Douglas Ross: A tale of two voting systems

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has recently called for a Unionist tactical voting pact in Scotland during the next UK general election to unseat Scottish Nationalist MPs, with free rein given to Labour in urban seats and to the Conservatives in rural ones. However, this proposal was ultimately rejected by both Scottish Labour and the UK Conservatives.

Ross inhabits two different worlds, having won one election under Additional Member System and another under First Past the Post. He is simultaneously one of seven regional MSPs for the Highlands and Islands elected via Closed Party List, and the sole MP for Moray. His position at Westminster is precarious, having won just 513 votes more than the SNP runner-up, whilst List-PR grants him greater job security at Holyrood. For the Conservatives generally, they are the second-largest party in Scotland at both Westminster and Holyrood. However, at the 2019 general election, the Conservatives won only six of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats with a quarter of the votes cast there, whilst at the 2021 Scottish parliamentary election, they won thirty-one out of 129 seats, or around twenty-four per cent, in line with their constituency and regional vote shares.

It cannot be denied that Douglas Ross has practical, real-world experience of both FPTP and PR, making him a unique figure in British politics. However, given how their Scottish branch has fared better under PR than they have under FPTP, he is also an uncomfortable paradox for the Conservatives, to which the story around his proposed pact is testament.

A prominent feature of FPTP is vote splitting, whereby electoral support split amongst several likeminded parties or candidates can result in an ideological opponent winning. Whilst this has historically benefitted the Conservatives, it has recently given a boost to the SNP, and for not dissimilar reasons. Both parties have virtually monopolised their voting bases – the right and Nationalists respectively – allowing them to disproportionately win more seats than any one party amongst their diverse oppositions.

To Conservatives, the distortive effects of FPTP are not a revelation since past campaigning has hinged upon this fact, i.e., dissuading right-leaning voters from voting UKIP due to the likelihood of a Labour victory. However, Ross’s proposed pact is an admission that vote splitting can result in undesirable consequences for the Conservatives, namely emboldening the driving force for Scottish independence by giving the SNP an unwarranted majority of Scottish Westminster seats.

More likely than not, Ross’s proposal was born out of short-term political necessity, such as stymieing the SNP or cushioning the blow of an upcoming Conservative election defeat, rather than an epiphany that FPTP is fundamentally unfair. However, its rejection by the UK party demonstrates its dogmatic commitment to FPTP, even to its own detriment and in disregard of the informed opinion of one of its senior members, and an outright hostility to cross-party co-operation that will not put it in good standing when PR replaces FPTP. In other words, Conservative fears of being shut out of power under PR may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

* Samuel James Jackson is a member of the Executive Committee of the Calderdale Liberal Democrats, the Secretary of the Lower Valley Liberal Democrats and has served as a council candidate in the Ryburn and Park wards

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15 Comments

  • Mel Borthwaite 13th Apr '23 - 12:27pm

    Douglas Ross realises that around half of Scotland’s voters support Scottish independence and around 80% of these voters would not be willing to vote for a Unionist Party under any circumstances. This being the case, the SNP is likely to win over 40% of the vote in the majority of Scottish constituencies even when the SNP is not doing so well, if only as a tactical vote to stop Unionists being elected. Faced with this, the three Unionist parties need to realise that the SNP is likely to win seats even where more voters vote Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat together if the Unionist vote does not coalesce around a single Unionist Party. The Liberal Democrats benefited from such tactical voting in 2019 when, for example, the Party was able to win North East Fife thanks to a large swing of Conservative voters behind Wendy Chamberlain to help oust the SNP (which lost the seat despite increasing its support by 7.3%). In 2024, more of this sort of tactical voting could benefit all Unionist Parties, including benefiting the Liberal Democrats in East Dunbartonshire where we lost last time by just 149 votes.

  • I’d be surprised if Douglas Ross was still Leader of the Scottish Tories by the end of this year. He has a reputation for screaming handbrake turns in having supported, opposed, supported, opposed Boris Johnson as PM all within a period of six months.

    No doubt the knives are being sharpened for wee Douglas in Downing Street just now.

  • Can’t really call the Scottish parliament proportional when the SNP gets half the seats from 40% of the vote.

  • Mel Borthwaite 13th Apr '23 - 4:50pm

    @Russell
    In defence of the AMS voting system as used in Scotland, the SNP got 49.6% of the seats based on 47.7% of the Constituency vote and 40.1% on the Regional Lists. The reality is that the 47.7% is likely to be a more representative figure for the Party’s support at the time as many SNP supporters will have realised that voting SNP with their list vote was pointless as the SNP were unlikely to win List seats due to them winning almost all constituencies. That said, the criticism of the AMS system is that it allowed pro-independence parties to achieve 55.8% of the MSPs while only winning 49.0% of the Constituency vote and just 50.1% of the Regional List vote – they did this by having one dominant party winning constituencies and a second pro-independence party winning 8 List MSPs whereas the Unionist parties split the Unionist vote more so lost out.

