What conclusions can we draw in Scotland from the general election result?

Some interesting things struck me about the statistics of the general election in its immediate aftermath. I started to craft some words that would show, despite the SNP’s obvious triumph, how the facts of what had happened were not so conclusively positive for them as they and much of the media seem to think.

Now I’m not so sure. I think the lessons that can be drawn from what happened, in Scotland and across the UK, are more complex and in fact not all yet capable of being known.

Anyhow, to start with those statistics.

Here are the seats won by each party in Scotland:

stats1

And here is the percentage of the votes cast for each party:

stats2

(Figures rounded to nearest percentage point and excluding smaller parties)

The change, in the cliché everyone has rushed for, is seismic and cannot be denied.

But there are other ways of looking at the figures.

Note, for example, how 50% of the votes got the SNP 95% of the seats (56 out of 59). Then look at the number of votes each major party needed to gain a seat in 2015, first in Britain as a whole (Northern Ireland, where different parties stand, is excluded). The parties are arranged top to bottom from the least number of votes needed to gain a seat to the most:

stats3

(Votes are rounded to the nearest hundred)

And in Scotland:

stats4

(Votes again are rounded to the nearest hundred. Neither UKIP, 47,000 votes, nor Greens, 39,200, won a seat)

This imbalance is, of course, a consequence of the first past the post electoral system in which the winner takes all in each constituency. Interestingly, such imbalances could not occur in any other election in Scotland – European, Scottish parliament or local council – because they all contain (different) elements of proportionality. The SNP, ironically, have benefited massively from the electoral system used by the UK, the country they want to leave.

Another interesting question is the extent to which a vote for the SNP represents a true desire for independence. If it does, the proportion of those voting who want independence has increased from the 45% in the referendum only six months ago to 50%. But unless we have direct evidence (for example, the Scottish Referendum Study I’ve discussed in another post) we should be cautious about assuming why people vote the way they do.

In the case of the referendum, I’ve argued before that it’s relevant to also draw conclusions from the whole electorate, those who voted and those who didn’t. Taking the non-voters into account, 37.7% of the total electorate actually voted Yes in the referendum. I accept there are reservations in applying the same logic to the UK general election but at least when that arithmetic is done, we can see that on a general election turnout of 71% in Scotland 35.6% of the total Scottish electorate voted for the SNP. Similar figures from the 1979 devolution referendum showed that 32.9% of the electorate voted for the devolution on offer then. The coincidence of all the figures is striking. It raises the question of whether over a long period there has been a more or less a settled proportion of, say, 33% – 40% of the Scottish electorate that wants independence or something approaching it.

If any nationalists read this I am sure they will say this is sophistry, a diehard unionist clutching at straws, and all the rest. I hope the way I’ve looked at the statistics shows this is not the case.

Those of us who want to stay together in a united country cannot afford to be complacent about any of these statistics. They have to be set in the context of wider political changes and issues – the invigorated (and more radical?) SNP; a Labour party humiliated in Scotland, diminished across much of the UK and badly needing a period of introspection; a Conservative government in Westminster flushed with electoral success but with its old pro/anti-EU fault line unresolved; … you can add your own issues, there are plenty to choose from.

If the union is to be retained, and indeed if Scotland is not to cast itself adrift as a much poorer place than it is now, wisdom and decisive action are needed on many issues from across the political spectrum. I hope our politicians are up to it.

Unless mentioned, the statistics in this post are taken from the BBC’s analyses of the 2010 and 2015 general elections.

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7 Responses to What conclusions can we draw in Scotland from the general election result?

  1. Another stat, rounded to the nearest 1,000 is:
    SNP 1,454,000
    Green 39,000
    Total for parties that backed YES 1,493,000 v. YES vote of 1,618,000
    Conservative 434,000
    Labour 707,000
    Liberal 220,000
    UKIP 47,000
    Total for parties that backed NO 1,408,000 v. NO vote of 2,002,000.
    No reason from those figures to assume that there was a significant number of NO voters supporting the SNP.
    Rather, it looks as if well over 90% of YES votes voted, bearing in mind that many of the 16/17 year olds who voted in September could not vote this time but only about 70% of NO voters voted

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    • Roger White says:

      That makes sense to me. It’s possible (my speculation only) that a proportion of No voters did not vote because they didn’t see this election as existential in the way that the referendum was for them. After all, Nicola Sturgeon was at pains to stress that the election was not about independence. I don’t believe her because it’s all about independence ultimately (see SNP constitution clause 2 (a)) but many might. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Roger, interesting stuff.

