Could we have democracy without independence? In principle yes, in practice no

Posted by on May 23, 2014 in Commentary | 2 Comments

The problem with Westminster and differences in Scotland / UK voting behaviour.

In a recent piece  I argued that because the Scots are different from the English an independent Scotland would be very different from the UK. The basis for my claim of difference was that of the Scottish preference for not voting Conservative, for it is undeniable that Conservative seats have been predominately confined to England in recent UK general elections. But later I expressed by dissatisfaction with the Westminster voting system and acknowledged that it amplified whatever the true difference in voting preference might be. This is an important contradiction and one that merits further investigation.

2010 voting map

Westminster is undemocratic. Why should 40 % impose their will on 60 %?

The Westminster voting system is designed  to give a minority power over the majority, for it is not necessary to win more than half the votes to gain a parliamentary majority. Indeed the figure below shows that between 1979 and 2005 governments were formed with between 43.9 % (Thatcher in 1979) and 36.1 % (the last gasp of New Labour in 2005) of the UK vote. This issue lies at the root of my issue with UK politics. Why on earth should a minority of 40 % be given power over a majority of 60 %? Would it not make more sense to arrive at some sort of compromise?

UK voting preference

Scotland consistently votes differently from the UK

Leaving the deficiencies of the first-past-the-post system to one side for the moment, are the Scots actually that different in terms of voting preference from the rest of the UK, or is there actually only a small difference, amplified by our first-past-the-post voting system? This is a question that can be answered using data sheets provided by parliament.uk. I used these to prepare the infographic that accompanied my last post, and with a little further calculation I am able to address the present question.

The chart below shows the difference  in the percentage of votes cast for the three main parties between Scotland and the UK. The greatest difference in in the Conservative share of the vote was 19.3 % in 2010 (36.0 % of the UK vote but only 16.7 % of the Scottish vote). On average between 1979 and 2010 the Conservative share was 16.0 % greater in the UK than in Scotland. Now there is clearly an issue with this presentation of the data, for the SNP take a proportion of the vote in Scotland but do not stand elsewhere in the UK.

Voting preference raw

A more meaningful comparison can be made by adjusting the data so that the SNP vote is shared between the other parties. In the figure below I have distributed the votes cast for the SNP between the three main parties in proportion to their share of the Scottish vote. Note that this is a guess on my part. The supporters of the SNP are a diverse group; I would expect them to be weighted towards Labour and Lib Dem rather than Conservative, so this chart is more than fair to the Conservatives. It still shows a clear difference  in voting preference. The greatest difference in in the Conservative share of the  adjusted vote was 15.9 % in 2010; the average difference in adjusted vote was between 1979 and 2010 was 12.0 %.

Voting preference adjusted

So my analysis shows that while the difference between the voting preferences between the residents of Scotland and those of the UK is indeed real, it is much less than that suggested by the colours of the post general election voting maps. This in turn highlights that I favour Scottish independence primarily due to dissatisfaction with the UK electoral system.

Could we have democracy without independence? In principle yes, in practice no

So would I be more in favour of the union if the voting system could be reformed? Frankly I would, but we have already tried that. The Lib Dems’ 2011 Alternative Vote referendum was not helped by the facts that the proposal was watered down and poorly communicated. It received an overwhelming thumbs down from the UK electorate with 67.9 % voting No.  In Scotland the result was similar with 63.6 % voting No.

History shows that referenda tend to come only once in a generation. I do not expect to be given another chance to reform the UK voting system during my working life, but the Independence referendum later this year will give me the chance to try an alternative to Westminster governments elected using the undemocratic first-past-the-post system. I intend to take it.

2 Comments

  1. Robin Sen
    May 27, 2014

    Gavin – there are two separate arguments here. The one re disparity between Scottish vote and final Westminster representation I find convincing and perhaps the strongest argument for independence.

    The second argument seems to equate democracy with majority support and PR and I’m less convinced. Any representative voting system throws up tricky issues and messy compromises where no one party wins more than 50% of the vote, which is practically always. Take the example of a party which wins 45% of the popular vote (on a 50% turnout so has less than quarter of the support of the eligible electorate) and yet gains a clear parliamentary majority. It then institutes a programme of significant policy change. Is this undemocratic? Perhaps it is, but it is, of course, a description of the current SNP administration at Holyrood elected under AMS. Its share of the vote is only a little greater than Thatcher’s in her three victories. I’d personally argue that on balance both the Thatcher Govnt’s and the current SNP administration have/had popular mandates as they were by far the largest parties by vote and got close enough to half the vote to give them authority to govern. But not one of them gained a majority of the vote. Nor do I think this is easily resolved by coalition govn’t. Nominally the ConDem coalition has the support of over half of the electorate based on their 2010 showings. But I doubt many of their policies could actually claim majority support amongst the UK electorate.

    So independence allowing better representation of Scottish electoral opinion I can see. Independence providing for ‘majority’ rule in the way you suggest will I think prove an illusory aim.

    There is also an interesting discussion to be had on what would happen to SNP support in an Independent Scotland – I personally think it’s likely that a sizeable proportion of this will resolve itself into support for centre right and/or economically liberal parties. But I’ll leave that one for another time.

    Reply
  2. Gavin
    June 5, 2014

    Thanks once more for your thoughtful comments. You are correct that I have conflated two arguments. I am glad to have persuaded you of the first; the second will require further consideration. I am now motivated to scrutinise the vote in the Scottish Parliament elections. To be continued…..

    Reply

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