A few people in the SNP and the Greens are taking turns calling each other’s votes “wasted,” a notion which still infuriates me. Some are saying that because the Greens were only a few thousand away from another list MSP while the SNP were tens of thousands from even their first, it meant the Greens needed fewer votes for victory: ergo, hundreds of thousands of SNP votes were deemed “wasted.” On the other hand, others are saying that the predictions of clean sweeps of SNP constituencies and the “certainty” of an SNP majority hurt both the constituency and list SNP votes for the sake of only 6 Green MSPs: ergo, tens of thousands of Green votes were “wasted.”
I will defend the SNP to the hilt when called to, and I will champion my allies in other pro-independence parties when impugned by the forces of Unionism. I will note tolerate misconceptions or faulty presentations of any sort, regardless of cause. But in the argument of “tactical voting,” I’m of the firm opinion there are no winners save the bookies. People’s votes are not beans to be counted: each one is a solemn contract between elector and elected. They are precious. Divvying them up to maximise whatever cause you promote, any cause, is an affront to the people’s sovereignty.
Part of me feels that much of the fallout from the “Both Votes SNP” vs “Second Vote Green” campaign was because it was perceived too much as keeping Unionists out, rather than getting pro-independence parties in: the bad feeling resulted in neither SNP nor Greens being wholly satisfied, while the “pro-indy majority, SNP minority” group were undoubtedly very pleased. Meanwhile, Ruth Davidson storms the Gates of Holyrood atop a mighty buffalo, at the head of 30 other MSPs. There’s a cold splash of water in the collective face of the independence movement if ever we needed one.
Even so, it’s worth looking at the results for a bit to see what can be learned.
Arc of Prosperity once again provides valuable number-crunching. Let’s take my region, the West of Scotland, as an example:
SNP Cons Labour Green LD UKIP (Const) (Const) (Const) 17218 (7) 12097 5856 (Const) 35764 (2) 36272 (1) 8609 (Const) 23842 (4) 24181 (3) (Const) 17882 (6) 18136 (5) (Const) 14305  14508  (Const) 11921 12090 (Const) (Const) 15091  13582
To win the last list seat, you needed a figure of 17219. This means that the SNP needed 154971 instead of 135827 list votes.
The SNP needed another 19,144 votes (another 12.35%) for the West of Scotland to get Stewart Maxwell back into the Scottish Parliament. The Greens needed 34,436 (200%) to get Ross Greer and Veronika Tudhope into the Scottish Parliament. 34,436 is 22% of the SNP’s list vote – over one in five SNP voters would’ve had to lend their vote to the Greens – and with the best will in the world, the West of Scotland has not been historically fertile ground for the party.
If the SNP just got out another 20,000 voters across the West Scotland region, and still (somehow) lost Eastwood, we would’ve retained Stewart Maxwell at the possible cost of Ross Greer. I appreciate that’d be disappointing to Greens, but look beyond party politics: Stewart Maxwell has a proven track record. He’s served in the Scottish Parliament since 2003; he’s a former minister; he was the architect of many healthy and pro-environmental policies. He’s served Scotland well, and I’m certain would’ve continued to do so had he been elected. Ross Greer is young and unproven: he’s got a tough job ahead of him.
20,000 seems like a big ask in terms of individual votes compare to the few thousands for the Greens in constituencies that did not gain any Greens on the list – but the difference is that while the Greens would need to increase their votes to unprecedented levels, the SNP vote is already out there. In 2015, 24,858 voted SNP in Inverclyde: in 2016, it was 17,032. Almost 7,000 people who voted SNP in 2015 – more than the entire turnout for the Other Party in 2016 – did not vote for Stuart McMillan (although about 4,000 people from Kilmacolm didn’t vote for anyone in Greenock & Inverclyde due to it being part of Renfrewshire North and West: the SNP voters there voted for Derek Mackay). That alone is over a third of the 20,000 the West Scotland region needed to get Stewart Maxwell back in – and West Scotland has nine other constituencies. And that’s not even factoring the 27,243 who are recorded voting for independence in 2014. Luckily, the other parties in Greenock & Inverclyde saw just as much of a drop in vote share, which is why Stuart McMillan is our MSP with 53% of the vote.
