If your blogger sounds thoroughly hacked off today, there's a very good reason for that. Yesterday, Mike Small of Bella Caledonia claimed that the endless series of articles on his site trying to persuade SNP supporters to 'vote tactically on the list' (ie. for RISE or the Greens) was not a propaganda campaign, but rather...
"just presenting a range of voices James, which is deemed intolerable."
That claim plainly made no sense whatever, because there had been several articles from multiple authors pushing the tactical voting line (including a RISE press release!), and not a single one putting the alternative view. So I asked Mike if he would be willing to publish an article from me on the topic. He said he'd consider it. I took him at his word, and spent God knows how many hours last night and this morning composing a 2000 word piece.
Having sent Mike the article and exchanged a few emails with him, it is now abundantly clear to me that he was completely wasting my time, and that he never had the remotest intention of publishing any article that took a contrary view to the Bella editorial line which he pretends doesn't even exist. The Bella mission statement could perhaps be more accurately reworded as "presenting a range of voices which Mike finds tolerable".
I'm so angry at the moment that I'm sorely tempted to publish the email exchange so that people can see the extent to which he has been playing games and acting in bad faith. I'll ponder on that, but in the meantime here is the rejected article in full.
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Why “tactical voting” on the Holyrood regional list is a mug’s game
There have been persistent suggestions from supporters of parties like RISE and the Greens that it may somehow be possible for SNP supporters to “hack” the voting system for the Scottish Parliament election in May. The overall composition of parliament is supposed to be broadly determined by the result of the regional list vote, but it’s true that weird things can start to happen if one party is totally dominant in constituency seats, and yet is abandoned by many voters on the list. The system would attempt to distribute list seats as compensation to parties that are under-represented in the constituencies, but in reality would end up dumbly “compensating” voters who are already handsomely over-represented. In theory, that makes it possible for considerably more pro-independence MSPs to be elected than the combined vote for pro-independence parties would justify, as long as independence supporters vote in huge numbers for the SNP on the constituency ballot, and for other parties on the list ballot. Unfortunately, as with so many other things that are perfectly possible in theory, it’s fantastically improbable in practice. If it ever did happen, it would probably be as a result of pure luck. Trying to make it happen through deliberate action (a push for so-called “tactical voting on the list”) is fraught with enormous danger.
In single-member constituency elections, tactical voting can work brilliantly. Scotland surprised itself in 1987 by suddenly grasping how the combination of a four-party system and first-past-the-post could be transformed from a weakness into a strength in the battle against Thatcherism. The nationwide Tory vote was only modestly cut from 28% to 24%, but in terms of seats there was a bloodbath, as voters in marginal Tory-held constituencies flocked to whichever party had finished second locally in 1983. And the identity of that party was literally the only information that was needed to make tactical voting feasible.
But to “vote tactically” in a relatively risk-free way on the Holyrood regional list ballot, you need to have far, far more detailed information. Exactly how much you require depends on what your objectives are. There seems to be a degree of creative ambiguity over which sort of SNP supporter is being targeted by the smaller parties’ pitch for tactical votes, but we must presumably – at least in part – be talking about people whose first priority is not merely a pro-independence majority at Holyrood, but an outright SNP majority. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t constantly be hearing the soothing noises about how an SNP majority is already assured on constituency votes alone – a tacit acknowledgement that a necessary precondition for many potential “tactical voters” is a sense of certainty that the SNP will not require any list seats at all.
But is that proposition remotely credible? In the real world, no. To turn the list vote into a completely ‘free hit’ in the way that is being suggested, the SNP would need to be sure of winning at least 65 of the 73 constituency seats. To put in perspective just how murderously difficult a feat that is, Alex Salmond fell a full twelve seats short of the target figure in the landslide of 2011. The independence referendum would never have taken place if the SNP hadn’t won a considerable number of top-up seats on the list. And in retrospect it may seem a tad surprising that in the first Blair landslide of 1997, Labour won “only” 56 of the 72 Scottish constituencies at Westminster. If that had been a Holyrood contest, Labour’s support might well have been just about strong enough to win an absolute majority – but only if their voters had remained disciplined on the list ballot. They wouldn’t have been close to winning on constituency votes alone.
Now, it’s true that the SNP are currently polling higher than they did in 2011, or than Labour did in 1997. It’s also true that if the result of last year’s general election were to be replicated in May, the SNP would not require any list seats to secure a majority. But it would be a bit too close for comfort. It must be remembered that not only did the unionist parties hold onto three seats last year, they also lost only narrowly in a few others (mostly ones previously held by the Liberal Democrats). The 1987 result is a useful warning from history of how a relatively small drop in a party’s share of the national vote can help swing the balance in a large number of constituencies. In this case, it only needs to happen in a very small number for Nicola Sturgeon to find herself in desperate need of list votes.
