Scottish Election 2011 – The Monitor

Here is something I wrote on the election for the UCL’s Constitution Unit Monitor:
“The Scottish Election of 2011 has to go down as the most exciting in its short history (and probably for decades to come). The size of the SNP win was staggering. The size of its majority (it has 69, 53% of 129 seats) is not the notable part. The most staggering part is that it gained a majority at all – given that the system was designed to stop one party winning in this way. Indeed, ironically, the talk before devolution was that proportional representation was chosen by Labour to stop the SNP ever the getting the majority it needed to push hard on the independence agenda. Put more positively, the system is designed to make it unlikely that one party achieves a majority unless it gains a majority of the vote. PR is supposed to produce a different kind of party system in which the largest party forms a coalition government with at least one other party (as Labour did with the Liberal Democrats in 1999 and 2003) or a minority government (as the SNP did in 2007, performing the unlikely task of fulfilling a full 4-year term with 36% of the seats). However, the Mixed Member Proportional (or ‘additional member’) system clearly does not make it impossible to gain a majority of seats without a majority of the vote because it is not entirely proportional. The explanation for the SNP’ s win comes from the role of first-past-the-post to elect 73 of its 129 MSPs. The SNP secured 73% (53) of those seats from 45.4% of the vote. While it received only 16, or 30%, of regional seats from 44% of the regional votes, this was not enough to offset its constituency majority.
The second surprise is how well the SNP did in the constituency vote. In the three previous elections it came behind Labour: in 1999 Labour won 53 constituency seats to the SNP’s 7; in 2003 the split was 46 and 9; and, even in 2007, the split was 37 to 27, with the SNP becoming the largest party on the back of its 26 regional seats (to Labour’s 9). Now, 53 SNP compares to 15 Labour. The third is that the SNP did well in areas that, in the past, were Labour strongholds. One of the most notable areas is Glasgow, where Labour won 10 of 10 constituencies in 1999 and 2003, then 9 in 2007. Nicola Sturgeon was the SNP’s exception and, at the time, this seemed like a symbolic blow to Labour’s dominance. In 2011, the SNP took the majority (5 of 9) of the constituency seats in Glasgow – a result that must seem like a crushing blow to Labour. The result for the Scottish Liberal Democrats is more predictable. It suffered from its association with the UK coalition government, securing only 5 seats (17, 17, 16 in 1999, 2003, 2007). The Scottish Conservatives did comparatively better, securing 15 (18, 18, 17). The small parties were, again, marginalised – the Greens secured 2, only one more than independent Margo MacDonald.
The short term future seems clear: the SNP goes on with a clear mandate for a referendum on independence and to continue its wider policy agenda (for example, by returning to its aim to set a minimum price for a unit of alcohol); Scottish Labour will elect a new leader in the Autumn, following a ‘root and branch’ review initiated by Iain Gray before his departure; the Liberal Democrats work to distance themselves from their electorally-toxic UK counterparts; and the Conservatives may return to a peripheral role in the Scottish Parliament. From 2007-11 they often propped up the SNP, securing small policy concessions for support on key votes (most notably on the budget). Now, Annabelle Goldie is reduced to ‘keeping an eye’ on the SNP”.

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