Result in 2016: SNP 9 seats (9 constituency, 0 list), Labour 4 seats (0 constituency, 4 list), Conservatives 2 seats (0 constituency, 2 list), Greens 1 seat (0 constituency, 1 list)

INDEPENDENCE supporters who think that the list vote system is unfair, or that it amounts to some sort of Unionist conspiracy, should ponder the way things used to be in Glasgow.

In the first two Scottish Parliament elections in 1999 and 2003, Labour took every single constituency seat in the city, just as they’d taken every single Glasgow seat in all UK general elections since George Galloway gained Hillhead from the SDP’s Roy Jenkins in 1987. And yet the city-wide SNP vote was reasonably strong – it was more than 25% in 1999.

The problem was simply that both the Labour vote and the SNP vote was fairly evenly spread, resulting in a dominant Labour in first place and a distant SNP in second place in every constituency – with the sole exception of Govan where the SNP were competitive due to the legacy of past by-election glories but always seemed to fall short.

So why shouldn’t there have been a compensatory list system to ensure that the tens of thousands of SNP voters in Glasgow got their fair share of representation, even if they were geographically spread out? In 1999 four of the city’s list seats were awarded to the SNP and none to Labour, which meant that for the first time in decades Glasgow parliamentary representation roughly reflected the balance of how people had actually cast their votes – although even then Labour remained over-represented because there weren’t enough list seats available to fully correct the skew in the constituencies.

Two decades on and the state of play has turned completely on its head – now it’s the SNP who hold every constituency seat, and it is the Unionist parties who are compensated on the list. All that means is that the Unionists are getting their fair share of seats based on the number of votes they’ve received – in exactly the same way that the SNP did in the past.

Nevertheless, given that the SNP’s 111,101 list votes in Glasgow in 2016 didn’t translate into a single list seat, there’s the perennial argument about whether SNP supporters should attempt to “hack” the electoral system by voting SNP on the constituency ballot, then switching to another pro-independence party – realistically either the new Alba Party or the Greens – on the list.

The theory is that this will lead to Unionist parties being crowded out when list seats are allocated, and to pro-independence parties ending up with a greater number of overall seats than their combined vote shares would really justify.

Going down that road involves a bit of a gamble, though. It means hoping that the party you vote for on the list reaches the 5-6% vote share that would put it in contention for at least one list seat.

It also means taking a leap of faith that the SNP won’t lose constituency seats – because if they do, they’ll need list votes just as much as any other party. The latter part of the equation is arguably a gamble worth taking because on current polling the SNP look reasonably secure in all of the Glasgow constituencies – although it should always be remembered that we have a volatile electorate who have repeatedly served up major surprises in recent elections.

But the bigger problem is that there can never be any guarantee that a smaller party is better placed to pick up a list seat than a larger party, even one that has taken every constituency seat. The classic example is the result in the north-east in 2011, when the SNP took one list seat and the Greens failed to take any, in spite of the fact that the SNP had swept the board in the constituencies.

It’s probably unlikely that the SNP will poll strongly enough on the list this year to be in the mix for a Glasgow list seat, but the possibility can’t be ruled out.

If pro-independence voters do attempt to game the system, the two most likely beneficiaries are both female councillors. Michelle Ferns will head the Alba Party list after her recent defection from the SNP, and Kim

Long will be hoping to join Patrick Harvie as the city’s second Green list MSP.

On paper, the biggest loser could be Nicola Sturgeon because the SNP’s controversial reserved places system means she’s only in second spot on the list behind Roza Salih. If Labour’s fantasies come true and Anas Sarwar ousts the First Minister in the Glasgow Southside constituency ballot, she would need the SNP to take two list seats to remain an MSP.

However, there’s very little point in worrying about that because Sarwar almost certainly won’t win Southside – and even if he does, the SNP will be hard-pressed to win even one list seat, let alone two.


Result in 2016: SNP 8 seats (8 constituency, 0 list), Labour 4 seats (1 constituency, 3 list), Conservatives 4 seats (1 constituency, 3 list), Greens 1 seat (0 constituency, 1 list)

IT seems a bit harsh to say that West Scotland was one of the regions that cost the SNP their overall majority last time around because they gained two constituency seats there and in contrast to other regions their list vote actually crept up slightly.

It was nevertheless the case that they lost both of the list seats they had previously held, which meant that even when the constituency gains were taken into account, they had failed to make a net gain of seats. Part of the reason that happened is that the Greens reached the de facto threshold for taking a list seat in 2016, having failed to do so in 2011. That left one fewer list seat available for the larger parties.

The other stumbling block was in the constituencies – given the voting trends in the 2015 General Election, the SNP had perfectly realistic hopes of taking all 10 of the West Scotland constituency seats, but they narrowly failed in two. It was Jackson Carlaw of the Tories who succeeded in taking Eastwood from Labour, with the SNP having to settle for second place.

That perhaps wasn’t totally unexpected in the context of a national Tory surge, but a genuine shocker was Labour’s Jackie Baillie defying the collapse in her party’s national vote to hold on to her highly vulnerable seat of Dumbarton, which would have gone to the SNP on a swing of less than 3%.

Because the SNP didn’t take any list seats in West Scotland at all, gains in Eastwood and Dumbarton would have been “bonus” SNP seats that the list seat allocation wouldn’t have cancelled out – and thus the successful Unionist resistance in those constituencies was decisive in ensuring that the SNP Government fell two seats short of retaining its overall majority at Holyrood.

Constituency gains may once again be the SNP’s most promising avenue for increasing their representation in the region this year because competition for pro-independence votes on the list will be stiffer than ever due to the intervention of the Alba party. Chris McEleny, until very recently one of the foremost Plan B advocates within the SNP, and arguably the most prominent SNP figure never to have been given a serious opportunity to become a parliamentarian, will now have that chance as the lead candidate on the Alba list.

For the Greens the challenge may be simply to retain the sole seat they currently have because with just 5% of the vote last time around, the chances of a second seat look remote.