So from a purely “maximise the pro-indy vote” sense, who’s at fault: the SNP for “Both Votes SNP,” or the Greens for “SNP/Green”? The answer is both… and neither.
The truth of the matter is that both parties ultimately failed in their most ambitious goals. The SNP failed to increase their 2011 list vote – in other words, “Both Votes SNP” didn’t work because not enough people voted SNP on the list. It didn’t backfire – that suggests that it worked as intended, when quite evidently it did not, since a smaller proportion of the electorate voted SNP on the list than in 2011 (even if the overall numbers were up due to higher turnout). However, the Greens also failed to capitalise on their campaign to convince enough SNP supporters to take their vote threshold to second list MSP level, even if this is by far their best vote yet. “Second Vote Green” didn’t work because not enough people voted Green in the list.
For what it’s worth, I am of the belief that the majority of list votes for the SNP and the Green list votes were not tactical, but honest and heartfelt decisions for who the voters wanted to see in Parliament. The SNP’s list vote percentage dropped by only 2.3 points on 2011 – a crucial difference which cost a net loss of 6 MSPs in 2016. Meanwhile, the Greens’ list vote grew by 2.2 points, gaining 4 MSPs. Now, consider that a substantial number of former SNP voters did not vote in this election, and the apparent “drop” in support for the SNP is more than handily explained by the drop in turnout compared to the 2015 election (which I will discuss in a moment).
In my preliminary readings, I don’t perceive a particularly huge shift of SNP voters to the Greens, nor do I see the SNP convince a substantial number of Greens to go “Both Votes SNP.” The results suggest to me that most people voted exactly the way their hearts wanted – and that’s the only way to ensure your vote was not wasted, even if it didn’t get the result you wanted.
My ire is not directed at the Greens themselves, even if I am not going to tolerate anyone saying the SNP’s list votes were “wasted” when it’s clear from 2015 and 2014 that their electorate exists. Nor am I angry at my own party, even if I think we must claim chief responsibility for not getting the votes we needed. We should have won Dumbarton. We should have won Eastwood. We shouldn’t have had to rely on the list at all. I’m not going to make after-the-fact calculations, lamenting “if only more SNP/Greens had voted SNP/Greens on the list”: the vote is cast. What’s done is done. And in the end, we have a strong SNP government who do not necessarily need the Greens to “prop them up” to defeat the three Unionist parties – as long as the Greens don’t vote with the Unionist coalition. The only people whose votes were wasted were the ones who didn’t vote at all – and that brings me to what I believe really cost the SNP’s majority.
Guaranteed. Near Certain. Boring. Uneventful. No Surprises.
The meme was strong and insidious. It was perpetuated by pro-independence and anti-independence sources alike, and propagated by the mainstream media. But why did the mainstream media latch onto this narrative – surely they would’ve gone into SNPBAD overdrive that would make the SNP Noose-Clootie look like a gentle joke? It could be argued they did – the China smear being an obvious one, as well as dedicating far more coverage to Nicola Sturgeon posing with The Sun than seemed necessary. Certainly Stuart McMillan didn’t get an easy local campaign, with a particularly horrible episode in the final week. Yet even with everything that was happening, there was this reliable background noise – the assumption that all this was in vain, because “the SNP were just going to win their majority anyway.”
Call me paranoid if you must, but with the benefit of hindsight, I’m absolutely kicking myself at the obviousness of the trap the forces of Unionism set for us. It’s something that worked for decades – manufactured apathy, a form of learned helplessness. Treat the election as a foregone conclusion: that it didn’t matter how you voted, because there was only one obvious outcome; that you might as well not bother turning up at the polling station at all. Low turnouts historically reward the parties of affluence and elitism – just look at the 2015 election.