  • Nonconformistradical 13th Apr '23 - 5:50pm

    @Russell
    If you go for as near perfect proportionality as possible then the likely result is as in Israeli. How well does that work?

  • George Thomas 13th Apr '23 - 6:57pm

    Tories believe that i) as long as they win in England that they have ultimate say over what happens in Scotland and ii) as long as they win in England they don’t care what happens in Scotland.

    The SNP winning in Scotland and Labour being distant third place means that seats which vote Jacob Rees Mogg would need to start voting for Labour in order for Tories to lose Westminster.

    Douglas Ross’ seat being sacrificed is just next step in how two main parties battling for Westminster see the union. Next we’re going to see a Scottish policy which was also in Theresa May’s manifesto being torn down by Tories in Westminster in order to bash a minority, to create another bogey-man that they can use in culture war, and ultimately this step being accepted by judges who will not want to enter world of politics and Labour party (possible next government) who don’t want to engage in culture wars.

    I scroll through these pages and see article after article about how the basis for politics in the UK is rotten and needs major change (not tweaking) in order to improve levels of democracy, and then the obligatory article bashing the SNP. The biggest difference between the SNP and LD’s is that the former no longer believes that change needed is possible without independence and the latter believes it can happen.

  • @Mel
    I disagree. I think the SNP got 40%. You will continue getting gaming of the system like Salmond tried till the overhang is dealt with.
    @nonconformist. So you don’t like PR? Fine. I do. Just saying that Scottish system isn’t proportional.

  • nigel hunter 13th Apr '23 - 7:56pm

    The Conservatives exist to WIN elections for power.FPTP has served them well.They will only move onto PR if they see it as a winner.LD,s will only get change in the system if they become a NATIONAL party and campaign for more than just knocking down the Blue Wall.

  • Nonconformistradical 13th Apr '23 - 9:49pm

    @Russell
    I don’t think perfect PR works well. As exampled by Israel.

    A situation in which the vast majority of the electorate is able to elect some candidates they support, achieving rough proportionality, togethre with a system in which there are no safe seats would be a big step forward.

  • Chris Moore 14th Apr '23 - 7:48am

    Nonconformistradical is right.

    Simplifying, Arrow’s impossibility theorem proves that no system for aggregating individual preferences can avoid anomalies of ranking.

    The Scottish system is much better than FPTP. Purely proportional systems as in Israel create other anomalies.

  • Matt (Bristol) 14th Apr '23 - 3:50pm

    Irrespective of proportionality, I am deeply suspicious of closed-list systems and the way they have suppressed dissent among representatives in the Holyrood parliament where rebellions agains the whip are almost unknown and rarely successful (not just in the SNP but also in Labour and the Tories) bears me out. I would take a less-proportional system with options for open choice of individual representatives (and, ideally, a form of panachage) over a ‘perfect’ proportional system that had strong control by party managers, any day of the week.

  • Nonconformistradical 14th Apr '23 - 4:16pm

    “I would take a less-proportional system with options for open choice of individual representatives (and, ideally, a form of panachage) over a ‘perfect’ proportional system that had strong control by party managers, any day of the week.”
    A great merit of STV since the voters control choices between candidates of the same and/or different parties.

  • @Denis
    Excited to see your paper! I will work myself through it. Forgive me for asking questions as I go before reading the whole thing properly. I support PR. I’d be happy with STV but (coming from NZ) I can see that their implementation of MMP works well and has broad support. NZ’s MMP is propotional. I can’t see anything in the UK that is proportional. In NI’s STV system the Alliance got 17 seats from 13.5 % of votes and the TUV only 1 seat from 7.6%. To stop the SNP getting half the seats from 40% of the votes it would seem you’d need to sort the overhang and make the party vote national. My other main concern with STV is public understanding of the count. The public didn’t seem interested in even understanding how AV worked so I have no expectation that they’ll take the required time to understand the STV count (as fascinated as we may all be). I really do think that NZ’s experience warrants inspection given that their original structures were built on the UK model more than (I’m guessing) any other country. I’ll clear my diary to read your paper properly rather than the current skim.

  • Mel you say that “the Party was able to win North East Fife thanks to a large swing of Conservative voters behind Wendy Chamberlain to help oust the SNP.” I think it would have been more correct to put it as “the Party was able to win North East Fife thanks to a large swing of people who had voted Conservative at the previous election returned to get behind Wendy Chamberlain and oust the SNP.”

    If you remember in 2017, the SNP put out a late election message urging voters to vote for them because the Conservatives were a close behind them in second place. It is widely considered that this was designed to deliberately mislead voters and persuade a significant number of previously Lib Dem voters to vote Conservative to stop the SNP. The end result of this disgraceful act was that the SNP won by 2 votes ahead of the Lib Dems, with the Conservative vote up by 3,000 but still 4,000 votes behind the other two.

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