I don’t like the Scottish electoral system

Germany and New Zealand use electoral systems that are very similar to the one used for Holyrood elections in Scotland, but with one crucial difference: They add extra seats (so-called overhang seats) to the parliament until the seat distribution mirrors the second vote (i.e., if one party has won “too many” constituency seats, extra list seats will be added to make the result properly proportional). The consequence of this is that only the second vote really matters from a party-political point of view — the first vote is important from the perspective of electing specific politicians rather than others, but it doesn’t affect the number of seats won by each party. This system is quite easy to understand.

In Scotland, however, things are different. When one party dominates heavily in one or more regions (like the SNP do at the moment in most of Scotland, and like Labour used to do in the Central Belt), the other parties end up with too few MSPs because there simply aren’t enough list seats. This makes it really hard to understand the system, and it leads to a lot of frustration when people attempt to bend the system to their own advantage.

At the moment, winning constituency seats only really matters to the SNP. Of course the other parties would love to win a few because it feels good, but it won’t affect the Holyrood result in a predictable way. For instance, imagine the list result in the West Scotland region points to SNP 9, Cons 4 and Lab 4 (and for simplicity’s sake, 0 for the other parties). If the SNP win 9 (out of 10) constituency seats and the Tories win 1, it’s easy to see what happens: Labour get 4 list seats and the Tories get 3, so that the regional result ends up like it should. What if Labour take one further constituency from the SNP? The SNP then gets one of Labour’s list seats, leaving the over-all result unchanged. But what if the SNP manage to win all 10 constituency seats? Because the number of list seats can’t grow, the list will now either say Labour 4, Cons 3 or Labour 3, Cons 4 — in other words, the SNP taking one constituency seat from the Tories could actually end up losing Labour a seat. This is counter-intuitive and bad for democracy.

The real reason for the SNP’s #bothvotesSNP campaign is safety: If the SNP manage to win all constituencies on Thursday, the number of list votes is unlikely to be significant, but if they only win 60 constituencies (i.e., five seats short of a majority), they will probably get at least a handful of list seats, so long as their voters haven’t given their second vote to somebody else. However, the Greens’ relatively successful #secondvoteGreen campaign are probably causing some natural SNP voters to split their votes, and suddenly a majority isn’t certain, so I can completely understand why some SNP strategists are a bit worried. The silly thing is just that what the SNP need more than anything is that all independence supporters — SNP, Green and RISE — vote SNP with their first vote, but that’s hard to campaign for while convincing their own supporters not to split their votes.

I wish Scotland would introduce additional list seats like in Germany and New Zealand — or replace the system with a completely different one, such as the one used in Denmark. The current one is just making everybody frustrated.

The second vote

Polling Place
Polling Place.
The current infighting amongst independence supporters is frankly driving me doolally. I completely understand that very few Unionist voters can be dragged away from voting for Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems or UKIP at this stage, so the easiest way to win votes is from within the pro-independence block, but if people don’t calm down soon, we’re going to endanger the prospects of winning the next indyref.

So let’s take a deep breath and look at things rationally.

Of course all Independentistas should vote SNP with their first/constituency vote. A vote for the Greens or RISE would clearly be a wasted vote that at worst would allow Labour or the Tories to win a seat. The second/list vote is much more “interesting”, but here’s my take on it:

  • It’s important to realise that Scotland consists of eight regions that don’t share votes in any way. National polls are therefore of limited interest when you try to work out how to vote in your region. For instance, a vote for the Greens could very well be wasted in West Scotland and South Scotland but not in Glasgow and Lothian. You might want to have a look at the detailed predictions on the SP16 Rolling Polling blog for more information about your constituency and region.
  • Unfortunately opinion polls aren’t very precise with regard to small parties, so the support for the Greens and RISE tend to jump up and down a bit. To make it even worse, nobody seems to have done a full-sized poll in any region — all we have is regional breakdowns in national polls, and the numbers are so small that the statistical uncertainty goes through the roof. In other words, we just don’t know what will happen. We can be confident that the SNP will win most constituencies, but we don’t know whether they’ll fail to win zero, three or ten of them. We don’t know whether the Greens will scrape through in Glasgow and Edinburgh but not elsewhere, or whether they’ll win at least one seat in every region. We don’t know whether RISE will get in anywhere. This uncertainty means that tactical voting is risky and can backfire.
  • I blame the electoral system. The combination of first-past-the-post constituencies with d’Hondt lists, with the complication that there aren’t enough list seats to make the result fully proportional makes it hard to figure out what will happen. Mathematically speaking I guess it boils down to the question whether the number of list votes cast for the SNP divided by the number of constituencies they’re expected to win plus one is likely to be smaller or greater than the number of list votes cast for the Greens in a region; however, the current polls are simply not precise enough to answer this question.
  • Another way of looking at this is to look at who the list votes are most likely to benefit. For the Greens and RISE, it’s as simple as looking at who’s ranked number one (and perhaps two) in each region, whereas for the SNP, you need to ignore the candidates who are likely to win a constituency. For instance, in the Glasgow region number one and two on the list are Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf, and I’ll be very surprised indeed if they don’t win their own seats. A list vote for the SNP is therefore most likely to benefit fifth-placed Rhiannon Spear (Young Scots for Independence’s national convenor); voting Green is effectively a vote for Patrick Harvie and perhaps Zara Kitson; and a vote for RISE will benefit Cat Boyd (if they get enough votes to get in at all).

