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Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Max the YES: tactical voting for Holyrood 2016 - yes or no?



As regular readers of The Point facebook page will know, we’re rather fond of posting the occasional piece from the excellent ‘Wings Over Scotland’. The Rev. Stu’s demolitions of unionist media silliness are often a delight. Recently though, the Rev and some others have been trying to rubbish the idea of mass tactical voting for the 2016 Holyrood elections: an idea put forward by some YESSER’s which can basically be summed up as 1st vote (constituency) SNP, 2nd vote (list) Greens, Solidarity or RISE.

This position, which has been vigorously promoted by Steve Arnott of The Point, and is referred to by the Wingsmeister as the ‘Yes Alliance’ position, has inevitably led to a bit of a reaction.

On the Wings site of Wednesday 25th August, a comprehensive ‘refutation’ of the very idea of tactical voting appeared, authored by the good Rev. himself. In the interests of democracy and discussion, The Point has invited Steve Arnott to reply to the piece, point by point. Consequently all of the Wings main points are below, with replies from the ‘YES Alliance’ position by Steve. In the interests of absolute fairness we also carry the original link to the Rev’s full article at the end.

We intend to circulate this as widely as possible amongst the YES networks and fb pages to encourage debate on this vital issue for Holyrood 2016.

In this version the Rev Stu’s points are in standard font, and Steve Arnott’s replies will be in italics



What our analysis yesterday and on Sunday concluded was that it’s extremely hard to “game” AMS by voting tactically – which is unsurprising because it was deliberately designed that way.

Actually, the Additional Member System was designed to make sure the terrible Nats never won a majority, and create permanent coalitions in a devolution settlement ‘that would kill independence stone dead’. The FACT that the intentions of the systems creators have now been superceded by the wishes of voters is plain to see in two SNP Governments, and an indy ref that was never meant to happen. The beauty of the AMS system is that voters can use their two votes how they wish. They can vote for one party down the line, or they can vote differently in the constituency and on the list, or even view their vote as a first and second preference if they so choose.

But advocates of a so-called “Yes Alliance” aimed at maximising pro-independence MSPs argue that there’s a “sweet spot” in which list votes for Yes parties other than the SNP can tilt the balance in the Holyrood chamber.

Yes, we do. And the same advocates of the YES Alliance – when it became clear there wasn’t going to be one for the Westminster General Election largely buckled down, worked and called for a vote for the SNP in the best interests of the YES movement and the weakening of the political forces of unionism. There was a sweet spot there too. And boy did we hit it.

The reasoning is that with current polls suggesting that the Nats will win 70 or more constituency seats, the AMS divisor mechanism will reduce their list vote so severely that it’ll be too low to have a chance of winning any list seats.

Actually, we have always qualified that much more carefully. We say that it becomes ‘very difficult’ for the SNP to win seats. Even if everyone who votes SNP in the constituency vote votes SNP in the list – which is highly unlikely – they can at best win a few seats, and, at worst, none.

Therefore, runs the theory, any list votes cast for the SNP will be wasted and should instead be “lent” to the Greens, RISE, Solidarity or other parties of the pro-Yes left in order to defeat Unionist parties.

Yes – and we also make the case that that is the best way to ensure that there are less unionist places won on the list and that both the Scottish Government and a significant chunk of the opposition will be pro-independence. A strategic advantage that goes beyond narrow party interest

It seems an attractive case. It has the advantage of “truthiness”, which means that it’s easy to get over in a couple of sentences, it sounds logical, and it takes quite a lot of time and detail to explain the flaws.

It is an attractive case, and it has ‘truthiness’ because it is true. It sounds logical because it is logical. Yes, our case for a specific appeal to SNP voters to lend their list vote to Solidarity, the Greens or RISE on this one occasion does depend on the polls for the SNP in the constituencies staying high and SNP voters having the confidence when they go the polls that the SNP will have an outright majority to form a Government on the constituency vote alone. That is why many of us who are not SNP party members are calling for a vote for the SNP in the constituency from the smaller pro-indy parties and the non-aligned YES voters.

It’s not simply a one-sided ‘lending of votes’ being proposed. It is a political act of reciprocity to continue the process of weakening the forces of unionism and strengthening the forces of independence in the run up to the next referendum – whenever that may be.)