    Another angle on the de facto Yes vote is that turnout is down around 700,000 from the indyref. Pretty sure most will have been No voters. I’ve assumed 500,000 are No, and 200,000 Yes. Adding those figures to last Thursday’s vote and adjusting turnout gives a figure of around 47% YeSNP, so to that extent Thursday’s number not dissimilar to the indyref result.

    (I’ve assumed 40,000 or so Yessers in addition to SNP voters, representing almost all the Greens, SSP and other odds and sods. Of course, think I’m correct in saying the franchise on Thursday was narrower because 16-year-olds could vote in indyref, but I’ve assumed the effect is negligible to avoid things getting too complicated!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A point I made many times during the IndyRef was that we would finally have a fully PR government. I think what we have now (AMS) has benefited the Scottish Parliament tremendously and will always argue for full PR when I get the chance. I would like an independent Scotland to use the STV, the strength it would bring to our democracy would be invaluable.

    I do find it grating when I hear Unionists bring it up now, after the election – as if they have suddenly discovered its a thing and its important. To me it exposes the sense of short-term thinking which blights those who disagree with the independence campaign. (Don’t get too indignant over this feeling – I think we have our faults too http://daonlathas.tumblr.com/post/118628289385/the-chasm-of-mindsets)

    Its worth pointing out that the SNP support PR despite it not being in their own immediate interests to do so. It was even in their manifesto but they have not been quiet in cementing that view since the election. I have heard both Sturgeon and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh both mention their support for it recently. Why? Because the arguments we pro-indy folk have against Westminster are REAL and ring true above petty party allegiances. Westminster is fundamentally broken, the best way to fix it is to get OUT of it and then lead by example for the rest of the UK.

    The sad truth is PR will NEVER happen at Westminster because the two main parties who benefit from it will simply never support it. Cameron quite intentionally thwarted the Lib Democrats attempt in 2013 by forcing them to settle for a convoluted AV campaign instead. Then vested interests such as the NoToAV campaign ran a very dirty campaign against it. NoToAV was run by Cameron’s establishment buddies in policy exchange and funded by several conservative party donors.

    Finally I am not sure what your purpose is in including non-voters in your figures. You simply cannot count them as anything. They are neither YES voters or NO voters, SNP voters or Labour voters or anything else. Where you say 37.7% actually voted YES in the referendum I can equally say only 46.14% of people voted to save the Union (does Scotland not care about the Union). I wouldn’t do that because it is senseless. Including non-voters is a petty trick and unhelpful to the balance of any kind of reasoned analysis. I cannot see anything within what you have written which makes me think your case should be an exception. Perhaps you can point me to it.

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    • Roger White says:

      Alex – thanks for your comments and the obvious time/effort you’ve put into them, especially after our earlier, snippier exchange on Twitter (that’s Twitter for you).

      I am sympathetic to some of your points. On PR and its variants, yes, I agree there’s an element of folk on my side of the fence suddenly discovering its merits. In mitigation, I’d make two points. First, a personal one, that I worked in Scottish councils for many years and saw PR in different forms come in for council, Holyrood and EU elections. No election system is perfect but I have been aware of the merits of them for years now. Second, the results of this general election were so stark in their extremes (the ‘Votes to gain one seat…’ tables in my post) that they made me focus on the issue in a way I hadn’t recently. I’d even say, shock horror, that on the basis of the UK figures, UKIP should have more representation than they do (and the Greens).

      On whether many of the reforms that we probably both regard as necessary (albeit maybe for different reasons) are likely over the next five years, no, I’m not optimistic. But – bit of a tangent here – my nationality and sense of identity have never been thirled to party politics.

      I introduced non-voters specifically in the context of the referendum and if you check my earlier post I linked (Why 38 is more important than 45) you’ll see my reasons set out there. I did say ‘I accept there are reservations in applying the same logic to the UK general election’ but the exercise of looking at the figures over the long run is an interesting one nonetheless. I see you don’t agree with my argument, but we both know that!

      Thanks again for your comments.

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  4. Barry says:

    We definitely do need PR to be used in British general elections. If we had had it in the 1980’s (when Mrs Thatcher kept-on winning vast landslides on a minority of the vote concentrated in Southern England) or earlier, then perhaps devolution wouldn’t have been voted for and the United Kingdom would be a lot more constitututionaly stable place than it is now. I’ve always thought PR was necessary. I mean, look how the Liberal/SDP Alliance got a significant national vote share of 25% in 1983 yet received just 3% of the seats and the election results this year have just made me more convinced of its necessity. Having FPTP in a United Kingdom which is partially devolved is just helping to promote divisions and making the country as a whole look more politically divided that it is in reality.

    My own preferred system is the one they use in Germany called the Additional Member System/Mixed-Member Proportional: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_system_of_Germany.

    Although, saying that, this one is quite interesting: http://www.dprvoting.org

    http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk

    Like

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