During the 2017 snap election, tactical voting had a significant impact on the result. In my opinion, this was probably the first time in an election in Scotland that tactical voting actually worked. After watching the SNP successfully transition the 2014 referendum 45% Yes vote into SNP votes, and sweep the board in the 2016 Scottish Elections, the unionist parties fought one another for the title of ‘Most British’ – and the Conservatives won.
Stuck in a Better Together mindset, Scottish Labour Leader, Kezia Dugdale, even encouraged Labour voters in certain constituencies to vote Conservative in order to unseat the SNP in 2017. She told Sky News, “The reality is the vast majority of seats across Scotland, it’s only the Labour party that can beat the SNP.” And, “There are a few differences in the Borders and the Highlands where the Tories might be better placed but right across Scotland’s central belt, where the vast majority of Scotland’s population lives, the only party that can beat the SNP is the Labour party.”
The trouble is, as nuanced as she was trying to be, Labour voters in Scotland, with unionism as their main motivating factor, didn’t heed the Borders and Highlands instructions and a lot of them just voted Conservative. The resulting increase of Conservative MPs in Scotland, from 1 to 13, devastated the ranks of leading SNP figures, not least Alex Salmond, Angus Robertson, Tasmina Ahmed Sheik, John Nicolson and Calum McCaig. It’s a cautionary tale, as had the SNP held those 12 seats, Labour and the SNP combined would have had four more seats than the Conservatives and Theresa May would not have been able to command a majority, even with DUP help. Kezia Dugdale probably stopped Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister and sealed her fate as a politician, whilst creating the myth that Ruth Davidson was more than your usual Scottish Conservative and not just in the right place at the right time. Realising that even the most fervent of unionist Labour voters would not vote tactically for Boris Johnson, Davidson exited stage left, largely to avoid significant defeat in the May 2021 Scottish elections.
It’s important to consider such context, as it’s clear that tactical voting rarely works. When it does, it is difficult to control, there is often a price to be paid by the instigators and your opponent’s voters will react. That reaction for SNP voters will add a fascinating new element to the next Holyrood elections. The Better Together tactical vote in 2017 has opened Pandora’s Box and posed the question: ‘How can independence supporters use tactical voting to fight back?’
The sheer scale of the SNP vote in current polls has led many to believe that the SNP will win almost every constituency first past the post in Scotland, with the notable exceptions of some Borders and Highland seats. Indeed, it’s hard to argue that that will not be the case when looking at the latest poll (Panelbase/Sunday Times) which has the SNP on 55% in Holyrood constituency polling and 50% on the list. The poll suggests that the SNP will gain 11 seats and the Greens will gain 3 seats. That’s 74 and 9 MSPs respectively. The SNP will have that gold standard single-party majority of 9 and then the independence majority increases to 18 when you add the Greens.
For Westminster to refuse such a majority mandate would, at that point, be so manifestly undemocratic that maybe 75% of Scottish voters would agree that the SNP has a right to call a referendum and independence support would pass 60%. In my humble opinion, then, and only then, can the SNP and Greens start to talk about Plan B (a non-Section 30 route to independence) without actually damaging the steady move to Yes by the more conservative, risk averse, undecided, and weak No voters that are now the Yes camp’s target audience.
According to the Panelbase poll, the unionist parties will collectively lose 14 seats (7 each for Labour and the Conservatives). So, why the clamour to create a new list party? Well, many ardent independence supporters see that the SNP 50% on the list ballot can effectively be split in two and would still comfortably beat the Conservatives on the list at 18% and Labour at 15%. Therefore, unionist representation, in theory, can be reduced to a handful. Is that undemocratic? Only if you think 2017’s unionist tactical voting was also undemocratic. Is it fanciful? Well, let’s see what our survey found:
Between Monday, June 29 and Friday, July 3, Business for Scotland carried out an online poll of self-declared independence supporters and our poll generated a massive 7,715 responses.
- 97% of independence supporters who responded will vote SNP in the constituency vote.
- When offered the opportunity to vote for a list only independence supporting party (an option not asked in the Sunday Times Poll), only 42% of independence supporters will give both votes to the SNP.
- A new tactical voting list party presence would gain 38% of the list vote.
- The Scottish Green party would gain 20% of the list vote.
- All other options such as the first vote for another party (Labour/Lib Dem/Conservative) and second/list vote for the SNP/Green/List party, all gained 1% or fewer votes.
We will run a few projections based on this data, but first a few caveats:
- The respondents were all self-identifying independence supporters drawn from Facebook groups. As such they are amongst the most active and dedicated independence supporters and therefore, far more likely to be willing to vote tactically than the general public.