By rank carelessness, we seem to find ourselves in a position where (opposing the 'YES Alliance' position our job.

And our job to counter your argument, Rev

The argument’s great appeal is that in an abstract theoretical sense it’s true – there IS a statistical point where tactical votes could deliver more pro-Yes seats. The fatal weaknesses are that (a) that spot is incredibly narrow and to either side of it you do more harm than good, and (b) it’s absolutely impossible to predict it in advance and tailor your vote accordingly.

No evidence is offered for these objections. And with good reason. The proposition that it is easier to win list places for independence by dividing the independence vote between SNP in the constituencies and Greens, Solidarity, RISE on the list is mathematically irrefutable, given the pre-condition that the SNP will win all or the huge majority of constituency seats. To answer the argument on predictability – you can be abstract and say nothing is ever truly predictable – but in pragmatic reality SNP voters will have a good idea going into the polling both whether the polls have held up. And we know from the General Election experience that a second SNP Tsunami in the constituencies is likely.

To understand it, we need to start with first principles, namely the fact that under AMS, if you get 100% of the list vote you get all the list seats, even if you’ve already got all the constituency seats.

Aye, and that’s going to happen...

This tells us that it IS possible to get list seats even in a constituency landslide – to find out where that stops being the case, we just need to work out exactly where the cut-off point below 100% is.

Nobody has said it isn’t possible, simply that a vote for one of the smaller pro-indy parties has much greater weight in this instance because they won’t stand in – or more importantly win – any constituency seats.

Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no way of doing that, for several reasons.

1. You don’t know what percentage of the vote the landslide party will get.

Polling is a snapshot, not a prediction. Even in the last month before the 2007 Holyrood election, polls found SNP leads of anywhere from 12% to just 2%. In late August of 2006 – almost exactly the same distance we currently are from the 2016 election – a poll had Labour 8% in front.

Basing any sort of 2016 voting strategy on current polls, then, is idiotic. Even days away from the vote, let alone months, it simply won’t be possible to reliably say what any party’s list vote will be. (You’d think the mass failure to predict the Tory majority in May would be proof enough of that, but seemingly not.)

Talk about the advantage of ‘truthiness’, Rev Stu… spoilt by use of the pejorative idiotic this almost sounds like a coherent objection, but it’s not when you stand back and think about it. We have never said anything other than it will be up to the voters to decide which way they vote and they will undoubtedly take a number of factors into account. Our appeal is for voters to vote SNP in the constituency, ensuring an SNP Government and Greens, Solidarity or RISE in the list to ensure a majority of pro-independence opposition MSPs. And dragging in the vagaries of the English voter and the wholly different first past the post system does seem a bit desperate.

2. A constituency landslide doesn’t prevent list seats.

Even on current polling, though, SNP list seats look probable. The party got list seats in all but one Scottish region in 2011, even where they won most or all of the constituencies – they got one in North East Scotland on 52% of the vote despite winning EVERY constituency seat, and three list seats in Highlands & Islands on just 47% of the vote despite winning six out of eight constituencies.

Earlier this week the Electoral Reform Society projected, based on current polling figures, eight list seats for the SNP on a 54% vote share, even after sweeping up 71 of the 73 constituency seats.

If you get one list seat in a constituency landslide you’re also more likely to get more, because the ongoing effect of the divisor is much less dramatic.

First of all, 2016 is NOT 2011. You cannot wind the clock back in terms of the consciousness of the YES movement. In 2011 the SNP was the only serious game in town. In 2016 the Greens will pick up many more list places and RISE and Solidarity will mount well funded, energetic and coherent efforts.

And your statistics show that even if the SNP wins 54% on the list vote, it can ‘at best’ win one list seat in each region. That leaves six other potential seats that could go to the unionist parties on each regional list. If even half of those SNP votes were divided equally between the smaller pro-indy parties, however, every list would see at least 3 pro-indy places filled on the list and possibly four in Glasgow, leaving the unionist parties to scrabble for just 23 or 24 list seats for the whole of Scotland, and creating a real chance of a pro-indy opposition as well as a pro-indy Government. Is that not a vision worth fighting for?

