrophic - leakage in regional support than we've generally noticed. As countless commentators have pointed out, for years, in the wake of devolution, Labour didn't have a second vote strategy - they didn't need a second vote strategy - being comfortably returned to office on the back of the first-past-the-post constituencies and their reliable confrères, the Liberal Democrats.  

In this model, if Scottish Labour's electoral fortunes were to improve, you'd expect this to express itself in constituency gains rather than regional progress. But if the Holyrood map broadly follows Westminster's this election, the whole basis of Labour support will have been rearranged on a regional basis. In fairness, Scottish Labour are pushing their own #BothVotesLabour message. I'm sure old time Labour supporters who have stuck with the party will heed this and maintain a disciplined ticket. But the party aren't going great guns with the message. Which seems a decidedly strange thing, considering how critical a solid, loyal regional ballot is for the party's standing in the next parliament. 

Look at this historically. Take 2011. Alex Salmond's SNP secured 902,915 constituency ballots, and 876,421 in the regions. We shouldn't understand this as a straightforward 26,494 drop. The regional tally will include a decent whack of folk who voted for other parties in constituency contests. My favourite 2011 illustration of this dynamic was Ayr. A straightforward SNP vs Tory runoff, Conservative candidate John Scott secured 12,997 constituency votes, and a 1,113 vote majority over his SNP opponent. But in the region, the folk of Ayr gave the Tories only 8,539 votes, a drop of 4,458 on their constituency figures - and the SNP were the obvious beneficiaries of the Tory regional slump. Chic Brodie took 11,884 constituency votes, but Ayr's regional tally gave the Nats 14,377, an increase of 2,493 which put them 5,838 regional votes ahead of the Tories who'd routed their constituency campaign.  

So what about Labour? In 2011, Iain Gray took 630,461 constituency papers and just 523,559, losing over 100,000 votes between ballot papers. Like the SNP picture, we shouldn't oversimplify what was going on under Labour's grand totals. It almost certainly wasn't a tit for tat drop. Voters will have moved in, and out of, Labour's constituency and regional columns. But this was a discernibly squishier performance than the Nats in a closely contested campaign. In the event, Labour holds in constituencies in their traditional heartlands staved off some of the harsher consequences of this "voter promiscuity" in 2011. But if all does not go well for the party in its constituency battles in Glasgow and elsewhere - a gap of anything like 100,000 people is seriously going to hurt. And this, before we get into questions of differential turnout.

Part of me wonders if the electoral map in 2016 doesn't encourage an awkward dynamic for Kezia Dugdale, likely to encourage opponents of the SNP to lend her their constituency ballots, while distributing their regional votes elsewhere.  

Imagine you are a Labour voter of what we'll call the Alex Massie tradition. You voted No in 2014. You don't much care for the Nats. You live in a constituency where the Tories or the Lib Dems cannot prosper, where they're not even in the running. What do you do? Option One: damn the arithmetic and vote for what you believe in. If the local Tory or Liberal Democrat gains only a couple of thousand votes? Well, you salute their efforts. Alternatively, you might consider Option Two: use your constituency vote tactically vote for the Labour candidate most likely to frustrate the SNP. In Leith, say, you might support Lesley Hinds. In Glasgow, you might take a punt on Johann Lamont against Humza Yousaf. 

If Option Two seems attractive to you, however, there is a snowball's chance in hell that you're going to stick with the Labour party in the regions. You might also have a soft spot for one of the smaller parties who are only really in contention in the regional list. Perhaps you favour Brexit, and want to see a David Coburn, rolling around Holyrood, blaggarding the European Union. Perhaps Patrick Harvie seems like a sound character, and you want a decent Green delegation in Holyrood, advocating environmental concerns.  In local elections in areas in which they do well, the Greens are pretty transfer happy from a curious range of sources, including Scottish Tories. Perhaps you'd like RISE, modestly, to rise.