In effect, we all need to figure out on our own how to vote. As an example, here’s what I’ve been thinking: I stay in Eastwood in West Scotland. This is one of the few constituencies that the Unionists have a chance of winning (and Jackson Carlaw probably has a much better chance than the incumbent, Ken Macintosh); if they succeed in this, there is a good chance that the SNP will be able to win a list seat if they get enough second votes (because the number of constituency seats gets subtracted before list seats are allocated). At the same time, the Greens haven’t done very well in this region in the past, so it’s quite possible a vote for them will be wasted. In West Scotland I would therefore argue that a list vote for the SNP is less likely to be a wasted vote than one for the Greens.

Then there’s the personal aspect. A list vote the SNP is most likely to help elect Stewart Maxwell, while voting for the Greens would benefit Ross Greer, and that’s a total non-brainer: Stewart Maxwell is a wonderful MSP — he is an extremely hard-working parliamentarian, has a great media profile, lives in the constituency, is always approachable, and is just a great guy — whereas Ross Greer seems to have made quite a few enemies already during his much shorter political career (see for instance this and this).

I will therefore give both my votes to the SNP on 5th May, and I will recommend that you do the same if you live in the West Scotland region. However, I appreciate that the calculations might look different elsewhere. For instance, I would love to see Andy Wightman elected to the Scottish Parliament, so I can understand why people living in the Lothian region might choose to vote SNP + Green.

The thing to bear in mind is that this election basically consists of eight separate regional elections, and what’s rational in one of them might seem crazy elsewhere. We also haven’t seen any really detailed regional opinion polls, so there is a lot of guesswork involved in this. You won’t know until the day after the election whether giving your list vote for the SNP, the Greens or RISE would have been most useful, so unless you have a time machine, you can’t make a purely rational, logical choice, but have to rely on your gut feeling to a certain extent.

Let’s all do what we feel is best, based on where we stay, and let’s not fall out with our fellow independence supporters if they reach a different conclusion. The next indyref campaign could be just a year away, and then we’ll need to stand shoulder to shoulder again.

Independence Day

I’m sure I’m not the only one pining for the parallel universe where Scotland voted yes, so I reckon this will be one of many alternate histories published today.

Indy Ref one year on 013
Indy Ref one year on 013.
There were a lot of foreign media in Scotland in the run-up to the indyref — as a Dane in Scotland, I was interviewed by two radio stations, two TV stations and one newspaper. However, that turned out to be hardly anything compared to the days just after the Yes vote. It felt like every journalist in the world descended on Scotland to report from the early days of a new nation.

And when the journalists had departed, the businesses moved in. A lot of them realised they suddenly needed a Scottish presence now, and I got contacted by a lot of Danish companies who asked for advice on where to place their office. Most of them wanted to be in Edinburgh, of course, so property prices there exploded — apart from the companies opening up offices there, sixty countries simultaneously started setting up embassies.

Most changes were political, though. David Cameron of course resigned the day after the referendum, and he was unsurprisingly replaced by George Osborne. (There was also a minor scandal when Cameron accidentally revealed that the Queen had been sobbing on the phone when he called her to tell her the result.) One of the first things Osborne did was to make a deal with Labour that postponed the Westminster election by one year — everybody quickly realised that conducting a general election during the independence negotiations would be mad. At the same time all Scottish MPs were excluded from the UK government, and many of them joined Salmond’s independence negotiation team instead.