3. You can’t predict local factors.

Even amid this year’s overwhelming SNP victory at Westminster, one MP from each Unionist party resisted the Nat tsunami – Ian Murray in Edinburgh, David Mundell in the Borders and Alistair Carmichael in the Northern Isles.

As we discovered on Sunday, any single constituency seat can affect the list outcome in unpredictable ways. In a hypothetical example using totally random figures, we saw how a Conservative constituency win brought the Tories no overall gains, but gave Labour an extra seat at the expense of the SNP.

So the SNP may not win EVERY constituency seat, but it’s on course to win the vast majority. The ‘Yes Alliance’/Steve Arnott’ position is one of organised reciprocity in the YES movement. If you are a YESSER but aren’t naturally SNP strengthen their hand in the constituencies by voting SNP. If you are a YESSER and an SNP voter and you are confident the SNP are going to win an outright majority, vote for one of the smaller indy parties on the list, for all the reasons outlined above

4. People don’t actually like voting tactically.

(Evidence shows that people can and will vote tactically when they believe it can achieve positive outcomes)

The “SNPout” campaign in May’s UK general election was highly motivated, organised and funded, and was also relentlessly publicised and supported by a sympathetic media. Yet its effect was almost zero, despite the fact that in most Scottish constituencies it was incredibly easy to tell which party was best placed to defeat the SNP.

The unionists are disunited and split so we should be too…what kind of argument is that?

At the end of the day, people are simply reluctant to vote for any party other than the one they really support. You’ll be lucky to get as many as 5% to do it, and for tactical list voting to start to work you need figures closer to 40%.

Again – you are conceptually returning to politics as normal. But if we had politics as normal the SNP would not have won 56 seats in the General Election. Loads of voters – who did not previously support the SNP voted SNP. The referendum and the YES movement changed everything. For a huge section of the electorate independence is the number one issue and ending austerity a very close and inttertwined second. For the prize of decisively weakening unionism, having a more diverse indy voice in the parliament and possibly having a pro-indy opposition, our appeal can and will have relevance. Simply stating that it will never happen because…er, it never happened before no longer washes in these post referendum times.

Tactical voting is hugely more effective in FPTP elections than AMS ones like Holyrood, but even with every possible advantage the Pouters failed dismally. A tactical Yes vote at Holyrood would be orders of magnitude more difficult.

Eh? Scrabbling about a bit for an argument now, surely…the only thing that appears to be making this difficult appears died in the wool SNP party interests that want to put the wider YES movement back in its box.

5. The tactical vote itself is split.

And of course, none of those advantages will apply next year. The pro-Yes but non-SNP vote will be divided among several parties. The small number of voters prepared to vote tactically in the first place will have to decide whether their list vote goes to the Greens, Solidarity, the unknown factor of newcomer RISE, or someone else.

We already know from Monday’s article what happens when an “anti-X” vote can’t agree which direction to attack from – as well as the hilarious slapstick farce of the Pouters, we also saw how SNP and Green votes cannibalised each other at the 2014 European elections and let UKIP steal a Scottish seat.

UKIP won a Scottish seat because of the UK media’s constant hyping of them as a main party and the incessant coverage they received, not because the SNP and Greens cannibalised each other.

And diversity is a strength for us, not a weakness. The smaller indy parties are looking for a much smaller level of pro-indy success than the SNP, and its deliverable. 10 list seats for the Greens and 5 apiece for Solidarity and RISE would be regarded as a great success and might be enough to ensure they out-populated Labour in the Scottish Parliament.

We apologise if we’re repeating ourselves. And once again, we’re not telling anyone how to vote – if you want a RISE or Green or Solidarity MSP, vote for them.

But “the sweet spot” is a fantasy. It can only be identified in retrospect – standing in the polling booth you have no way of knowing what your vote will do. You may as well lob a brick into a bouncy castle blindfolded and hope it hits a child molester.

Lovely metaphor, but it doesn’t even pass your own test of ‘truthiness’. The sweet spot as you call it exists, but the better metaphor is that of an open goal for the YES movement to stroke one in - to put YES in the political Champion's League and leave the unionists struggling in second tier competition. All that it requires is for the polls to stay good for the SNP, a non-party visionary approach to what can be achieved in 2016, and for sufficient numbers of YES voters to grasp the historic possibilities when they go to the polls.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


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Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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