Dave Thompson, a former SNP MSP and 55 year veteran of the party, who is now setting up a list vote coalition in defiance of it in the 2021 elections, has a role in one of those ‘what if?’ moments in political history. In the 2007 election, he noticed that the returning officer for the Highlands & Islands had wrongly calculated the figures, and was about to give Labour four seats on the list vote and the SNP none. Highlands & Islands was the last seat in the country for the votes to be counted, and if Labour had taken the four seats they would have ended up as the largest party. Thompson challenged the figures, officials organised a recount, and Labour won three and the SNP two. The new result meant the SNP was the largest party, they became a minority government for the first time, and the rest – as they say – is history.
If no one had noticed that the returning officer had made a mistake and Labour won, would we have had the subsequent SNP majority in 2011? Without the SNP majority in 2011 there wouldn’t have been an indyref in 2014. And the indyref in 2014 changed everything; it’s hard to imagine Brexit for a start. So Thompson has his place in the SNP’s history and, clearly, knows a thing or two about how the list vote works in the D’Hondt proportional representation voting system.
The Alliance for Independence has been pitched very much with this technocratic acumen in mind. The whole idea is based around “max out the yes”; not in conflict with the SNP, but to make the most of the voting system to deliver more pro-independence MSPs in 2021. For those of you unfamiliar with this debate, Phillip Sim of the BBC has explained the basics of the issue here. To put it as briefly as possible, the more constituency seats one party wins, the harder it is to win list seats. Since polls suggest the SNP is expected to clean up the constituency vote, that will automatically suppress what it can win on the list. Thompson says the Alliance would be a single-issue independence coalition, trying to draw as many indy campaign groups in as possible, and would back the SNP in the constituency vote.
“On everything else they can vote according to their own party programme, or according to their own views and conscience,” he explained.
There is a number of good reasons why the Alliance is likely to find life difficult, but the most important is that the vast majority of voters aren’t interested in the minutiae of tactical voting, especially when the message from the SNP is the opposite: “Both Votes SNP”. The whole debate quickly becomes a turn-off as it loses any sense of values. What animates Scottish Twitter can have most folk yawning in pubs and cafes. Between competing indy rivals, voters tend to go with who they feel they can trust; even with Thompson’s 55 years in the party, he is not going to match the First Minister in terms of trust with the public.
But let’s say that Thompson’s Alliance can generate some momentum and manages to win a few list seats, what then? What this whole debate is missing at this point is some reflection on the fact that there is already a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament with the SNP and Scottish Greens, but it has not produced an indyref. Every party standing in the 2021 elections on an independence ticket, including the SNP and the Greens, will have to explain how they will respond to the UK Government blocking a section 30 order to hold an indyref, as it has already done and will almost certainly continue to do. The debate over D’Hondt is a distraction from the substantive strategy and tactics argument the independence movement needs to be having right now.
There is plenty of good arguments for challenger parties to be established to those currently warming the seats of Holyrood, but they have less to do with list vote tactics and more to do with the fact that Scotland is a society scarred by deeply entrenched poverty and inequality that is getting worse, not better, and it’s not clear the Scottish Parliament and its parties have a plan to tackle it. That plan can and should also include constitutional answers, but neither can it lose sight of the fact that Holyrood is not using the powers it currently has well enough to create a better country now. To give just one example, why should tenants believe that a better future is coming over the hill, when the Scottish Parliament has control over housing and is not protecting them from widespread evictions come September? Where are the emergency proposals at Holyrood to redistribute wealth and power in a nation with more billionaires than ever before?
In France, the government has just agreed a huge £7.2 billion pay increase with unions for health and care workers after the pandemic, after workers held protests saying ‘enough clapping, we want pay rises and better funded hospitals’. A similar debate should be taking place here, without accepting Nicola Sturgeon’s conveniently narrow focus on the pandemic instead of the country’s constitutional and political future. Scottish politics should be able to talk about the present and the future as a connected whole, where one can clearly see the future you want to build in your actions in the present. If Sturgeon is right that “show, not tell” is the best route to independence support, then show us – let’s see the daring and bold agenda to transform the Scottish economy now, which most people are crying out for.
As Scotland comes out of the first phase of the pandemic crisis and as the poverty and rising unemployment crisis steepens, it’s imperative that we have serious debates about the country now and it’s future, and don’t fall down a D’Hondt shaped hole.
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