This negotiation team was a true cross-party effort (albeit dominated by the SNP, of course). Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Kenny MacAskill, Patrick Harvey, Danny Alexander, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander were put in charge of a subgroup each, reporting directly to Alex Salmond.

It soon became clear that the SNP was starting to fall apart. Now that the pursuit of independence wasn’t there any longer to unify the different strands of the party, it simply couldn’t hold together, and members started leaving. Labour was the big winner. As soon as they had cut their ties to the UK HQ, they decided to make the best of independence, which was exactly what people wanted to hear, and they soon overtook the SNP in the opinion polls. Of course the elections to Holyrood won’t take place till May this year, but everybody is expecting Jim Murphy to become the Prime Minister of Scotland at that point.

The SNP’s decline is probably in part due to the falling oil prices. It’s not an enormous problem, though, not least because of the influx of new companies from all over the world. There is also a cross-party agreement to change the taxes to tailor them better to the Scottish economy, and this will reduce the deficit significantly. However, in order to achieve healthy finances from day one, it was decided to allow the rUK to keep Trident in Scotland until 2025, but the rent charged is astronomical.

Continued EU membership turned out not to be a problem after all. As soon as it became clear that Westminster were accepting the result of the referendum, all EU governments (including Spain) were happy to cooperate, and the treaties were swiftly amended in time for Independence Day.

Normal politics has now been on hold for a while, so both in Scotland and in the rUK (or rather, the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland as it will be known officially from today) people are now looking forward to doing independence instead of talking about it. People in the UKEWNI are perhaps more anxious, and they seem to be blaming the Tories for the whole thing, so the latest opinion polls indicate that Labour will win the election and the Liberal Democrats will become the official opposition south of the border in May. This also means, of course, that Brexit is off the agenda for good, which is probably a good thing for Scotland, too.

I’m so happy that Scotland voted Yes, and according to opinion polls, 64% of Scots now agree with me.

Reforming council tax

I completely understand why the SNP’s proposal for reforming council tax in the next parliament are so timid and unambitious. It’s a political minefield to change it drastically during a recession (or during a very slow recovery for that matter), because no matter what you do, some people will have to pay more, and they might very well be in a position where they can ill afford to do so.

After all, you’re not necessarily cash-rich just because you’re living in a big house. For instance, just top of my head there must be many people that fall into one of the following groups:

  • They have negative equity, so they can’t sell their house without making a loss.
  • They now earn (much) less than when they bought their property, but they have paid off enough of their mortgage to make it affordable to stay in.
  • They have inherited their large house.
  • They have climbed the property ladder by exploiting rising house prices, so their salary is tiny compared to the value of their house.

During a boom, most of these people could probably remortgage to release some money for paying the new council tax, but many people don’t qualify these days, and if a tax change forces people to sell their house against their will, a lot of them will be very angry indeed.

That said, the current system is indefensible. It really should be replaced by a combination of land value taxes, property taxes and income taxes, and the value of land and property should be based on a recent valuation, not on 1991 figures that are now completely out of date.

I also find it odd that councils raise so little of their income through tax. The consequence is that if they need to increase their income by 5%, they’ll need to put up council tax by about 20% if their block grant doesn’t go up.

Of course, if councils had to raise all their income themselves, council tax would go up dramatically. Although it’s hard to compare taxes across countries, it is interesting that in Denmark most people pay more income taxes to their council than to the state.

So all in all it is very difficult to reform council tax without creating major problems.

If I had been in charge, I think I would have guaranteed that nobody’s council tax bill would go up by more than a small percentage year-on-year, but that the government would gradually introduce land value tax and a local income tax, as well as committing to a new property valuation within the next parliament. I don’t think anybody would be terribly upset if it took more than a decade to move to a fairer council tax, so long as small and sensible steps in the right direction were taken each year.

Of course the SNP’s proposal might be seen as such a small and sensible step, but it is much smaller than I would have liked.

Après le Brexit, la déluge

Brexit / EU Scrabble
Brexit / EU Scrabble.
The EU has made many errors in the past decade. In particular, the way the European Council (consisting of the national heads of state) are in charge of most things at the moment is at best counterproductive. I’d like to see a lot of the power shifting to the Commission and the European Parliament, and I’d like to see a clearer division of powers (so that for instance it’s clear what the Greek government are in charge of, rather than heaping pressure on them repeatedly to pursue those policies that other countries think would be best, rather than their own manifesto).