Speaking of which, while it is rarely useful to compare UK and Scottish elections directly since they are not like-for-like, it can be useful to compare the level of engagement that affects turnout for the parties:
2011 Scottish Election electorate: 1,989,222
2015 UK Election electorate in Scotland: 2,910,465
2016 Scottish Election electorate: 2,279,153
SNP constituency voters 2011 Scottish Election: 876,421
SNP voters 2015 UK Election: 1,454,436
SNP constituency voters 2016 Scottish Election: 1,059,897
183,476 more people – 17.3% – voted SNP in the 2016 election than in the 2011 election – but 394,539 fewer people voted SNP in the 2016 election than the 2015 election. That’s 27.12%, over a quarter of the SNP’s 2015 vote, which for one reason or another did not turn up this year. This is a problem not unique to the SNP, of course: the Other Party’s vote plummeted by 192,886 (27.27%) – from 707,147 in 2015 to 514,261 in 2016; the Coalition Party’s vote also dropped by 41,437 (18.86%) – from 219,675 to 178,238. Only the UK Government Party saw their vote numbers increase, by 67,747 (15.6%) – from 434,097 in 2015 to 501,844 in 2016. (I’ve left out the Greens because they don’t stand in all constituencies, which makes it a bit more difficult to gauge their national vote).
Ah, but that’s comparing constituencies: what about the regional votes? Well there, something very interesting happens: the Other Party’s vote share is even lower on the list, but the Coalition and UK Government Party’s go up:
SNP: 1,059,897 (constituency) 953,587 (list) = 106,310, -11.15% gap
UKGP: 501,844 (constituency) 524,222 (list) = 22,378, +4.46% gap
OP: 514,261 (constituency) 435,919 (list) = 78,342, -17.97% gap
CP: 119,284 (constituency) 178,238 (list) = 58,954, +49.42% gap
Greens: 13,172 (constituency) 150,426 (list) = 137,254, +91.24% gap(!)
Where did all those Other Party votes go? I’m pretty sure if you look at each constituency, a pattern will emerge – votes from the three Unionist parties in the constituency went to whichever Unionist candidate was best place to oppose the SNP. In other words, the narrative was that the pro-independence parties share their votes to further the cause of independence, while Unionists lend their votes to whoever stood the best chance of defeating the SNP.
It just tends to be received knowledge that “local” elections have lower turnouts than “national” elections. Why is this the case? You would think that the closer the government is, the greater the engagement and turnout, since the lower down the chain, the more accountable an elected member is to the community who voted them in. Yet the opposite seems to be the case – General Elections have the highest turnout, then Scottish/Welsh/Northern Irish elections, then Council/Mayor/London Assembly elections. The reasons? Well, which of these elections tends to get the most coverage in the mainstream media – including our national broadcaster?
When most talk of manufactured apathy in terms of politics, it tends to be linked with despair. “Why should I bother voting when it won’t actually change anything anyway?” I’d even heard this brought up as an explanation for the lack of Unionist support up to six weeks before the election, where it was supposed they wouldn’t see the point in voting when the SNP would just get in anyway. That’s the sort of thing that a newly engaged, political electorate would understand, and seize upon… only to realise too late that the exact same could apply to their own cause. When both a Nationalist and a Unionist could say “why bother voting, the SNP will just win anyway,” then that’s just a variation on the same horrible apathy which plagues England, and used to plague Scotland.
We never had any stock in that in Greenock & Inverclyde. Even after the amazing 2015 General Election campaign saw Ronnie Cowan sweep in on 55% of the vote, we did not automatically assume that it would be replicated for Stuart – even though Stuart had 9 years experience as an MSP, and had built upon his vote share ever since being elected to the West of Scotland list in 2007. We knew we would lose voters from 2015, either through apathy, or the simple fact that Kilmacolm was swapped over to Renfrewshire North & West, before even thinking of former SNP voters switching to one of the three other parties. As such, our wee team kept going, because until the day, we had no idea whether Stuart would have won at all. If we didn’t, the electorate would recognise that – and the electorate punishes such complacency.