- The Sunday Times polled the general public and suggests the Green list vote share would rise only 2%. Therefore, a clamour for tactical voting has not yet reached the general public.
- The respondents are therefore the group that would be the early adopters of any tactical voting strategy and their clear willingness to vote for a list party is an indicator of what could happen if tactical list voting becomes a trend.
- The Scottish Election is 11 months away and a lot can change between now and then. This may include an increase in the SNP constituency vote, which would remove even more unionist MSPs and negate the payback for the effort, or indeed, a fall of the SNP constituency vote, which would make tactical voting a riskier and therefore harder proposition to sell.
- The survey didn’t give a Green Party first and Green Party second vote option and a few Green party supporters complained about that. I stand by that decision as the Green party will only stand one or two candidates first past the post and as it’s not an option available to the vast majority of participants I felt it would confuse respondents. There was an option for Another Party first and Green second which added 1% to the Green tally.
- Finally, there were some minor attempts to game the poll (possibly better described as people alerting specific groups of supporters) and I followed those on social media. Voting patterns remained remarkably consistent throughout and did not noticeably differ from the trend when shared by people urging support for one option or another.
- We offered the option of “a new list only pro-independence party” and did not name any particular party. At this stage, we do not know how many tactical list parties there will be and any more than the Greens +1 starts to make the maths unworkable.
- Currently, I am aware of the potential for seven pro-independence list parties to stand. They include the Scottish Green Party, Scottish Libertarian Party, Solidarity, RISE, Scottish Socialist Party, Independence for Scotland Party, and Alliance Party. Note that some of those may not even really exist at this stage.
Projection 1 – Assumes no tactical list party and Panelbase/Sunday Times poll is accurate.
Verdict: This now looks highly unlikely as tactical pro-independence list party idea is gaining traction. Pollsters closer to the election will have to offer a list party option once the situation is clear.
Projection 2 – Assumes that by May 2021 the independence supporting public has caught up with the early adopters and the BfS poll is indicative of the reality of tactical voting in May 2021.
Verdict: Theoretically pleasing for supporters of the idea but highly unlikely due to difficulty and cost of reaching the general public with tactical voting initiatives. Note that the SNP have a lower majority though and although that may not bother non-SNP members, the SNP leadership will be furious.
Projection 3 – Assumes no tactical List party is launched and all potential tactical votes go to the Scottish Green party
Verdict: This is what the Greens will campaign for but pretty unlikely due to the determination of the new list party leaders to be on the ballot. Should the list parties fail to gain credibility and get organised, the Greens could yet massively benefit from tactical voting.
Projection 4 – Assumes slower but still successful adoption of the idea based on Roper’s concentric cycles theory and Rodger’s adoption curve, factoring in significant SNP pushback on the idea and calls for Both Votes SNP.
Verdict: The most likely case scenario. However, this is only slightly more likely than the Scottish Green Party utilising its established position to triangulate the tactical list voters in the general public who are more supportive of the Greens than hardcore SNP supporters.
Variables and more variables …
What this poll tells us is that amongst the most active supporters of independence on social media the idea of a pro-independence list party has gained enough traction that it is almost a certainty that there will be such a list party on the ballot come Holyrood 2021. Regardless of how you feel about that, it’s now a reality that all the players will have to deal with. However, the existing players may yet find themselves stalking horses for a highly organised, highly funded organisation, with a recognisable figurehead, that would cast them into obscurity, come ballot.
So how will the main parties likely react?
The Scottish National Party
- The SNP will double down on Both Votes SNP. It is the job of a political party to maximise its votes. You do not weaken your connection to voters by suggesting they lend their votes to other parties if you are a major party.
- The SNP is sitting at 55% constituency and 50% list. They will target a majority of seats and a majority of votes on the list. They will see that as a super majority and strengthening their call for a second referendum.
- They will stand list candidates and they will see the list votes not as wasted, but as vital insurance against any unionist tactical voting. The idea that a list party would be complementing, and not standing against the SNP, is just not true.
The Scottish Green Party
- A credible established party with two strong leaders, Patrick Harvey and Lorna Slater. It is fully committed to independence and already stands predominately on the list. The Scottish Greens, if they play it right, could see significant numbers of new MSPs from tactical voting.
- Their problem is that many SNP voters see them opposing the Scottish Government again and again on issues that are not just environmental. Therefore, SNP voters are not as predisposed to give them their second vote as they were in the past.
- The Scottish Greens need to cool down their position towards the SNP in general, step up and fully re-establish their independence credentials by focusing more on independence now, whilst the SNP is unable to.
- Everyone knows that Patrick Harvey was very useful in 2014, offering a credible non-SNP Yes voice. The Greens should put Lorna Slater more to the forefront on independence as she is highly credible and will refresh the Green brand.
