Willie Sullivan

ERS Scotland launch Prof Curtice report on 2016 Holyrood election

1st March 2017
1 Mar 2017
Scottish election
Scottish election report
John Curtice
Willie Sullivan
ERS Scotland


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Statement from Electoral Reform Society Scotland, 28th February 2017

Embargoed 1st March, 00:01

Contact: Willie Sullivan, ERS Scotland Director – willie.sullivan@electoral-reform.org.uk / 07940523842 or Professor John Curtice on 07710348755 to arrange an interview or further comment. www.electoral-reform.org.uk

The Electoral Reform Society has published the first extensive analysis of the 2016 Holyrood election by Professor John Curtice, looking at the tactical use of regional votes – and how the 2011 SNP majority appears to be an anomaly.

The report, The 2016 Scottish Election: Getting to minority government finds that:

  • SNP ‘warnings’ that voting Green on the regional vote would help non-independence parties were largely unfounded – the primary cause of the SNP failing to gain a majority was not votes on the regional list for other pro-independence parties, but gains for other parties in the constituency vote – particularly the Conservatives becoming Scotland’s second party.
  • While the Conservatives came second, the gender imbalance in their candidates meant no increase in Holyrood's female representation. Parliament’s early gains for women’s representation have worryingly stalled.
  • Parties have become more adept at their strategies for nominating candidates under the voting system.

This election report is a considered look at last year’s election results, and a detailed analysis of the voting numbers and how they interact with parties’ standing, campaigns, the electoral system, and some of the divisions in Scottish society.

John Curtice, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde and author of the report, said:

“Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Holyrood election was that the SNP failed to secure a second overall majority even though the party’s share of the constituency vote was up on 2011. This report explains why.

“There is little consistent evidence that the SNP lost out because unionist voters ‘ganged up’ on the SNP by voting for whichever of the unionist parties appeared best placed to defeat the SNP locally. Labour’s vote, for example, actually fell most heavily in constituencies where they had previously shared first and second place with the SNP.

“Some of those who voted for the SNP on the constituency ballot do appear to have backed the Greens on the list vote, where the SNP’s tally fell. While this may have cost the SNP one or two list seats, the higher level of support for the Greens helped ensure that there were more pro-independence MSPs at Holyrood than would otherwise have been the case.”

He continued: “The main reason why the SNP lost out was that the party failed to win a number of key constituency contests – in particular, two in Edinburgh and on in Fife, Aberdeenshire and Dumbarton – that the party should have won, given the national swing.

“These failures were not compensated for in the allocation of list seats because elsewhere in the relevant region the SNP had already won its proportionate share of seats in the constituency contests. The result was a more proportionate outcome than would otherwise have been the case – or, indeed, actually occurred in 2011.”

Writing in the report, Willie Sullivan, Director of ERS Scotland, said:

“With only 55% of those registered to vote turning out in 2016, we must voice concerns about the overall legitimacy of our system and of the representatives of our parliament. In a year of populist shocks in liberal democracies across the world, including Brexit in the UK, our priority must be in finding ways of building confidence in our democratic system. That will mean going beyond elections to look at the culture and institutions of Scotland and asking how they need to change to meet new times.

Nonetheless, “As an electoral system, the 2016 Scottish Parliament election showed the Additional Member System (AMS) in its best light since the parliament was created. AMS did what it was supposed to do, giving the most proportional result yet – perhaps making up for the anomaly of 2011, when the SNP got a majority of seats on around 46% of the vote.”

Sullivan commented: "While many SNP supporters were understandably interested in prioritising an SNP majority, less partisan voters often prefer cooperation and political diversity – particularly in a system set up  to give fair representation. Majority governments elected on minority votes do nothing for trust in democracy. The 2016 election was therefore a broadly fair reflection of how Scottish people voted. Scotland’s political leaders should encourage many voices to be heard – and give up on the idea of hoarding power in a few places.

“However, there are still things that can be done to make the Scottish election system even better, whether making it more proportional or moving towards the Single Transferable Vote which allows voters to rank candidates by preference – putting citizens rather than parties at the centre.”

In terms of gender representation, Sullivan continued: "Parliament should be representative of our wider society, and gender representation is perhaps the most obvious democratic deficit we see in Holyrood and wider politics. Many of the parties are stalling or falling in managing to get women into winnable seats.

“Perhaps it’s time to have a debate about how we ensure parties go beyond just good intentions and move into action when it comes to gender diversity."

As well as raising the gender challenge, the report concludes: “Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the devolved electoral process in Scotland is to persuade voters to participate in the first place. For many voters, Holyrood still does not seem to matter enough to be worth bothering with. Overcoming that impression is a challenge facing all of Scotland’s newly elected politicians, irrespective of where they stand on the continuing debate about the country’s constitutional future.”


Notes to Editors

The report is published here (do not share until post-embargo): http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/sites/default/files/files/publication/2016-Scottish-Election-Report.pdf