However, we shouldn’t forget that the EU has been an astounding success in spite of its failings. No wars on its territory, the right to travel freely and to apply for a job wherever you want, and many, many more things. If the EU didn’t exist, we should create it.

There is therefore not any doubt in my mind that I want the EU to exist. I just want it to be better — more democratic, better at providing prosperity for normal people, and more open to radical ideas like Scottish and Catalan independence within the EU.

How do we obtain such a better EU? Do we make the current one collapse and hope that a new and better one instantly rises from the ashes, or do we stay on the inside and try to reform it together with like-minded people from all the member states? The answer is, of course, the latter. If the EU falls apart, the individual countries will instantly reinforce border controls, enact trade wars and in general do many things that will make it hard and laborious to recreate a European union.

And of course the bloody Tories have chosen the worst possible time to hold an In/Out referendum! Before 2008 or so, the EU was quite stable and would have been able to deal with the consequences quite easily. At the moment it appears very fragile, however: (1) The Greek drama of 2015 seriously endangered the monetary union and has made people question whether the EU has any answers to the financial crisis; (2) the current refugee crisis is close to breaking Schengen (the open borders part of the EU); and (3) the authoritarian governments of Hungary and Poland are undermining the EU’s status as a club of liberal democracies (because the rules for suspending a country’s voting rights assume that there’ll only ever be one “bad” country at any one time).

History is a great example of chaos theory. There are stable periods when practically nothing important happens — of course small events take place, but they don’t rock the boat — and there are chaotic periods when one small event can have massive consequences.

It feels very strongly like we’re living through a chaotic time like the 1930s (which is of course why Scottish independence nearly happened — I doubt the indyref would have been half as successful if it had taken place ten years earlier). Of course the EU might survive Brexit, but there is a real danger it’ll be the straw that broke the camel’s back. If the UK votes to leave, the best hope for the EU is probably that it’ll be a complete disaster so that no other member state gets tempted to leave, but that won’t be any fun for ordinary people here (although that might definitely lead to Scottish independence in short order).

If Brexit is just moderately successful seen from the outside (i.e., it could be a complete disaster for most of the UK so long as London is booming so much that the country-wide statistics look OK), it could easily encourage anti-EU parties in other countries. Le Pen could win the French presidential election next year and start to implement a Frexit. And Denmark has already been quite focused on following London, so a Dexit could follow soon afterwards, too. And suddenly the whole house of cards might come tumbling down.

People who are against an organisation such as the EU existing at all should of course vote to Leave. I get really annoyed, however, when I see people advocating a Leave vote in order to achieve a better EU. It’s simply not going to happen. We need to protect the EU while working hard to reform it from the inside, and to do that, we need to vote to Stay.

Trying to understand the Tories

Into the Abyss
Into the Abyss.
Westminster politics often makes me feel foreign — the fact that it doesn’t make any more sense now than it did when I arrived in Scotland 14 years ago just shows how completely divorced Scotland and England already are politically.

The Tories’ referendum on leaving the EU is a prime example. In Scotland you simply don’t encounter that deep antipathy towards the EU that clearly must be a common theme amongst natural conservatives in England, and as a result what’s happening just now simply doesn’t feel relevant to me. Unfortunately, Scotland voted No to independence, and as a result, this referendum is happening here too, and the outcome does matter to people in Scotland (not least to EU citizens like me).

I therefore have to get my head round this. The first question I’ve been asking myself is why Cameron decided to boldly split his own party like no man has split it before, and in particular, how he ended leading the Stay campaign.

Before the summer holiday, I had convinced myself that he was looking for an excuse to head the Leave campaign:

My guess is he’s already expecting his negotiations will fail (if for no other reason because he’s asking for things that any EU expert will tell him the other countries won’t give him), and he’ll then go out and say something along these lines: “I really wanted to remain in a reformed EU, but the other countries have turned their backs on us, so I will with a heavy heart have to recommend that this great nation leaves the EU.”

Why is Cameron doing this? My guess is it’s to save the Conservative party. If he came out in favour of leaving the EU already, some pro-business Tories would break out, and if he campaigned in favour of EU membership, a very large number of MPs would rebel. By pretending to negotiate in good faith, he keeps the pro-EU Tories happy, and by setting the negotiations up to fail, he ensures the Eurosceptics will eventually be happy.

I was mulling this over when my beloved wife pointed out that I might have been right but that this analysis was overtaken by events. In normal circumstances, a lot of EU countries would have been quietly relieved to see the UK leave, so they wouldn’t have been willing to agree to many of his demands (and in fact Angela Merkel gave them a rather lukewarm reception when he first aired them).