The Scottish branch of the Conservative Party
- Their leader abandoned ship because she saw what was coming down the line. They will misjudge the mood and claim that the list party is an SNP plot to unbalance Scotland’s democratic system. Carlaw will likely claim “this shameful undemocratic move shows us the dictatorship style of SNP government that we would have in an independent Scotland”. It will be patently untrue of course. See how the SNP will react (above) and it will not work, as the Conservatives are clearly undemocratic in denying a second referendum even if there is a single party SNP majority.
- Westminster Tories will use such accusations as cover to call for the reduction in powers to the Scottish Parliament, and maybe even an end to it.
- The Conservatives will also claim that the fall in the SNP list vote undermines the mandate for a second independence referendum and that the Holyrood majority is a result of trickery.
The Scottish branch of the Labour party
- Labour has recently doubled down on its position to a second referendum, even though less than half of its remaining voters support the union. It will leak votes as hardcore unionists will switch to the Conservatives and independence supporters will lend their votes to the SNP. Labour has at least another 5% to fall yet.
- They will offer Federalism which, when put under scrutiny, will collapse as an idea. It is unworkable due to English voter apathy (Scotland can’t force Federalism on the rest of the UK but we can vote for independence). Federalism requires Labour to demonstrate how the union doesn’t work and so makes the case for independence more practical and popular.
- Labour won’t make the same mistake of encouraging tactical voting for the Tories again.
The Scottish Branch of the Liberal Democrats (are they still a major party?)
- The Lib Dems are leaderless and rudderless, with no credibility. Their only press is based on biased media outlets desperate for an SNP bad accusation. Every time they participate in such, they lose even more credibility.
- Their reaction will be a carbon copy of the Conservatives, above, but without the calls to disenfranchise or close the Scottish Parliament.
What could go wrong for the list party idea?
- Convincing the wider voting (independence) public to vote tactically takes a lot of campaigning experience, money and organisation, things that are, so far, just not evident in the people planning on standing list candidates. One has a few high-profile bloggers and some experienced SNP local campaigners which is an advantage.
- Experience in candidate vetting is a major weak point. The SNP looks untouchable. However, even at this early stage, untried and untested candidates would be the weak point of the independence campaign. Every list candidate’s tweets and late-night Facebook rants will be found and published. Every anti-Israel post will be named anti-semitic (regardless of whether it is or not) and every name calling episode (Tories are…..) will undermine the candidates and be thrown in the SNP’s face.
- If three parties stand then the math just doesn’t work. Frankly, it works best if people tactically vote Green.
- If the SNP’s poll figures get any higher, then people will see that so many of the unionist targets won’t get back anyway and the idea will lose its potency.
At this point, we can see that there is enough interest to make a pro-independence list party inevitable. We cannot say how well it will work yet. It is only when a poll of the general public with the named list parties is actioned later in the year, that we will know which of the scenarios is most likely.
The idea appeals to a lot of independence supporters and the math seems simple, except that it’s not. It gets less simple with every extra pro-independence party on the list. A lot can happen between now and May next year. A hard Brexit will most likely happen at the end of the 2020 transition period and if the first COVID-19 wave remerges in England but not in Scotland then independence support will soar. The unionist parties going into the next Holyrood elections have nothing, literally no ammunition at all. All they have is the Alex Salmond inquiry on which to pin their hopes and the claim that the UK can protect Scotland’s economy during the COVID-19 recovery, a claim that lacks any credibility as people can see that the UK’s mismanagement caused the problems in the first place.
Would the pro-independence list party give the unionists ammunition they don’t currently have? Probably, but it could still work and wipe out most of the unionist MSPs. And so to my personal opinion, what’s the point? I like the list system. Without it, the SNP and Greens would not have become the force in Scottish politics that they are. What’s the goal? My goal is independence, I don’t think many of the unionist MSPs are fit for purpose and I would like to see the back of them, however, it matters not to me if they lose their seats in May 2021 or after Scotland decisively votes for independence, possibly as soon as Autumn 2021. I want a referendum and I want the result to be in the bag before we even call it. That’s the path we are on and I see this as a distraction.
Sure the SNP has opened the door by seeking to speak to the undecided on independence and somewhat taking their core vote for granted, with some internal wrangling over Alex Salmond and more woke policies, but the general public doesn’t really care about that. They are starting to care about independence and surely that should be our focus at this crucial point?
BfS will never suggest how to vote to anyone, it’s not our job. We are not party political, we are pro-independence and pro wellbeing/new economics and that’s where our focus remains.
I hope this helps and we will poll again in the Autumn once the list party names and manifestos become clearer.