I’m proud to bits of our result in Greenock & Inverclyde: the best turnout the constituency’s ever seen, Stuart gained the greatest number of votes, greatest vote share, and greatest swing of any candidate for the constituency since Parliament reconvened. I just wish Gail & Stewart could’ve had the same result: I know they and their teams worked just as hard as we did.
Yet by any reasonable measure, the SNP still beat the odds. The manufactured apathy didn’t work – turnout, percentage, constituency seats were all up. We won.
- 183,476 more people voted for an SNP government at Holyrood than they did in 2011. That’s the most people to vote for any party in any Scottish election since Parliament reconvened.
- The constituency vote share is up too – 45.4 in 2011 to 46.5 in 2016.
- We polled more than the Other Party and the UK Government party combined – 43,792 more, to be precise.
- The SNP won 59 constituencies – 6 more than in 2011, and the most any party has won in a Scottish election.
- Even in every seat the SNP didn’t win, the actually number of SNP voters increased on 2011, and the vote share of nearly all of them increased too.
- Even though the overall percentage of the regional vote was own by 2.2%, the raw numbers were still up – 77,166 more people voted SNP in the regional list than in 2011.
- Overall turnout was 55.6% – that’s 5.6 points higher than 2011, and the second highest turnout for any Scottish election since Parliament reconvened
This, even after the UK media relentlessly promoted Ruth Davidson For A Strong Opposition – which resulted in their party doubling their constituency vote share (276,652 to 501,844, an 81.4% increase).
The only two major parties to gain votes in the combined constituency results were the SNP, and the UK Government party. It seems obvious that a substantial amount of former Other Party voters went to the SNP in the wake of the referendum, as was the case in 2015. How, then, to explain the UK Government party’s results – who did they cannibalise? Given that every constituency which they won – Ediburgh Central, Aberdeenshire West, Ayr, Dumfriesshire, Ettrick Roxburgh & Berwickshire, Galloway & West Dumfries, and Eastwood – also saw dramatic falls in Other Party and Coalition Party votes and vote shares, the reasoning seems likely. Curiously, the same doesn’t necessarily apply for constituencies the Other Party and the Coalition party won – Other Party wins* (Edinburgh Southern, East Lothian) mostly saw a fall in Coalition Party votes, and Coalition party wins (Orkney, Shetland, Edinburgh Western, North East Fife) had drops in Other Party votes. UK Party votes in Other/Coalition areas tended to still see an increase in vote share and turnout. Evidently Other/Coalition party voters were willing to back the UK Government party candidates in their area, but the UK Government Party voters were not willing to reciprocate.
The party of David Cameron benefiting from other parties’ good faith, and not doing anything for them in return?
What a shock, who could have possibly foreseen this, et cetera.
Yet despite all that, the UK Government Party’s vote share is still lower than it was during any of the Thatcher years. Sure, it’s the best the party’s done in Holyrood history… but 22%? That’s lower than John Major’s victory in 1992, and lower than any of Margaret Thatcher’s three successful elections. That’s right – a greater percentage, and indeed a greater number, of Scottish voters supported JOHN MAJOR and MARGARET THATCHER than Ruth Davidson.
Ruth Davidson got a greater number of her party’s voters out – but so did the SNP. While plenty are pre-emptively calling time on the SNP’s honeymoon for the umpteenth time, it’s difficult to see how much further the UK Government’s party can go from here.
Still, there’s the question of that majority. If nothing else, it shows that even considering the SNP’s enormous success on the 5th of May 2015, there is no reason to rest on our laurels – there is always a bigger mountain to climb. If depriving the SNP of a majority was the ultimate goal of Project Guaranteed Majority, then it succeeded… but what does that success mean when the SNP vote, constituency seats, and vote share actually rose, in conjunction with a pro-independence majority via the Greens? While I still worry greatly that those two seats may well cost us a chance of independence within the next five years, there are many reasons to be hopeful – which I’ll discuss in my final post on this election.
*A curious exception is Dumbarton. There, every major party except the winner saw an increase in vote share and turnout – but because the incumbent Jackie BLOODY Baillie had such a strong 2011 vote, she scraped by on a paltry 108 votes.