Given the parts of the country where Labour remains strongest against the SNP, I'd suggest the calculating anti-Nat and the floating, unpartisan, split-ticket voter is far more likely to cast a - perhaps doomed - constituency ballot for them rather than the vital, life-giving regional support Dugdale needs to survive. In fairness, recent polls suggest Labour's performance across the two ballots is pretty solid, at a (dismal) 18% to 19%.  A squishy list vote may be the least of her concerns. Time will tell.


  1. Replies
    1. Speaking as an unabashed partisan myself, isn't this a fair enough description of someone who divides their support between different parties?

    2. He's talking about your spelling, doofus.

    3. *cough*


      *activates the memory hole, as is the blogger's privilege*

  2. Interesting. I live in a Tory-leaning area. Mundell is the MP, though the Holyrood seat is a different kettle of fish including a part of Midlothian and excluding Dumfriesshire. Christine Grahame is the sitting (SNP) MSP.

    My next-door-neighbour is a Labour loyalist. This time last year on the afternoon of polling day he said to me, "I've just been up there and voted for your lot to keep Mundell out." Rational choice, even though it didn't (quite) work. (The following day I suggested that he must be one of the few people even more pissed off by the result than I was - at least I'd voted for the party I support and we'd made eye-watering gains elsewhere. His party had crashed and burned and even his tactical vote hadn't succeeded.)

    I was musing, what will he do this time? Maybe he thinks Labour are in with a chance because of the Penicuik vote. But that's a forlorn hope. Labour didn't hold the seat when they were riding high - the previous incumbent before the SNP was a LibDem. Who is now in the House of Lords, damn his eyes.

    With the LibDems and Labour both collapsing in heaps, the unionists (I'm not at all sure that includes my neighbour) are tending to unite behind the Tories. If any party is threatening Christine Grahame's majority it must be the Conservatives. My neighbour hates the Tories and regards the SNP in a relatively benign light.

    I think if I was him I'd vote SNP in the constituency just to make damn sure I didn't inadvertently contribute to a Tory constituency win, then Labour on the list where they need every vote they can get. But will he do that? I have no idea. Maybe he'll tell me.

  3. This is all very well Andrew but do most Scots actually understand the 2nd prefs? I only thought I did because I read you explaining it once but of course I don't really.

    According to the Record poll of 5 days ago


    7% of SNP voters want UKip to come in 2nd place (7%!!), 11% want Tories, 33% want Labour, 40% want Green, 3% want Other (mostly RISE?). The Green pref share is the largest but likely also the softest - the nearly 1 in 4 who want Tory or UKip won't switch no matter what remarkable delights Sturgeon and No Way Hosie promise them.

    1. Damn 11 and 7 makes nearly 1 in 5 not in 4. I can't do this stuff. Anyway, who are these people?

    2. Polls suggest a substantial minority (1/3?) of SNP voters want to leave the EU. So if even only say 1/4 of them have Ukip as their second preference, that's how you get 7% of the total wanting Ukip to come second. Or to be more granular, there are historically safe SNP seats in the Aberdeenshire coast - Peterhead, Lossiemouth, Fraserburgh and so on. They don't vote Ukip (partly because they have no chance of winning), but those fishing towns will have no love of the EU.

    3. Hi Unknown. Indeed, and if the turnout is more than the sad 50.4% of 2011, the game could well and truly be a bogie.

  4. Eddie, SNP supporters wanting ukip or Tories in second doesnt necessarily mean you support them any more than Clinton voters wanting Trump to win the GOP nomination.

    1. Hi Douglas, long time no see. Well, as lots of people are saying just now (notably the SNP) voting tactically for parties or people you don't agree with is setting yourself up for breakfast in hell, as your American example would indicate. Cruz is actually an easier target for the Democrats than Trump - the latter is to some extent (we have yet to find out how far) an actor, Cruz means every mad policy.

      In any case (as Anonymous points out) UKip do represent at lesst part of what some SNP voters want, As RISE do, for a different (ad smaller) SNP (and indeed Labour) element.

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