On Wednesday, ERS Scotland launched a major new report, One Party To Rule Them All: Does Scotland Have A Predominant-Party Problem?. That concept of a “predominant-party system” – popularised by the political scientist Giovanni Sartori - is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s an important one.
It certainly doesn’t mean we’re turning into some kind of North Korea-style one-party state, as some of the weirder fringes of the internet and media suggest. Party-predominance means that while there are a number of other parties openly and freely running for election, there’s one party that consistently wins. We’ll be discussing whether or not this a problem on Wednesday, but before we do that it’s important to understand why it seems to be happening in Scotland. Here are four suggestions from the report:
1. A predominant-party system is the default setting of Scottish politics
The predominance of one party, which presents itself as the natural defender of a distinctly ‘social democratic’ Scottish national interest: sound familiar? Labour were doing it before it was cool. From the 1970s onwards Scottish politics became increasingly distinct from politics in England and Wales, where Labour, the Conservatives, and occasionally a third party like the SDP or Liberal Democrats would battle it out for power. In Scotland, Labour gradually became untouchable - jokes abounded about the Labour vote being weighed, not counted, and people sticking red rosettes on donkeys.
A big part of the SNP’s success has been about winning over those voters who liked ‘old’ Labour’s fusion of Scottish national identity and social democratic values. From one national party to another, Scottish politics hasn’t been transformed as much as the SNP’s rise might suggest.
2. Labour’s predominance was their undoing
Predominance allowed Labour to rest on their laurels as the world was transformed around them by financialisation, de-industrialisation, the decline of religion and profound changes in gender and race relations, sexuality and national identity. Labour sought to adapt to these changes in the rest of the UK, where two- or three-party politics kept the party on its toes. But Labour in Scotland remained relatively aloof, and paid the price at the end of the 2000s.
We are living through another era of massive social and economic change, with the emergence of networked identities, automated workforces and global warming. The SNP have seemed impressively tuned-in to these changes for the last decade, arguably because they’ve been determined to supplant Labour as Scotland’s national party. They’ve also benefited from Labour’s complacency in power, successfully positioning themselves as the more competent and unified party to represent the ‘Scottish values’ that Labour were instrumental in creating.
3. The referendum created a crucial new dividing line in voter behaviour
The SNP’s first government was a minority one. It occurred at the end of a brief period of genuine multi-party politics in Scotland, with Labour, the Lib Dems, the Conservatives, the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialists all competing for some kind of influence on government policy. Even their first majority was precarious, won with under a majority of the vote.
But the referendum changed things. 88% of Yes voters, many of whom used to vote Labour, are now committed to the SNP. That gives the SNP a sizeable and committed ‘base’, even if it’s a minority, from which to start any campaign for swing voters’ affections. The two biggest opposition parties are left to fight it out for unionist votes. After the referendum, the ‘Yes’ vote is relatively unified, and the unionist vote is split. Constitutional politics is a crucial part of the SNP’s success, even if they aren’t promising another referendum.
4. Scotland’s voting system isn’t as proportional as you might think
We use the Additional Member System for elections, which is generally described as “proportional”. But actually it’s only semi-proportional: the proportional “list” vote is used to “top up” the constituency seats, which are elected by first-past-the-post. The really important thing about this is that a majority of the seats are elected by first-past-the-post, meaning the first-past-the-post constituencies remain the most important aspect of forming a government.
The SNP look set to win a majority on constituency seats alone - making the proportional “top up” side of our electoral system irrelevant to who forms a government, and making it easier remain the majority party in power even if their vote share falls well below 50%. That means they’re not only predominant now, but if they put down solid roots in constituencies they’ll be in a position to keep things that way for quite some time.
All this was discussed on Wednesday when ‘One Party To Rule Them All: Does Scotland Have A Predominant-Party Problem?’ launched with a public debate in Blythswood Hall at Renfield St. Stephen’s in Glasgow from 7-8:30pm on Wednesday April 20th.
The event featured a high-profile line-up of speakers: CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty, prominent commentators and academics Andrew Tickell and Gerry Hassan, and the journalist, campaigner and commentator Lesley Riddoch.