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Murdo Fraser Might Yet Be Very, Very Canny…

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs, Party politics, Regional politics on September 29, 2011 at 9:20 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

‘Canny’ is a singularly appropriate word when discussing Scottish politics. It comes from the Gaelic ‘can’ – to know, and hence has come to mean (especially used derisively by Englishmen of Scotsmen) ‘with an eye for thrift or a chance’.

Canny is also a singularly appropriate word to describe Murdo Fraser’s plan to separate the Scottish Conservative party from the UK Party. Not just because it detoxifies the brand of the most loathed party in Scotland. Not just because it allows Fraser to cast himself as the uniquely Scottish defender of the Union, without being in hoc to London.

Canny because it allows the Scottish Conservatives to play the voting system by using ‘decoy lists’.

The Scottish Parliament uses the ‘Alternative Member System’. Voters have two votes – a constituency vote and a regional vote. Constituencies work as they do for Westminster, but the regional seats are distributed like a PR list system, except with penalties for the parties that did well in the constituency rounds; thus, hopefully, balancing out some of the improportionalities of the FPTP constituency system. This is how the Green Party, with a relatively low level of support spread widely across Scotland, have been able to gain a seat or two at Holyrood – since they won no constituencies, they are not penalised in the regional lists like the other parties.

The ruse here assumes that Fraser’s new party (call them the Scottish Tories) will be in, at least, a loose alliance with the Conservative Party. Essentially, they would function as the coalition between the German CDU and the Bavarian CSU functions. And here’s the trick: one of the parties, say the Conservative Party, runs for the constituencies, and one, say the Scottish Tories, runs for the regional lists.

What this means is that the Scottish Tories have no constituency MSPs, so they are not given any penalty when it comes to calculating the regional list seats. Thus the Conservative Party wins all the constituency seats it otherwise would have, and the Scottish Tories win additional seats on the regional lists, since they have no penalties for winning constituencies, whereas all the other parties have.

To give an historical example, Italian lower chamber elections used to run on a similar system – but instead of regions, they did the proportional vote over the whole country – like an Italy-wide regional list. In 2001, both major coalitions put up two lists, and told their voters to vote for one list in the constituency elections and one list in the national list election. Their constituency lists carried 360 of 475 constituency seats, despite receiving 0.2% of the national list vote; everyone had voted for their coalition under list-title A in the constituencies, and for the same coalition under list-title B in the national list vote. The national list ruse was so successful for the victorious House of Freedoms coalition that one of its members, Forza Italia, had to surrender 12 seats because they had not submitted enough candidates on the national list to fill them!

And just for political balance, Labour have tried this too. They are so strong in the Glasgow constituencies that they stand very little chance of winning Glasgow regional list seats. But instead of saving money by not submitting a list, they tried to submit candidates from the Co-Operative Party in 2007. This would have had exactly the same effect as with Forza Italia, since every Labour voter in Glasgow would have switched their regional list vote to the Co-Operative Party, meaning Labour/Co-Operative would have won many constituency and regional seats. But the Electoral Commission struck it down on the grounds that, since no-one could be a Co-Operative Party member without also being a member of the Labour Party, they were essentially the same party.

But, with Fraser’s plans for an independent Scottish Tory party, the Electoral Commission will find an arrangement between them and the UK Conservative Party much harder to strike down. This needn’t be a problem for the other parties: the Lib Dems can follow their natural dividing lines and reform as an allied SDP and Liberal party. Labour can detach the Co-Operative Party. The SNP might struggle, but there are muted internal divisions which could lead to the formation of two mainstream nationalist parties.

The effect of this would be to make the regional lists completely separate from the constituencies. No party would receive penalties from their constituency seats, and so the regional list vote would essentially become full-blown regional PR, as their would be no penalties applied to groupings who had done well at the constituency level. This would make it easier for the two major parties – Labour and the SNP, who currently carry the most constituencies and so attract the most penalties – to gain an outright majority, which is currently very difficult (making the SNP’s recent victory all the more incredible).

I don’t know if this plan is in Fraser’s mind. I suspect not, because as soon as he goes down the decoy list route, so will all the other parties. Thus he will actually reduce his electoral advantage, because the Conservatives are currently advantaged relative to the other parties, since they do not win many constituencies and consequently attract fewer penalties. Having said that, if he plays his cards right, he could use this ruse for one election earlier than the other parties, and thus hope to gain some sort of incumbency advantage.

Maybe it will just show up the system for its convoluted and absurd nature. The last survey done on public understanding of the Scottish voting system (in 2003) showed that only 39% of people understood the system, which had decreased (somehow) since its introduction in 1999. When you consider that this is also the system used in Wales and London, and is very similar to the AV+ system the Jenkins Review recommended (the only difference in AV+ is that constituency seats are elected on AV rather than FPTP), the possibilities for complicated coalitions and system subversion multiply greatly.

At any rate, Fraser’s plan to break away the Scottish Tories is canny itself, even without this fiddle of the voting system. But coupled with it, even for one election, it has the potential to win the Conservatives massive gains in Scotland.

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