However, these are not normal circumstances. The whole world is getting rather destabilised, and the EU is facing a lot of obstacles on many fronts simultaneously. The EU leaders therefore were afraid the whole edifice would come tumbling down if they gave Cameron the cold shoulder, so they were forced to agree to his proposals without major changes. As a result, he couldn’t really claim to have been let down.

However, this leaves Cameron in a horrible position. As John Rentoul described it in The Independent:

If Cameron wins this referendum he will be hobbled by his party. Within moments of the result, the anti-EU Tory party will be looking towards the next referendum. At some point the EU treaties will have to be rewritten and it will be hard to resist demands for another referendum. Far from settling the European question, this referendum could ensure that Europe will dominate the Tory party’s choice of Cameron’s successor. […]

If Cameron loses the referendum, forget all his hints about staying on. His time would be over. His party would not countenance Brexit negotiations being handled by a leader who wanted to stay in. One way or the other, this is the end of his premiership: we just don’t know how or exactly when.

I’ve said before that Cameron seems to be a clever tactician but a lousy strategist. I guess this might be yet another example of this, because surely he’s ended up somewhere he never wanted to be.

I wouldn’t mind the Tories half as much if they were just a fringe freak show (a bit like UKIP), but living in a country where these hapless wretched people have a parliamentary majority scares me witless.

The only glimmer of hope is that perhaps this referendum will lead to Scottish independence sooner rather than later.

Friend or foe?

Cain interficit Abelem
Cain interficit Abelem.
Some of the infighting amongst the Yes parties sometimes reminds of the Danish proverb “Frænde er frænde værst”. Literally it translates as “friend is friend worst”, and the meaning is that friends often fight each other more than their enemies.

It seems to encapsulate the current state of the Yes parties perfectly. Instead of concentrating on fighting the Unionists, most of the Yes energy currently goes into infighting amongst the SNP, the Greens, RISE and Solidarity.

It makes sense on a certain level. Very few voters are undecided with regard to the independence question, so most voter movements are going to happen within the two main blocks. For instance, the SNP won’t gain many votes by attacking Labour, but taking list votes from the Greens could potentially make a huge difference. It’s true on the No side, too. The Tories aren’t going to overtake Labour at Holyrood by converting SNP voters but rather by convincing Labour and Lib Dem voters that they’re best placed to represent Unionism.

However, it’s a real shame. All of us Yes campaigners should be spending our energy on turning soft No voters into Yes voters, rather than arguing about the merits of splitting the vote or not.

I’m annoyed the electoral system used for Holyrood elections doesn’t allow for formal electoral alliances. In Denmark, two or more parties can declare a formal alliance, which means that they’re treated as one party for the purpose of working out how many seats they get; once that has been determined, the votes cast for each party determines how many seats it gets (using d’Hondt, the system used for European elections in Scotland). If we had such alliances here, all the Yes parties could form one such alliance, and it would then be in everybody’s interest to maximise the Yes vote. (Of course, all the No parties could also form an alliance, but I’m not sure a Labour/Tory alliance would go down well with many traditional Labour voters.)

However, the electoral system won’t change soon, so we all need to take a deep breath and make sure that we never do or say anything that will it harder to win the next independence referendum.

Of course, there’s is also another perspective on this, namely whether both the governing party and the main opposition party could eventually be Yes parties.

It’s my firm belief that in a democracy, voters at some point get fed up with any ruling party, no matter how great they thought it was originally.

However, if a ruling party is opposed by more than one party, it has a certain amount of influence with regard to choosing its own successor. It can ignore and ridicule one party while working constructively with another, and of course this makes a difference with regard to how voters perceive these parties.

At the moment, the SNP seems to focus very strongly on retaining all the voters who came from Labour after the referendum while ensuring that the Greens don’t split the Yes vote too much, and as a result the Tories seem to be growing, and I’m not sure I really like the sound of that at all.

I can’t see Labour recovering in Scotland for a generation, and the Lib Dems are in an even worse state. Logically the only alternative to a Tory opposition would therefore be a Green opposition.

Is this possible? Can the SNP and the Greens eventually sook up enough No voters to allow them to dominate Holyrood together? Or will the independence question continue to dominate so strongly that it will unavoidably produce one big Unionist party to oppose the SNP?

How the SNP should deal with the Greens ultimately depends on the answers to these questions.

Scottish Independence with a Scandinavian Slant