Don’t get me wrong - it’s eminently possible that the SNP will hit the magic number of 65 constituencies. But those who tell you that it’s already certain (or practically certain) to happen are misleading you about the limitations of polling evidence. On election night last year, two completely different seats projections flashed up on our television screens. The broadcasters’ exit poll suggested that the SNP would win all but one seat in Scotland, while the YouGov on-the-day poll claimed that the unionist parties would between them hold onto eleven seats. Nobody really had a clue which poll was right, although the initial gut instinct of most politicians and pundits was that YouGov were probably closer to the mark. As it turned out, the opposite was true. If that’s the degree of uncertainty we can routinely expect to find ourselves dealing with after the polls have closed, what hope do we have at the moment we’re actually casting our votes? This, in a nutshell, is the first big disadvantage a budding “tactical voter” on the list has in comparison with a tactical voter in a single-member constituency election. The latter only needs to be able to predict with confidence the top two placings in an individual constituency, while the former needs foreknowledge of the outright winner in many, many different constituencies. That is rarely going to be realistically possible. Getting even one or two results wrong could sometimes be enough for the “tactical vote” to completely backfire.
But even if it somehow became possible to navigate that minefield with genuine confidence (it would probably require the SNP to reach ANC-style levels of popularity), that would only be the start of the story. Other unrelated pieces of foreknowledge about the likely election result would also be necessary before the risks of a tactical vote might recede to a vaguely acceptable level. Even if an SNP majority was assured, our potential tactical voter would still want to know that they’d actually be helping to increase the overall tally of pro-independence MSPs, not decrease it. Most fundamentally, they’d need to know that their vote wouldn’t be totally wasted as a result of their chosen “tactical” party failing to reach the de facto threshold for winning any representation at all.
Here, again, we come up against the limitations of polling. Fortunately, it’s at least possible to make a judgement with a degree of certainty in respect of RISE. Recent polls have been unanimous in giving the SSP virtually zero support, and there’s no reason at all to suppose that RISE – with its weaker brand awareness – is faring any better. Unless things change radically over the coming weeks, it would be totally irrational for any SNP supporter to switch to RISE on the list. The SNP have a realistic prospect of winning at least one list seat in any given region, while RISE have virtually no chance of a list seat anywhere in Scotland. I say ‘virtually’, because there is one previous example of a fringe party coming from zero support to snatch a list seat – that was the Scottish Senior Citizens’ Unity Party, which achieved a sensational result in 2003 with the help of some Old Firm stardust on their election leaflets. So RISE do have an outside chance of a breakthrough, but it’s a very, very small one. Nobody sensible will be betting the house on it.
In seven out of eight regions, exactly the same is true of Solidarity, who are also languishing on virtually zero support. However, past form suggests that they may have a small concentration of support in Glasgow that the polls are unable to pick up. If so, it’s just conceivable that Tommy Sheridan may be able to recapture past glories, and seize a single list seat. But SNP supporters in Glasgow should still have massive doubts over whether Solidarity are really better placed to make an impact on the city’s list than their own party. Even if the SNP win every single Glasgow constituency seat – a very big if, for the reasons I’ve already discussed – they should still have a good chance of a list seat as long as their list vote holds up. Sheridan is a long-shot by comparison.
With the Greens, the situation is more complex. Polls have been sending mixed signals about whether they are in line for a breakthrough. But even if we ignore the more pessimistic polls, it should be noted that we’ve been here before. In both 2007 and 2011, the Greens seemed on course for substantial gains, but in both cases ended up with just two seats. Anecdotally, I know of several SNP supporters in the North-east region (including party members) who voted “tactically” for the Greens in 2011 on the basis of two assumptions – that the Greens would reach the de facto threshold for a seat in the region, and that the SNP would win so many constituencies that they would be totally out of the running on the list. Both of those assumptions proved to be wrong, and indeed the SNP took a list seat in spite of winning every single one of the region’s constituencies. Fortunately, the misjudgement didn’t cause any damage, but it could easily have done – if just 2000 more SNP voters had switched “tactically” to the Greens, and 600 more had switched to the SSP, the final list seat would have been won by the Tories rather than the SNP, and the overall pro-independence majority at Holyrood would have been cut from 72-57 to 71-58. That wouldn’t have been a great day’s work by any standards.
Look at it this way – if you cast a well-founded tactical vote in a single-member constituency election, there are only really two possible outcomes. Either your tactical choice of candidate will win and your objective will have been achieved, or they’ll fall short and you’ll be no worse off than you otherwise would have been. But a “tactical vote” on the regional list is a very different beast. Since you will rarely (if ever) have sufficient foreknowledge to make a tactical switch on a rational basis, there are four potential outcomes. You might get lucky and achieve your objective. Your vote might backfire and lead to an increase in the number of unionist MSPs – and in a worst-case scenario bring about an anti-independence majority. The result might be no different to what it otherwise would have been. Or you could end up replacing a pro-independence MSP from your first-choice party with a pro-independence MSP from your second-choice party. (The latter wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would certainly be rather irritating.)
The phrase “tactical voting on the list” should really be outlawed under the Trade Descriptions Act. What we’re actually talking about here is gambling voting. If you fancy a flutter, my suggestion is Betfair. The future of our country shouldn’t be entrusted to blind chance.
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UPDATE : Mike Small has posted a bizarre claim on Facebook that he never rejected the article. That is categorically untrue. You can read more details HERE.